New William Marvel Book

I was browsing in my local bookstore on this rainy Saturday and came across William Marvel’s Mr. Lincoln Goes To War.  I bought it but probably will not have a chance to read it until over the summer.  Given my last post on Mark Grimsley’s discussion about counterfactuals and contingency I was pleased to see that Marvel touches on the very same subject in the preface.  I look forward to reading it.

My sister-in-law sent me the new biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.  I started it last night and can’t put it down – absolutely fascinating.


Mark Grimsley Goes To Charlottesville

Yesterday I had a chance to meet and listen to Mark Grimsley in a talk presented to the graduate students in the history department at the University of Virginia. Most of the students are presently working under the direction of Gary Gallagher. It was nice to finally have a chance to talk to Mark in person and connect a personality to a picture.

Mark focused on the importance of counterfactual analysis in historical studies and more specifically on how this type of analysis has shaped his own thinking in connection to his current project on 1864. It goes without saying that 1864 was an important year as the United States re-elected Lincoln and brought the war to a close. According to Grimsley, 1864 was a “moment of major racial re-formation” with Reconstruction policy already taking shape and African Americans serving in Union ranks. In thinking about this pivotal period Grimsley attempted to drive home the importance of counterfactual analysis. And if we are to engage in counterfactual analysis Grimsley hopes that we learn to do it “well” versus doing it “poorly” and not end up engaged in writing alternate history.

The first step in understanding the role or necessity of counterfactual analysis is appreciating the role of contingency in the past or the assumption that events could have taken a different turn. This stands in sharp contrast to thinking of the past as determined from the start. According to Grimsley, contingency is easy to lose sight of for historians as compared with other disciplines such as evolutionary biologists and economists who employ counterfactuals as a matter of course. Historians should keep in mind that the very idea of a causal model implies a counterfactual, so the act itself should not necessarily be seen as stepping beyond our conceptual understanding of causation. I agree with Grimsley, but it does not necessarily follow that historians should make explicit what is implicit. More on this later.

So, how should historians proceed according to Grimsley? He suggested that you start with the consequent, such as a Lincoln defeat in the presidential election of 1864 or a postemancipation world in which African Americans enjoyed greater civil rights. Once your consequent is sketched out the object is to provide a “minimal re-write” of the events preceeding the consequent that could concievably have brought it about. The general rule is the simpler the better. Mark provided a number of examples from both the Civil War and World History to drive the point home.

It was not an easy sell to the graduate students. Mark fielded some excellent questions and while he convinced some others remained skeptical. From my point of view some of the students were unclear as to the utility of the counterfactual exercise. After all, if the goal is to appreciate contingency it seems that one can do so without engaging in counterfactual analysis. I think the other problem with some of the students was understanding how a counterfactual study might fit into their own scholarship; many of the students are concentrating on questions of social and cultural history, so what seems fitting for a straight-forward military study is perceived as problematic when dealing with broader notions of change and evolution. One of the students noted the practical application of this type of analysis for military planners and as a tool to be used in the classroom. All in all Mark did a fantastic job really trying to force students to think critically about the practice of doing history and the role of counterfactuals in imagining how events could have turned out differently.

My Concerns:

As I stated earlier it does not follow that because a counterfactual is implicit in a causal explanation that historians should make them explicit in their scholarship. That said, I agree with Grimsley that the counterfactual makes for an interesting and potentially useful tool to think about what in fact took place. Philosophers of science in the past have criticized historians’ claims to utilizing causal explanations because they do not make explicit broader covering laws. Any individual causal explanation in classical physics fits into a broader covering law or generalization and this is typically made explicit. It does not follow, however, that historians should be engaged in this type of explanation simply because a covering law model or generalization is implicit in a specific causal statement. The problem is that historians cannot provide such broader explanation nor is it clear that they would want to even if were possible.

While I agree that counterfactual analysis can highlight the importance of contingency it seems possible to fully appreciate the uncertainty of events by simply submerging oneself in the lives of individuals at the time. In other words, it is possible to imagine the lives of people on the ground without the constant reminder of how the event – in this case an election or the war in general – turned out.

I asked Mark about the possibilities of a body of literature based on counterfactual analysis. My concern is that the content of the “minimal re-write” makes is difficult to engage in formal debate. I understand debates involving the merits of straight-forward histories such as questions surrounding the relative weight given to specific factors or the structure of the interpretation itself. Historical studies build on one another which is evidenced in any scholarly study’s footnotes. How would one reference counterfactual studies? Do they build on one another? How do you debate the relative weight assigned to an object in the “minimal re-write.” This is a difficult enough question in traditional studies, but seems lost in the world of counterfactuals. Is this in the end more a mental exercise as opposed to something that should take its place alongside published non-counterfactual studies?

All in all Mark did a super job engaging everyone in attendance. Though time was short the last question touched on the role of blogging in the academic world. Mark’s answer was very interesting and I would have loved to have heard more. I had a great time yesterday and I thank Mark for an enlightening discussion. It was great having a chance to talk to you in person.


Let The Entertainment Begin

Some wealthy dude with money to spend decided to make a movie about Gettysburg. From the article in the Washington Times. Hat tip to Dimitri

“Fields of Freedom,” shot on a 500-acre farm in Hagerstown, Md., with young, little-known actors in authentic Civil War uniforms, debuts tonight at a reception at the National Archives Building. The film opens April 19, when it will be shown on a 3?-story screen to tourists visiting Mr. Monahan’s new Gateway Gettysburg complex adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park. The development eventually will include four hotels, a conference center, movie theaters, shops and restaurants.

“We couldn’t do a lot of blood and guts,” the 52-year-old Gettysburg native said recently while screening the film in his Northwest Washington home, which he shares with wife Laurie, three daughters and two dogs. “With school groups, we didn’t want too much violence.”

Still, the film depicts the defining battle of the Civil War in digital technology and Dolby 6 sound, and the result is an incredible trip back in time. The score was done by Trevor Jones and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and the film ends with a recitation of the Gettysburg Address narrated by former President George Bush. “He was thrilled to do it,” said Mr. Monahan. The script was based on diaries of Union and Confederate soldiers.

“I’m very patriotic. I love history. … There were 175,000 troops involved in a three-day battle. There were 51,000 casualties. This helps bring the Battle of Gettysburg to life,” the executive producer said. “We have to experience what they fought for.”

By the way, what did they fight for? Perhaps it will be revealed with the Dolby 6 sound.


Civil War Fathers

I had another excellent Civil War class today in which we discussed James Marten’s work on children. We read his North and South article “Let Me Edge in to Your Bright Fire,” (September 1998) which explores the steps that fathers took to maintain contact with their children back home. Marten is the author of two recent studies of the family and children during the Civil War, including The Children’s Civil War and Children for the Union: The War Spirit on the Northern Home Front. Here is a quick synopsis of Marten’s thesis:

Confederate and Union fathers mourned the loss of daily contact with their sons and daughters the way they would mourn the loss of a limb in combat. But as their correspondence with their families so touchingly reveals, they refused to give up their paternal roles. Their letters home reveal a side of Civil War soldiers unexplored in most accounts of their lives: their love for their children, their determination to remain important figures in their children’s lives, their startlingly “modern” approach to childrearing. These were not the distant Victorian fathers that we so often read about, but men deepy engaged in the raising of their sons and daughters. Civil War soldiers fought to remain fathers in deed as well as in name, and filled their letters with affection and advice. This was a vital part of their self-images, and one cannot fully understand the men who wore the blue and the gray unless one realizes how important their families were to them.

I have to admit that I was surprised by some of the opening comments. My approach is to give the students a chance to voice their general reactions before getting into the analysis of the author’s thesis. A few students wondered, “What does it add?” Another student quipped, “So they missed their children, big deal.” Following this “airing of the grievances” I asked them to step back and think more critically about Marten’s thesis. What does he think is missing from our traditional interpretations of Civil War soldiers? How do we tend in all wars to think about the behavior and psychology of the American soldier? After some thought a few of the students suggested that these stories “make the men more human” and “personalize the war.”

What was interesting from my perspective was the direction the discussion took. As we discussed Marten’s evidence the students wondered why these men didn’t just leave the armies for the home front. One of the students chimed in by referring to his Valley of the Shadow research and the Animated Maps that can be viewed to follow a certain regiment around the map. He noted that the men in the 5th Virginia from Staunton had every opportunity to leave since their travels rarely took them great distances from home. I knew exactly where this discussion was going and it was a pleasure to watch it develop. We’ve read articles by Chandra Manning and James McPherson who suggest that soldiers were motivated to join and endure the horrors of war because of a strong commitment to ideological principles. The challenge for my students turned out to be that given these fathers’ deep emotional connection with their families and children that many of these men who had the opportunity to leave the ranks by deserting did not do so. (Recent studies suggest that desertion rates among Virginia units did not rise steadily throughout the war and that only during the final 6 months did the numbers rise sharply.) Their difficulty was comprehending that a commitment to an ideology could have trumped the more immediate emotional concerns on the ground. I eventually asked my students to think about an idea that they would be willing to die for. Not one spoke up. As a teacher these are priceless moments when students see clearly the great divide between themselves and people who lived not too long ago.


How Not To Argue About The Civil War

I was intrigued by Brett Schulte’s recent post over at American Civil War Gaming and Reading which summarizes the most recent issue of the popular Civil War magazines. I like this feature of Brett’s blog as I rarely keep up with the large number of history magazines currently on the market. I appreciate Brett’s kind words re: my Crater article, which along with Peter Carmichael’s piece summarized below, were published in the most recent issue of America’s Civil War (May 2006). Here is Brett’s assessment of Carmichael’s article.

Peter Carmichael’s article on Chancellorsville is definitely of the “new military history” variety, looking at how two Confederate soldiers in the Stonewall Brigade, Henry Kyd Douglas and Owen T. Hedges, handled their experiences on the battlefield at Chancellorsville. He relates Douglas’ fabrication of how Brigade commander Franklin E. “Bull” Paxton met his end, and then goes into the reasons why Douglas might have done so. Carmichael goes on to commend Hedges for his “honest self-assessmentI”. One of the main themes of the author’s article is that military history is “dry” without liberally sprinkling in social history. I agree that looking at how soldiers’ felt is an important and perfectly valid topic of study, and that some might find this topic interesting. As a military history buff, I don’t believe it is needed as much as some would claim in traditional campaign and battle studies. There is plenty of room for both types of book in the study of the Civil War. As a member of the Society of American Baseball Research, I liken this to Jackie Robinson and his role as the first African-American to play in the modern (post-1900) game. A history of a given season of the Brooklyn Dodgers, say 1951, would not focus on the fact that Robinson was Black. Instead, it would focus on his contributions on the playing field (i.e. the “tactics” of a baseball game). Other books concentrate on Robinson’s role in paving the way for non-White players, as they rightly should. To me it is simply a matter of what is interesting to the individual reader.

In response to a recent post on my frustration with Civil War Roundtables, Brooks Simpson shared a comment from a review of an introduction that he did for a new edition of Joshua Chamberlain’s famous memoir, The Passing of the Armies. Apparently this reader was unhappy with Simpson’s deconstruction or interpretation of the memoir as something more than an accurate account of the war years.

The Passing of the Armies offers readers the opportunity to experience the trials and triumphs of the Civil War through the personal recollections of an authentic American hero. However, it is my opinion that the introduction by Brooks D. Simpson serves to disrupt the first hand experiences of Joshua Chamberlain by calling into question Chamberlain’s accuracy of events and his personal motives. Passing of the Armies should stand as one man’s first hand account of his life, leaving his critics to write their own book.

Brett’s review of Carmichael and this anonymous review of Simpson’s introduction highlight the gap between these two approaches to the study of the Civil War and serves to re-open one of the common themes of this blog: the apparent tension between social and traditional military history. In reference to Brett’s critique I don’t think that Carmichael’s point is simply that military history is “dry” without a broader focus, but that the failure to address broader themes renders the interpretation incomplete. Carmichael and other practitioners are not simply “sprinkling in social history” because it is fashionable, but because they believe that a broader analytical approach reveals a more sophisticated understanding of the past. I want to be clear that I have absolutely no problem with one’s personal preferences. If you happen to be interested in straight-forward military history with its concentration on the battlefield so be it. What one claims to be interested in is not a proper topic of debate since it can be characterized as a descriptive claim of one’s preferences. However, the claim that the “New Military History” is simply a matter of preference cannot be dismissed so easily. There is room for debate as to the merits of the approach. It cannot simply be pushed aside as a “flavor of ice cream” or reduced to “personal preference.” Simpson’s point in his introduction to Chamberlain’s memoir reveals why a broader critical approach to sources is so important. You simply can’t treat a memoir as a “first-hand account” of the war. He penned it years after the war ended and clearly had an agenda. Carmichael’s point also rams home the point that a more thoughtful critique of sources utilizing the approaches as outlined in cultural and social histories is absolutely essential to understanding the accounts of Douglas and Owens. Whether you agree or disagree with their conclusions can lead to an interesting debate, but there arguments cannot be dispensed with by giving it the back of your hand because it doesn’t mesh with your personal preferences or tastes.

We need to move beyond the naïve dichotomy of social/cultural history v. military history. I hope my little piece on the Crater says more than just my personal preference for social history v. military history. You can do both w/o losing the attraction of the battlefield. Implicit in my ACW article is the argument that you can’t understand Confederate accounts of the battle without a broader approach. Their wartime accounts are part of an interpretation that stretches beyond the battlefield. Their accounts connect to the home front, politics, and race. Their own accounts point in this direction as opposed to the claim that historians are imposing their own agenda on the past. Of course the pitfalls of presentism abound, but they can be avoided through a careful reading of the sources. If you disagree with that premise then provide an argument against it. Please don’t tell me that you find my flavor displeasing. You can disagree, but disagreements imply debate/dialogue. I welcome it.