Given the quality of books published by Pelican I have to say that these two books will be extremely helpful, but I suspect not for the reasons intended by the editors. Both books include a wide range of primary documents, including newspaper accounts, pension files, cartoons, service records, photographs, and historical markers. There is very little commentary and what is included is entirely useless as historical analysis, but very helpful when it comes to understanding how the subject has been remembered. These books can be found as references on many neo-Confederate websites and SCV sites that focus on this subject. What is so striking, however, is that even a cursory glance at the information provided in these two books reflects and incredibly complex and fascinating subject and yet most people can’t seem to get beyond the Lost Cause language of “loyalty” and “devotion” along with the common refrain of numbers and claims of cover-ups. I’ve never seen primary sources so poorly interpreted and under utilized for their historical value.
Both Pelican books include references to Silas Chandler. A few days ago I received an email from a descendant of Silas Chandler, who has agreed to provide me with archival material that she has collected over the years. Better yet, this individual has agreed to co-author an article with me on Silas for one of the Civil War magazines. This will give me the opportunity to explore questions and issues that will be addressed in much more detail in the book-length project. It will be quite satisfying to be able to use the Pelican books for their primary sources on Chandler and at the same time demonstrate just how shallow and, at times, inaccurate the information provided is.
Wayne Hsieh shared a short review of his new book written by Richard Hatcher III. Hatcher offered the following refrain at the end of his review:
While an interesting book, “West Pointers” has been written in a format that will appeal specifically to an academic military readership. This is not for the casual reader, but for one who is interested in and has a working knowledge of the subject.
I find it funny that Hatcher said the same thing about a collection of essays on Civil War soldiers that I contributed to back in 2007. It’s no big deal, but it is worth asking who and what exactly is a “casual reader”? I would love to know if Hatcher considers his own excellent study of Wilson’s Creek to be appropriate for casual readers. What follows is a slightly reworked version of my earlier response to Hatcher.
First let me say that as a descriptive claim Hatcher may in fact be right that this book will only appeal to a select group of readers. That said, for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would agree to review a book in a popular newspaper if all that is to be said is tantamount to: This book isn’t for you. I have no doubt that there are plenty of people whose interest in the Civil War is simple entertainment and storytelling; however, there are just as many people who are willing to think critically and take their knowledge to the next level.
Instead of simply acknowledging what may in fact be descriptively true why not suggest that those people who are looking to deepen their understanding of soldier life would do well to consult this book. Given the number of notable Civil War soldiers who graduated West Point and the myriad ways in which the institution figures in our popular memory of the war, wouldn’t a wide audience do well to deepen their understanding? I read the book and it was a fairly easy read and quite interesting to boot. While I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, Hsieh offers a very interesting perspective on how the history and culture of West Point shaped the evolution and outcome of the Civil War. To suggest that only fellow academics will find this book to be of interest implies that there is no room or reason for the general reader to further his/her understanding. I do not write only for fellow academics. Assuming that my Crater manuscript sees the light of day I would be appalled to read a review implying that the study is suitable only for people who have advanced degrees, teach in a college or university or happen to live in the Northeast.
A newspaper review is going to reach a wide audience; why not encourage people to broaden and deepen their understanding of the Civil War whenever possible. God knows we desperately need it.
I thought we all deserved a little inspiration at the end of this long week. We should all approach our lives as counterfactual and gain solace in knowing that the world may be much better off had we been accidentally struck down by accident. The message that I took away from this is that had Jackson lived and Lee won at Gettysburg the Confederacy may have succeeded in gaining its independence. In that case slavery would have continued. Jackson’s death clearly served God’s plan: “All is well.” Is that about right?
One of the nice things about my job is that I get to work one-on-one with seniors who are interested in doing independent work in history. I am finishing up a project with one of my students on how the Civil War was commemorated here in Charlottesville between 1880 and 1920 and beginning the process of working with a student to formulate a project for next year. This student wants to explore how Civil War soldiers responded to the horrors of war witnessed in the aftermath of battle. We still need to nail a few things down, including the question of whether to look at this question over time or in response to one particular battle.
My student is going to spent significant time collecting archival material at UVA, but I want him to do a good amount of reading in the relevant secondary sources. Obviously, there is plenty of material out there that can be utilized for such a project; however, I am looking for secondary sources (battle/campaign studies, unit histories, biographies) where the historian goes beyond the descriptive and provides some kind of analysis. If you have something in mind please share it with me even if it is a single book title, journal or magazine essay. Thanks.