It could have been one of those “teachable moments” where the authors of two very different studies of Civil War Mississippi discuss the problem of competing historical interpretations. Instead, the authors of The State of Jones have done all they can to avoid addressing what are clearly serious problems with their book. You can find Sally Jenkins responding to negative reviews over at Amazon and various other sites. More curious is the disappearing act performed by Harvard professor, John Stauffer, who as far as I know has said nothing since his personal attack against Victoria Bynum that was posted here a few weeks ago. Stauffer’s silence has not worked to their advantage since it has placed Jenkins in the difficult position of having to respond to questions of interpretation and historiography – questions that she is completely incapable of handling.
In the pages of the New York Times we can see the continued fallout from the way Jenkins and Stauffer have chosen to respond to legitimate interpretive challenges. While David Reynolds is not the first academic historian to review The State of Jones, his review reads more like a synopsis of the debate that played out at Bynum’s Renegade South and here rather than a thorough analysis of the argument. In fact, while I have no reason to believe that Reynolds did not read the book, he doesn’t critique anything that hasn’t already been raised by a host of readers. This does not bode well for future reviews of the book and suggests that the blogosphere is now shaping the way even academic historians are viewing this controversy. Of course, it didn’t have to turn out this way. As I’ve suggested before, this unfortunate result has as much to do with feelings of defensiveness and pride as it does with not understanding how to engage bloggers and Online readers. Hopefully, it will serve as a lesson for future authors.
If you’ve blogged history (and especially the Civil War) long enough than you should be familiar with the following email form:
I work for [Insert Publisher Here] and we recently published a book I think you might be interested in, [Insert Book Title Here] by [Insert Author Here], a fascinating narrative account about [Insert Civil War Subject Here]. Because of your passion for the Civil War, I thought that you and your readers might like to see this. Also, if you were interested in seeing a copy of [Book Title] yourself, please send me your mailing address and I would be more than happy to send you a copy.
I get these emails on a regular basis and, for the most part, I don’t mind them. They clearly reflect the prominence and popularity of the blogosphere and represent an attractive avenue of advertising for book publishers. And best of all, who doesn’t mind the free books. I’ve established a fairly rigid book review policy and it goes something like this: I am more than happy to review a book, but I make no promises that it will be mentioned on my site and the acceptance comes with the possibility that it may in fact receive a negative review. In short, I want to be treated like the book review editor for an academic journal. It seems to me that as long as the blogger maintains complete editorial control and is capable of evaluating the book along the lines that he/she deems acceptable than there should be no conflicts of interest or ethical questions.
For those of you who have never seen the movie, Gods and Generals, here is your chance to view a slightly shorter version. In just under five minutes you pretty much cover all the bases and the inclusion of theme music by Frank Wildhorn adds just the right touch. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to finish balling my eyes out.
I am just about finished reading Richard Slotkin’s new book on the Crater, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, and have enjoyed it immensely. The book is very different from the two previous studies of the battle in that Slotkin provides a much needed analysis of the racial components of the battle rather than a traditional military history. Yes, there is more to a battle than moving from place to place. I am in the process of writing up a formal review for Civil War Book Review, but wanted to share something that I learned for the first time.
Although I wish Slotkin had gone a bit further in his analysis of the massacre of USCTs he does an excellent job of presenting both the immediate and long-term conditions that help explain the scale and complexity of the violence. First, Slotkin correctly references the proportion of dead to wounded in the battle in comparison with other Civil War battles. On average, the ratio of wounded to dead was 4.8 to 1. At the Crater, the overall ratio for Union troops was 3.7 to 1, though for black soldiers it was 1.8 to 1. Slotkin’s analysis of the tactical ebb and flow of the battle reveals a number of moments where soldiers on the battlefield were executed and not just black soldiers. [It should be pointed out that Slotkin is not the first historian to point this out. In 1987 Bryce Suderow published an article in the journal, Civil War History, which was later included in a collection of essays on Civil War massacres.] The first massacre actually occurred by black soldiers in Sigfried’s brigade, who advanced into battle with the cry of “No Quarter.” According to Slotkin, the battle cry was intended “to overcome that supposed docility and motivate them to fight with absolute determination.” (p. 339) White officers quickly intervened once their men became engaged with the enemy.
I’ve said before that I do not see any significant change in the high quality of Civil War studies. Young historians such as Barton guarantee that we will have much to learn and mull over in the coming years.