Year In Review

Take them for what they are worth. Note: A few of these are from 2004.

Best Civil War Blog: Dimitri Rotov’s “Civil War Bookshelf“: The first and still the most thought provoking. That said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the blogs on my list and have learned a great deal. Thanks guys!

Best Overall Civil War Military History: Earl J. Hess, Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

Best Overall Non-Military: John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag (Harvard University Press, 2005).

Best Biography: Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War (University of Indiana Press, 2005).

Best Regimental History: Mark H. Dunkelman, Brothers One and All: Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment (Louisiana State University Press, 2004).

Best Confederate Study: Peter S. Carmichael, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion (University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

Best Union Study: Oh my, this year’s reading was a little off balance.

Best Slavery Study: Melvin P. Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox (Knopf, 2004).

Best Memory Study: W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Harvard University Press, 2005).

Best Edited Collection: Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Virginia’s Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2005).

Best Social History: Amy M. Taylor, The Divided Family in Civil War America (Univesity of North Carolina Press, 2005).

Best Myth Buster: Bruce Levine, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Best Gettysburg Book: Margaret Creighton, The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History (Basic Books, 2004).

Best Study of Black Soldiers: Donald R. Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (University of Kansas Press, 2004).

I could have easily picked another set of books whose quality is just as impressive as the above list. This is a good sign that the field continues to attract talented and imaginative historians. Congratulations to the winners; prizes are in the mail.

Woodworth’s Nothing But Victory

I am now five chapters into Steven Woodworth’s new study of the Army of the Tennessee, Nothing But Victory. The book is roughly 650 pages long so the odds of me reading straight through are slim. So far so good. The book is well written and is effective in balancing between a Freemanesque top-down approach with coverage of the men in the ranks. The book is more narrative than analysis. (In some ways a nice compliment to Jeff Wert’s recent study of the Army of the Potomac, The Sword of Lincoln.) Woodworth has brought together an impressive amount of archival sources and he utilizes it throughout. As I know little about the Army of the Tennessee this is a great place to start. Coverage of battles does not sink into the mire of detail, but provides enough coverage to make sense of the ebb and flow of battle. The lack of maps, which has beenn cited by others as a deficiency is not a significant problem here, though their addition would have helped. All in all the book has a nice flow and if it continues perhaps I will get through it.

Woodworth teaches at Texas Christian University. I’ve read a number of his books, including Jefferson Davis and His Generals and his more recent study, While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers. Both are first-rate books. Woodworth does not hide his religious convictions and it apparently surfaces early in Nothing But Victory. In his evaluation of the Battle of Belmont and Grant’s performance, Woodworth has this to say:

There would be other low points in his career, but never, not even at Shiloh, would he feel the hot breath of complete disaster quite this close on his neck. That catastrophe had not engulfed Grant and his army that day owed much to Providence and much also to his own determination not to fail. He simply would not allow it. (56)

For some reason the word “Providence” is just a bit troubling. My dictionary defines it as follows: 1. foresight. 2. Economy. 3.a. Divine care and guardianship. Now, if I did not know anything about Woodworth’s background I would probably have interpreted it in terms of its secular meaning, but it is not clear. Perhaps Woodworth intends the meaning to be vague. This is not a significant problem by any measure but it bothers me just the same.

Woodworth also knows when to add a dash of humor. Chapter 5 covers the Fort Henry expedition. Woodworth sets it up by explaining the importance of controlling and protecting the residents of East Tennessee and the difficulties involved:

The first was that East Tennessee was a very difficult place to reach, especially from the north. The second problem was that the general whose sector lay next to East Tennessee, and therefore whose assignment it was to go there, was Don Carlos Buell, who gave no indication of going anywhere at all very soon. A George McClellan protege, Buell was much like his mentor save that whereas McClellan could look impressive doing nothing, Buell did nothing and simply looked stodgy. (65)

Humorous evaluation that no doubt fails to do justice to McClellan, but still makes the reading enjoyable. That’s it for now. Stay tuned for future installments.

Playing Civil War

Over at American Civil War Gaming and Reading, Brett Schulte worries that “academia and other amateur historians sometimes look down their noses at anyone who plays wargames.” Brett sent out an email to a few people in the know to gauge their views on the situation. It’s difficult to know what the concern is as no specific examples are cited for clarification. That said I have no reason to dispute the perception. As someone with absolutely no experience with these games I have no opinion on this one way or the other. My only experience with electronic games of any kind was when I ruled over the arcades on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ. Nobody could touch me on games like Defender and Galaga.

The problem I have with the responses to Brett’s email is that they failed to explain how, as one respondent noted, these games are a “valid path to historical (battlefield) knowledge.” Again, I have no reason to dispute the claim, but nothing that was stated explained just how such simulations lead to anything revealing about the past –SHOW, DON’T TELL. Some of the responses were just as dismissive of historians, including park service workers as Brett claims for his buddies. Perhaps the approach should be to engage groups outside the traditional gaming community that may find simulations to be useful. I think Brett’s blog would make for an ideal venue to showcase the relevancy of wargames. Perhaps Brett could suggest a game for beginners that are not too involved but sufficiently enticing.
As I think more about these games, a few questions arise:

    Can these simulations do justice to the confusion of the battlefield? I still remember a tour of Antietam with Ted Alexander where he made it a point to remind me that within a short time the smoke from the cannon and rifles covered much of the field. Few soldiers could see beyond a few feet in front.How do these games handle the role of luck on the battlefield?

    I noticed that many of the maps are divided into discrete hexagons. To what extent does this fail to capture the way in which those in command perceived the terrain and the movement of troops?

I have other questions, but that’s enough for now.

Reviewing Civil War History

I sympathize with Dimitri Rotov’s disappointment regarding the quality of many Civil War book reviews. A good book review can make or break whether I decide to read a book, or if I have it can help bring my own evaluation of the author’s argument into sharper relief. Unfortunately, as Dimitri noted, too many reviews fail to move beyond a simple retelling of the story without any evaluation of the historian’s argument. The reviewer should be able to analyze the assumptions employed by the historian, the kinds of evidence employed, and whether the conclusions cited follow from the kinds of evidence used. A good review should also give the reader a sense of the broader historiography in which the study is located. This makes it clearer as to what body of scholarship the author is responding to. No doubt, much of the problem surrounding the quality of book reviews stems from the fact that most people are simply not trained to look for the overall argument in a book; in short, they read it as a straightforward narrative and miss the analytical points. The other thing to keep in mind is that the quality or style of the book review will have everything to do with the place of publication. The type of review that I write for a newspaper or popular magazine will be different from one written for an academic journal – different audiences.

My preferred type of review is one that presents an overall evaluation of the argument, including the types of sources used. Reviews should stick to the content of the argument; all too often reviewers will criticize a study for what it doesn’t address. I agree that at times this can be a deficiency, but I’ve read too many where this approach serves as a substitute for not dealing head on with the argument presented. Negative reviews are fine, but one can always find a redeeming quality to the book. As I work on completing my own manuscript I’ve learned to appreciate and respect my fellow writers for the time and energy (plus a little insanity) it takes to produce a book-length study. I have written over 40 reviews and in that time I have written only 1 overall negative evaluation. It was written a few years ago for Civil War Times Illustrated. The book was on the Army of Northern Virginia and was written by a guy whose only qualification was that he handled the publication of The Killer Angels when it was first released. Unfortunately, the book was a complete disaster. If I remember correctly, there was not one archival source and he used D. S. Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants as a central source. Don’t get me wrong, I am not dissin (did I spell that correctly?) Freeman, but we’ve come a long way since that book. Just thinking about it makes me upset as I will never get back those few hours spent reading it. SOME BOOKS DO DESERVE TO BE TORN APART! The author is a great example of the tendency on the part of too many people who wake up one day and decide that they are going to write a Civil War book. And fortunately there are plenty of crappy publishers out there who are just waiting to snatch it up. O.K. enough with the rant. Where to go for good Civil War book reviews?

If you want solid analytical reviews, check out the journal, Civil War History or the Journal of Southern History. The Journal of American History and even the American Historical Review typically include a few reviews from the period. Go to your local college or university library for these titles. The New York Review of Books is one of my favorite book review sheets in general. Reviewers usually evaluate more than one book at a time and the quality is almost always first-rate. Gordon Wood’s reviews (he’s more colonial/American Revolution) are by far the most interesting. You finish his reviews and you feel smarter. The popular magazines are of course a mixed bag depending on who is reviewing the title. Still, you can usually get a decent review out of these mags. The online publication Civil War Book Review is usually very reliable as they do not have to worry too much about length.

Writing a review is a great way to get started if you have any interest in developing your analytical skills or if you have ever thought about writing Civil War history. I wrote my first book review of James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades for the Washington Times back in 1997.

Alexander County School Board: 1 – SCV: 0

From the Charlotte Observer
The Alexander County Board of Education on Tuesday rejected the appeal of a Confederate history group to place Confederate Veteran magazine in the county high school and middle schools. The board voted 6-1 to uphold Superintendent Jack Hoke’s rejection of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ request. The group had asked to provide a year’s worth of issues of the magazine to the schools’ libraries. Hoke made the decision after media advisory committees at the three schools recommended against it. The group appealed that decision to the school board.

Looks like sanity still has a chance on school boards across the country. First, the Dover School Board prevents its science classes from reverting back to the Dark Ages and now the Alexander County Board protects its history curriculum from being turned into “Lost Cause” propaganda.

Alan Nolan’s Robert E. Lee

Alan Nolan’s, Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History is a book that continues to bother me. The book was published by the University of North Carolina Press back in 1991 following the successful publication of McPherson’s Battle Cry and Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. I still think there are some positive attributes of the study but weaknesses abound. As some of you know, Nolan is a lawyer from Indianapolis, Indiana and a graduate of Indiana University and Harvard Law School. Nolan is the author of an earlier study of the Iron Brigade. There are plenty of lawyers who have taken the plunge into Civil War history. No surprise there as they are trained to analyze and cross-examine sources, apply perspective and struture a clear and concise analytical argument. Nolan tackles important questions such as Lee’s decision to resign from the army in 1861, his views on slavery, and his responsibility for Confederate defeat. While academics such as Drew Faust, Gary Gallagher, and James McPherson praised the book upon release, southern heritage groups called on people to burn it. (That may be a reason in and of itself to praise the book.) What I like about the book is that it forces the reader to step back and question long-standing assumptions about this man. Nolan argues convincingly that our tendency to see Lee as anti-slavery is a mistake. “His attitudes and personal acts in regard to slavery, and his feelings about those who attacked the institution,” argues Nolan “were convetional.” Nolan also challenges the standard picture of Lee struggling over his decision to resign his commission from the army in April 1861. While I am not sure Nolan argues successfully that Lee was “committed to the Southern cause before Virginia seceded by virtue of his feelings about slavery and its expansion and by his sense of sectional loyalty,” he does challenge the traditional notion that his decision was made apart from such worldly considerations.

The book follows closely on the heels of Thomas Connelly’s, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society, which was published in 1977. What troubles me about this book is its overall approach. As opposed to Connelly’s fine study, Nolan seems to take on the role of a lawyer in his indictment of Lee. One has the image of Lee strapped down on the witness stand withot any recourse. Nolan sets out to justify conclusions that are already established in his own mind. The result is an argument that lacks any serious attempt to place Lee in a historical context. Don’t get me wrong I have no problem trying to get below the surface of this man as opposed to D. S. Freeman who maintained that Lee was transparent. Unfortunately Nolan’s approach has spawned a number of flawed studies that attempt to make some of the same points. They include books by Edward Bonekemper, Bevin Alexander and Charles McKenzie.

The weakest sections of the book center on his claim that somewhere in mid-1864 Lee understood that the cause was lost and that he should surrender. If it were not for his pride and personal considerations, according to Nolan, Lee could have ended the war and not squandered lives. Nolan believes that Lee was personally responsible for the continuation of the war past this point of realization. It is here that Nolan goes off the deep end; there is little attempt to understand the perspective of the participants in both the army and on the home front. And the argument that Lee was morally responsible tells us nothing of any historical value. Nolan argues that Lee could have won the war by sticking to a defensive posture as he did at Fredericksburg. Nolan completely misses the mark here as he fails to draw any relevant comparisons with Joe Johnston’s retreat up the Virginia peninsula in the summer of 1862 nor does he attempt to connect military operations with the important goal of maintaining civilian support for the war. In short, this is a horrible case of Monday morning quarterbacking.

Here is how Robert K. Krick closed his review of the book:

It wonderfully suits the Zeitgeist by appealing to the semipiternal yearning to smash idols, which inevitably afflicts a noisy segment of the race. The itch to fling dead cats into sanctuaries usually does more good than harm. In this instance it also affords a limitless appeal in a smug way to the political-correctness wowsers. Fortunately for the historical record, Lee himselff is readily accessible to anyone who genuinely cares to see him. Hundreds of thousands of words from his pen–official, semiofficial, and unofficial–can be found without much effort. They reveal the original Lee for each individual to review for himself, without recourse to historians of the Nolan stripe–or of the Krick antinomian heresy either.

I think it safe to say that he didn’t like the book either.

Civil War Publishing

I’ve found Eric Wittenberg’s commentary on Civil War publishers to be quite interesing. As someone who is close to completing a manuscript for publication the question of where it should be sent and why is perhaps the most important one to be answered. No one wants to see a couple of years of work ruined by some second-rate company. I don’t know much about this process apart from a few articles and book chapters that I’ve had published over the last few years. To make a long story relatively short I have already decided that my Crater manuscript will be publshed by a university press. My biggest concern is that the manuscript go through as rigorous a peer review process as possible. I want anonyous reviewers to critique my work and point out areas that need to be improved. Now, what I am about to say is perhaps going to bother some people, but I will say it anyway. It seems to me that many of these smaller publishers lack a strong peer review process. White Mane publishers is a perfect example. From my experience, unless an author exercises some kind of oversight (I am thinking specifically of Gary Ecalbarger’s excellent study of Kernstown) this publisher seems to print pretty much anything that comes across the table. If I am going to shell out $30 I want to be guaranteed that the book has gone through an intensive review process. I browsed the Civil War titles for this McFarland Press that Eric referenced in his post and the quality seemed at best mixed. I was surprised and pleased to find a book on the 48th Pennsyslvania at the Crater by John Corrigan who is a writer and journalist in Etters, Pennsylvania. While it is nice to see a book on the Crater, who the hell is John Corrigan. There is no indication that he has written anything else on the battle or anything related to the Civil War for that matter. I have no doubt that the publisher prints first-rate studies, but it is so difficult to sift through the crap, and as we all know there is alot of it out there. If I had to pick one of these publishers that apparently does a decent job it would be Savas.

I tend to read university press books. Some of you are know doubt thinking “elitist” but my concerns regarding the quality of some of these smaller publishers have been confirmed too many times. This is not to say that the university presses are not susceptible to printing books that fail to deliver; it is only to say that as a general rule I’ve had more success. I may disagree vehemently with an author, but I can at least rest assured that the book went through a sufficiently rigorous review. In the end, it is probably the case that my outlook is too narrow, but with so little time to read one must make choices. This past year has been a real breakthrough year for me in terms of my own scholarship. In the coming year I will have to do an even better job balancing my time between research and more general Civil War reading. One of my old philosophy professors once said to me that you can either read philosophy or write philosophy, but you can’t do both. Well ,that rule has already bitten the dust. I just started Steve Woodworth’s Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 – only 650 pages!

Editing the Civil War

As I’ve mentioned in the past, in addition to my Crater manuscript I am working on editing a large collection of letters for publication. The letters are from Captain John Christopher Winsmith who served first in 5th and later in the 1st South Carolina Infantry. The collection, which is housed at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond contains roughly 265 letters. They are beautifully written and the content covers the entire spectrum of Civil War themes. At this point I still do not know much about his background. The Winsmith’s made their home in Spartanburg, South Carolina and were apparently fairly large slave owners. John attended the Citadel before he left owing to disciplinary problems. He had just passed his law exam on the eve of the war. The bulk of the letters run from from 1859 (I have one letter from 1851 from the Citadel’s archives) to 1864. I plan to take a few days early this summer to drive down and spend time in the local historical society. I recently discovered that the home and slave quarters are still standing. At this point I’ve transcribed 173 letters. Winsmith saw action in Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. The letters are incredibly rich and will prove useful to both researchers and those who just enjoy allowing the participants to tell their own story.

As I am getting closer to completing the basic transcriptions and looking for a publisher I now have to think more seriously about how to edit these letters. Part of the problem is that I am not clear as to exactly who reads these collections. I rarely read an edited collection straight through; rather, I use these for various research projects. My guess is that the publication of diaries, letters, and memoirs is a recent trend, probably following on the heels of Ken Burns’s documentary and the emphasis on Sam Watkins and Elisha Hunt Rhodes. I have no doubt that the increase in social histories of Civil War soldiers and unit histories also explains this trend. I’ve started to pay closer attention to the format of published primary accounts. I would love to hear from some of you out there if you have any suggestions. Let me know which published accounts stand out and why.