I stopped by my local bookstore to pick up a Father’s Day gift and I did my best to walk out without the new issue of Civil War Times Illustrated which includes the Gallagher interview. I made my through it and have to say that it is a pretty good interview. Without trying to dodge the issue I am just going to say straight out that the reaction to Gallagher’s claims about the importance of recent Gettysburg-tactical studies are way over the top. I don’t believe he was singling out Eric and J.D. nor do I believe he had any sense that it would be taken as such. First here is the question and full response:
Questions: You delivered a paper at the Society of Civil War Historians that asked the question: Do we need another book on Gettysburg? Do we?
Answer: Well, I think that there are some books on Gettysburg we really don’t need. If you just love Gettysburg and want to know everything about it, then this flood of books that comes out looking at tinier and tinier parts of the battle in greater detail are of interest. But for most people, those who want to understand the Civil War, or even the war in the East or the Gettysburg campaign, do they need 450 pages on two hours in the Railroad Cut? I don’t think so. I just don’t think that this literature takes us any place. Do we need multiple books about what Lee’s real plan at Gettysburg was? Or, more recently, I think there have been two, maybe three, new books on Jeb Stuart during the Gettysburg campaign. I just can’t believe that there is anything new to say about Jeb Stuart during the Gettysburg campaign. I really believe there is not. All the arguments have been laid out, pro and con. All the key documents have been available for a very long time. So you either pick your John Mosby school that says Stuart was pretty much doing his job, acting within his orders, and even Alan Nolan sort of fits into that, or you go to the other side where it’s Jeb Stuart’s fault. I think Jeb Stuart didn’t do a good job. But the notion that there would be a lot that’s new, enough to support new books–and not just one new book but maybe two or three–I just say, stop the madness.
Part of the problem is that Gallagher’s response was pulled out of an interview that focused broadly on Civil War historiography. At no point does he criticize people who write detailed tactical studies nor does he take a shot at people who buy and read them. Gallagher was simply making a point about whether certain types of studies add to our interpretive understanding of the campaign. I tend to agree with Gallagher on this specific point about tactical studies of Gettysburg. Accumulating more facts and drawing a different conclusion about those facts does not in and of itself constitute a new interpretation. Approaching a controversy or question from a fundamentally new set of assumptions does. For instance, when Drew Faust looked at the question of Confederate defeat through the lens of gender she was giving us a new interpretation. George Rable’s study of Fredericksburg also presents the reader with a different set of of assumptions with which to interpret military history. We also have a flood of new studies of the impact of battles/campaigns on civilian populations. Finally, understanding battles/campaigns by analyzing the role of memory is another more recent interpretive trend. Perhaps Gallagher could have made that point more clearly, but even a cursory glance at what he said should have rendered his meaning intelligible. I should also point out that at no point does he suggest that microhistories are irrelevant as a genre. Again, he was making a comment about Gettysburg literature. You can agree or disagree.
The readers of J.D.’s and Eric’s blogs who got so emotional about all of this and suggested that Gallagher’s comments were a reflection of elitism would be surprised by a comment made while discussing the pervasiveness of our popular cultural perceptions of Gettysburg:
All of those things coming together have shaped perceptions to a huge degree. This also shows how irrelevant most academic scholarship is. You have all this scholarship that’s been coming out since the late 1970s, ’80s and into the early ’90s saying that Gettysburg isn’t that important, but of course that has no impact on the real world.
I wonder if Peter Carmichael (the interviewer) should feel offended by Gallagher’s comments? Was his scholarship being singled out?
By the way, I met John Hope Franklin this past weekend.