Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Assessing Ken Burns

In response to yesterday’s post on Ken Burns and the Crater a reader chimed in with a very negative assessment of The Civil War.  I’ve made regular references to Burns’s documentary throughout the life of this blog, including references to its usefulness in the classroom (and here) and as a point of contrast between popular perceptions and the more critical stance of academic historians.

I have to say that I find Burns to be quite valuable on a number of levels.  Yes, I agree that there are plenty of problems with his interpretation, but there is much to admire and value.  [For a thorough critique of the documentary see Brent Toplin's edited collection of essays titled, Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond.] I agree with much of what is contained in those critiques, but keep in mind that historians will always find something to analyze as falling short of the mark. In addition to factual problems, Burns spends most of his time in the Eastern Theatre, Shelby Foote tells too many goofy stories and makes some other outrageous comments, and the last section on Appomattox and reunion is way off the mark.  Still, by including historian Barbara Fields viewers are exposed to the"bottom-up" perspective of emancipation rather than the overly simplistic "great emancipator" story.  Burns does capture the horror of the battlefield and ways in which the battlefield, politics, and the home front intersect.  I could go on.

What I admire about Burns is that he never ignored the criticisms of historians; in fact, he deals with them head-on in the Toplin collection and he does so by carefully laying out the goals of a filmmaker in contrast with a more traditional historical study.  Burns was engaged and even passionate about the material that he was attempting to get across to a broad audience back in 1989.  Let’s face it, Burns’s documentary is probably the most influential interpretation in the last 25 years.  I know we would like to give the nod to McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, but I suspect that the majority of people who own the book have actually never read it or they haven’t read most of it.  I don’t mind admitting that I never read through the whole thing straight through until a graduate seminar a few years back.  It’s a dynamite book, but compared to Burns it’s boring as hell. 

The View From The Ground Now Available In Bookstores

Although the book is not slated for release until December I was able to pick up a copy yesterday in my local bookstore.  The full title is The View From The Ground: Experiences Of Civil War Soldiers and is edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean with an afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.  The publisher is the University of Kentucky Press and the book is part of a new series called New Directions In Southern History, which is edited by Peter Carmichael, William Link, and Michelle Gillespie.  I have to say that it’s nice to see one of my essays in book form and in a collection that includes some very talented historians.  Here is the Table of Contents:

1. The Blue and the Gray in Black and White: Assessing the Scholarship on Civil War Soldiers by Aaron Sheehan-Dean
2. A “Vexed Question”: White Union Soldiers on Slavery and Race by Chandra Manning
3. A Brother’s War?: Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy by Jason Phillips
4. “The Army Is Not Near So Much Demoralized as the Country Is”: Soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Home Front” by Lisa Laskin
5. “‘No Nearer Heaven Now but Rather Farther Off”: The Religious Compromises and Conflicts of Northern Soldiers by David W. Rolfs
6. “Strangers in a Strange Land”: Christian Soldiers in the Early Months of the Civil War by Kent T. Dollar
7. ‘A Viler Enemy in Our Rear”: Pennsylvania Soldiers Confront the North’s Antiwar Movement by Timothy J. Orr
8. Popular Sovereignty in the Confederate Army: The Case of Colonel John Marshall and the Fourth Texas Infantry Regiment by Charles E. Brooks
9. “Is Not the Glory Enough to Give Us All a Share?”: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the Battle of the Crater by Kevin M. Levin
10. Afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.

I will be joining Dollar, Phillips, Manning, Brooks, and Sheehan-Dean for a roundtable discussion at the upcoming Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2007 in Atlanta.  The session is titled, Soldiers, Citizens, and Sources: The Uses of Civil War Soldiers in Writing U.S. History and will focus on different methodological approaches to researching our subjects.  The session is scheduled for Saturday, January 6 from 2:30-4:30pm in the Hilton Hotel’s Monroe Room.

In the meantime pick up a copy of The View From The Ground; it will make a great stocking stuffer.

Plagiarism And Peer Review: A Response To Savas And Rotov

In his most recent post Dimitri Rotov shares some thoughts by publisher Ted Savas on the recent plagiarism scandal involving Fred Ruhlman and the University of Tennessee Press.

According to Savas:

As for plagiarism: I see it all the time in manuscripts, so what Carmichael is talking about I can’t say. I can often spot it in casual reading. Maybe I have a good radar for that. Goodwin got off; Ruhlman won’t. I have confronted several authors over the past couple of years regarding a wide variety of submissions. Some apologize (falling back on the Goodwin/Ruhlman non-defense defense), others never respond, and a few are so clueless they ask what plagiarism means!

It’s not clear to me at all what Savas means when he says that he sees it [plagiarism] all the time.  The more interesting question is what we are to do with an observation from a publisher who deals mainly with non-academic titles.  This is not meant in any way as an insult since I think that Savas provides an excellent service for those Civil War enthusiasts that are interested in well written and thoroughly researched campaign and battle studies as well as for those who wish to write them.  My point is that Savas’s comment should perhaps be considered in the context of who is submitting manuscripts for consideration at his shop compared with who is submitting to academic presses.

Dimitri goes on to comment on peer review and cites a question that I posed in my original post on the Ruhlman case:

Kevin Levin had asked why University of Tennesse Press did not send the Ruhlman MS to Andersonville author Marvel for comment. I have two problems with that. First, it makes new writing hostage to old reputations (more on this in a minute). Second, if you don’t have the in-house expertise to evaluate a manuscript like this yourself, yours is a house of generalists susceptible not only to plagiarism but trash.

I am not going to pretend to understand the peer review process that goes on within academic presses.  That said, I have had extensive experience with academic journals and my guess is that the process is similar and rightfully so.  Now I know that Dimitri looks at Civil War publishing as a collection of little cabals which are somehow steered by sinister minds such as James McPherson and Gary Gallagher.  I’ve submitted numerous manuscripts to journals – most of which have been rejected – and those that have made it through the first round have all been sent to experts in the field.  All of them have come back with comments that attest to the expertise of the reviewer involved.  There may indeed be an element of a gate-keeper mindset, but that isn’t necessarily troubling.  In fact, it may be just what the system needs.  Remember, most academic presses and journals send their manuscripts out to at least three reviewers which means that the kind of mentality that Dimitri is so concerned about will have little chance to do any damage.

Dimitri also cites an interview between former North and South magazine editor Keith Poulter and Civil War Talk Radio host and historian Gerry Prokopowicz:

If you agree with the idea of shopping new manuscripts to the established experts, I urge you to listen to Gerald Prokopowicz
interview Keith Poulter, former editor of “North & South” magazine. Poulter, like any editor, rejected a lot of work. However, there was a category of work the content of which he was not sure about. Was it revisionism? He describes a system by which he would send such submissions to subject matter experts. Gerald astutely asked how many of these got through this expert screening process. Poulter answered none. That would be zero among (IIRC) 40 such.

Now is this supposed to support Dimitri’s earlier claim that peer review renders new ideas beholden to old reputations?  All that comes out of this exchange for this reader is that N&S magazine has a pretty good peer review system in place.  Hell, I’ve had a couple of manuscripts rejected by them, and with every rejection I received some helpful feedback.

Perhaps it would help if the questions being asked or criticisms being leveled stemmed from some first-hand experience with the process itself.

John H. Franklin Wins Kluge Prize

From the American Historical Association’s Website:

John Hope Franklin, emeritus professor of history at Duke University and past president of the AHA, has won the prestigious John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity. He shares the honor with Yu Ying-shih, emeritus Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University, who will receives the other half of the $1 million prize.

This is the third time the Kluge prize has been awarded by the Library of Congress to recognize the achievements of scholars in the fields of history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion, criticism in the arts and humanities, and linguistics (all of which are fields that don’t receive Nobel prizes). Franklin and Yu will be presented their awards on December 5, 2006 at the Library of Congress.

John Hope Franklin is perhaps best known for his efforts to include the African-American experience into the study of American History. His publications include The Free Negro in North Carolina, From Slavery to Freedom, and The Emancipation Proclamation to name a few. In 2005 he published his autobiography Mirror to America. Besides his work in academia (which spans 70 years), Franklin was an active participant in the civil rights movement, has been an expert witness, and worked with President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Civil War Top 10

Given that my last two posts are on the depressing topic of plagiarism, I thought it might be a nice transition to focus on a short list of books that reflect some of the best studies to be published in the field.  I will use the same guidelines as outlined by Ethan Rafuse over at Civil Warriors: "This list assumes that one has already read a general history of the war, such as McPherson’s Ordeal By Fire, does not include secondary works older than 30 years, and does not include multivolume works."

Mark Neely, The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
Larry Daniel, Days of Glory: The Army of the Cumberland, 1861-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004).
Mark Dunkelman, Brothers One And All: Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004).
George Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
Emory Thomas, The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865 (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).
Drew G. Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
Philip S. Paludan, A People’s Contest: The Union and Civil War, 1861-1865, (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster, 1885).
Gary W. Gallagher, ed. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

Obviously I could have just as easily picked another set of books, but this seems to be fairly well rounded.  What do you think?