A Quick Word About Historiography and Popular History
I am charging through T.J. Stiles’s new biography of George Armstrong Custer, which I agreed to review for The Daily Beast. I’ve read his previous biographies of Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt and enjoyed both immensely. It’s always challenging to read a popular Civil War title and those of us immersed in the field know why. We can’t help but judge the author’s grasp of historiography. It’s already happening with Stile’s Custer biography.
I’ve heard from a number of people who are frustrated by the author’s interpretation of George McClellan. Stiles relies very heavily on Stephen Sears’s book on the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam and his biography of McClellan. He also utilizes Richard Slotkin’s recent book on Antietam, which received very mixed reviews. To be fair, Stiles’s grasp of the relevant literature is broader if you take the time to peruse the endnotes, but his understanding of McClellan is certainly weighed down by Sears and Slotkin.
Does it matter? I know some people would prefer to see Ethan Rafuse’s biography utilized more extensively to gauge McClellan or campaign studies by Joseph Harsh and Scott Hartwig, but this arguably tells us more about some of our own interests than it does about the goals of this particular book. The central question for me is whether the depth of the research impacts a crucial point of interpretation.
I don’t see that as of yet in this biography, but I am only about one hundred pages into it. What readers of this book must understand is that Stiles is not writing a military history or even a military biography. He is interested in much broader questions that track how well individuals like Custer, Vanderbilt, and James adapted to or anticipated change on a grand scale during the mid-nineteenth century.
It’s not that ‘this book wasn’t written for us.’ Quite the contrary. We just need to refrain from assuming that our understanding of the historiography is a prerequisite for writing about some aspect of the Civil War. Books by Stephen Sears and Richard Slotkin are legitimate sources even with everything that has followed.