I first started reading Civil War history back in 1995 while an employee at a fairly large Borders Books and Music in Rockville, Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. My responsibilities included maintaining the Civil War section and I did so with a great deal of satisfaction. In addition to reading a great deal, I maintained a folder, which included recent book reviews and led a very successful Civil War reading group that met monthly. From the beginning my specific interests extended beyond the battlefield so most of the books I read were written by college professors and published by university presses. I never gave much thought to the fact that it was history professors that were providing me with my education in American history. I placed and continue to place a certain value on advanced degrees without allowing it cloud my responsibilities as a critical reader. My approach to each book was pretty much the same. I read carefully and kept a careful eye on following the author's argument and the evidence used to support it. The reading group also approached assigned readings with the same goal. On occasion I even invited local authors to join us in our discussions. Two that stand out include Craig Symonds and Kevin C. Ruffner. Authors quickly understood that our sessions were not simply an opportunity to sell a book and tell little stories that had been collected during the course of their research. We had read their books and were ready to challenge their claims as part of our responsibility as critical readers. I still remember walking Dr. Ruffner out the door after his presentation; let's just say he was pleasantly surprised and appreciative.
Update: Just a quick reminder that our discussion will take place on Friday. I plan on offering some opening remarks to get the discussion going, but feel free to write-up your own assessment and post it to the comments. We will see how things develop from there.
Our Online discussion about "A Brother's War?: Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy" by Jason Phillips will take place on August 22. Peter Carmichael was nice enough to come up with a set of reading/interpretive questions to guide our reading and discussion.
Peter Carmichael and I couldn’t be more pleased with the number and quality of responses to his post on black Confederates. We were hoping that the post would attract the attention of individuals who approach the study of the Civil War from different perspectives. To that end, we’ve decided to take it to the next level and try our hands at leading a discussion group that will focus on a specific book or article.
After tossing around a few possibilities we decided on an article by Jason Phillips, titled “A Brother’s War?: Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy” which is included in Aaron Sheehan Dean’s ed. The View From the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers. The article is relatively short and is pulled from his more recently published book, Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, which I highly recommend to you. We will contact Phillips to see if he is interested in taking part in this forum. Here are the specifics: We will give you two weeks (Aug. 8) to purchase the book. At that point Peter will post some interpretive questions to guide our reading and which can be used to get the discussion going. The following week or two we will post some thoughts to begin the discussion and see where that takes us.
Some of the details need to be worked out, but I would love to get a sense of the level of enthusiasm out there for this proposal.
To be more specific, why do I suck at writing about the tactical ebb and flow of the Civil War battlefield. I am in the middle of editing chapter 1 of my Crater manuscript and it is proving to be quite difficult. The last draft, and the one that was reviewed at the publisher, included a fairly detailed overview of the battle itself. The ms. reviews came back and suggested that this section ought to be radically revised and the one thing that the reviewers agreed on was that I need only sketch the battle before focusing on the bigger questions of how Union and Confederate soldiers accounted for the presence of United States Colored Troops. I am making some progress, but I am having difficulty trying to figure how much detail is sufficient. It is incredibly depressing to go back and read your own writing and not be able to follow the narrative. I can’t tell you how many units went into the Crater early on in the chapter and never came out. I don’t know know what the hell happened to them.
I’ve been thinking about this difficulty over the past few days. Although I don’t read too many strict military-tactical studies I do have a great deal of respect for those who do it well. I am awed by the ability of some, including Gordon Rhea, Stephen Sears, and Harry Pfanz who are able to track the movements and experiences of large numbers of men on the battlefield and somehow make sense of it all in the form of a narrative that flows and keeps the reader’s attention. This is truly an act of the imagination. The question I have is how much of this is function of an innate cognitive ability to bring together disparate elements into a cohesive whole as opposed to a process involving the organization of notes, outlines, drafts, etc? I assume it is a combination of the two, but perhaps the scales tend to lean in a certain direction. Could it be that it takes a certain visual intelligence to grasp the details of battle in a way which allows for a smooth retelling of the story? Ultimately, I wonder whether I am in the same position as watching Neil Peart of Rush try to swing?
Don’t get me wrong, I love old Rush music and have been known to bang my head against the wall while listening to 2112, but it seems to me that no matter how much Peart practices he will never swing.
I would love to hear how historians go about writing tactical studies of Civil War battles. This would include the organization of notes and charts but I am also interested – perhaps even more so – in the cognitive process involved in translating those detailed notes into narrative. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about this level of detail and the draft looks much better because of it. The chapter is devoted to bigger issues having to do with how soldiers evaluated the battle, although I have provided some tactical detail when it relates directly to those post-battle evaluations. For example, many letters and diaries from Union soldiers blamed their defeat at the Crater on USCTs. They did so for a number of reasons, but across the board they did so because they actually observed these men retreat in the face of Mahone’s mid-morning counterattack. For the reader to understand this, however, they must know that elements of the 4th Division succeeded in advancing furthest beyond the Crater itself, in addition to scattered white units. Unfortunately, many of the letters fail to convey this fact in their rush to blame.
Some of you will be happy to hear that Earl Hess is finishing up a battle history of the Crater which I am looking forward to reading.