In my ongoing series of posts concerning the public presentations by Earl Ijames about “colored Confederates” I have consistently emphasized the importance of publishing in peer-reviewed journals. I maintain that only through the careful scrutiny of our ideas and conclusions are we able to better judge the veracity of the research and the difficult process of interpretation and analysis. The peer review process functions as a quality control mechanism and allows historians to critique the work of others from the safety of anonymity. Most academic journals and university presses have some kind of system of oversight in place and I have experienced it firsthand on a number of occasions, both from the writer’s side as well as from the reviewer’s side as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (2008-2010). If there is one area of Civil War history that desperately needs oversight it is “black Confederate” studies.
Since describing it and emphasizing why it is so important is difficult to do I thought it might be helpful to provide you with an example. I first experienced this process back in 2004 while attending graduate school at the University of Richmond. Even before I started the program I had an interest in William Mahone and the Readjuster Movement and had hoped that I would have a chance to explore his public career in a research seminar course and perhaps as a thesis topic. I eventually wrote an essay on Mahone and went on to expand my focus to include the battle of the Crater as a thesis topic. My adviser suggested that I submit the Mahone essay to the VMHB for consideration, which I did. I had published a few essays, magazine articles, and book reviews, but this was my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication so I didn’t really know what to expect. Within about 6 months I received an email that included a letter from the journal editor and three anonymous reviews of my essay. The editor indicated that while the reviewers believed there was some merit to the essay and thesis they would be unable to publish as is. He suggested that I review the comments and revise the piece. I have to say that it took me a few days to pick my ego up off the floor and get back to work, but I did. I took just about every suggestion offered and within about 9 months I had a revised essay. What I learned was invaluable, both about the process of writing a serious work of history as well as my topic. I learned that thinking through complex questions is a group activity. There must be room for honest and sometimes blunt feedback. The result is that I have a much better grasp of Mahone and his postwar years because I benefited from the critique of three professional historians who are experts in some aspect of post-Civil War Virginia politics.
I am happy to say that my revised essay was accepted for publication by the VMHB [vol. 113, no. 4 (2005)] and even went on to win the Rachal Prize for best essay in 2005. Given that it’s been close to 5 years since its publication I feel comfortable sharing one of the three reviews. This is one of the nicer reviews.