Category Archives: Civil War Historians

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?

UT Press: Additional Thoughts

Just wanted to follow up to yesterday’s posts surrounding the plagiarism allegations made by William Marvel against UT author Fred Ruhlman.  First, historian Peter Carmichael’s comments are worth repeating:

I don’t think you should blame UT Press for this. This is the author’s responsibility alone. All presses and reviewers operate from the assumption that they are reviewing original manuscripts (I can’t imagine how one checks for plagiarism when reviewing a manuscript. Unless you happen to be familiar with a book (like Marvel was with his own study of Andersonville) it is not realistic to expect a press or a reviewer to catch plagiarism. Let’s keep the responsibility on the authors. Moreover, the review process at UT and other academic presses works 99% of the time. The system is sound and it almost always produces high quality scholarship. Let’s not overreact to this unfortunate incident. [Disclosure: Carmichael edits the Voices of the Civil War series for UTP.]

I agree that the review process utilized by university presses works as a rule; clearly this is an exception.  It should also be pointed out that the UTP is a first-rate publisher; this incident should not in any way cause one to question the overall quality of their catalog.  From what I can tell they pulled the book immediately.  One of the comments from yesterday’s post indicated that Ruhlman’s degree is illegitimate.  Clearly, his employer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga should be asking about its candidate review process.

We should also watch what kinds of lessons to draw from this incident.  Here is what one reader over at Eric Wittenberg’s site had to say:

It’s funny, as I have been told by a few members of the academic ilk, that someone like me, who does not have the correct “training” to write about the Civil War has no business doing so. The last I checked, in terms of plagiarism of Civil War books, those who were caught red handed recently are not from the ranks of the “untrained” historians.

My advice to those in academia is to clean up their own house first before casting continued derogatory comments on the “amateur” historians they seem to take issue with.

Let’s not make the mistake of lumping academic presses with professionally-trained historians.  Remember, most of William Marvel’s books are published by the University of North Carolina Press (Civil War America).  Both Mark Dunkelman and Thomas Lowry have had books published by the Louisiana State University Press.  Neither Dunkelman nor Lowry work at universities or have a PhD in history.  There are many more examples that can be cited.  What these presses have in common is a commitment to publishing sophisticated and well-argued historical studies, regardless of the author’s background.  And I can testify to that first-hand.

University of Tennessee Press Embroiled In Plagiarism Allegations

Historian William Marvel was recently asked to review Dr. R. Fred Ruhlman’s new book, Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison: A Reappraisal for the Georgia Historical Quarterly and found that much of it had been pulled from his well-regarded 1994 book, Andersonville: The Last Depot (UNC Press).  The story is beginning to make the rounds.  From Southern AP News:

“I would characterize the extent as ‘pages and pages’ of text that has been lightly rearranged and doctored to appear original, and without counting the work of other historians that he has appropriated,” Marvel said in an e-mail.  “In one instance I found him repeating the only bibliographic error in my entire book, and it would be incredibly coincidental for him to have made that transcription error through his own research,” Marvel wrote.  Ruhlman said in a UT Press news release that he’s innocent of willful plagiarism but acknowledged oversights in crediting the work of Marvel.

“I feel very bad about this,” Ruhlman said. “If I had done this deliberately, it would have been academic suicide because Marvel is an authority on this. He would have been asked to review this. I’m reaching out to Mr. Marvel with an apology.”  Marvel said the volume of questionable material is troubling.

“I certainly don’t consider it a merely technical violation and find it impossible to believe it was unintentional,” Marvel said.

Here are some comparisons compiled by KnoxNews:

Marvel, p. 21: “He nominated Alexander W. Persons, a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer from Fort Valley, barely thirty miles up the rail line from Anderson. Persons was lieutenant colonel of the 55th Georgia…. The 55th had never been in a real battle, and it enjoyed no great reputation, once having mutinied….”

Ruhlman, p. 53: “Cobb recommended Alexander W. Persons, a twenty-seven-year-old attorney from Fort Valley, Georgia, a small town
approximately thirty miles from Andersonville. Persons was the lieutenant colonel of the 55th Georgia Infantry, a regiment of dubious distinction. The 55th had never seen actual combat and had once mutinied….”

Marvel, pp. 24-25: “A few tried to run for it anyway, but they found the guards true to their word.”

Ruhlman, p. 57: “…a few attempted to escape and discovered that the guards were true to their word.”

Marvel, p. 36: “Mrs. Wolf was a perfectly respectable Methodist lady whose husband had recently died, leaving her with two small girls.”

Ruhlman, p. 77: “She was a respectable Methodist lady whose husband had recently died, leaving her with two daughters to raise.”

Marvel, p. 36: “All his life Wirz had wanted to be a doctor, and in 1854 he joined Dr. Webber as an apprentice….”

Ruhlman, p. 77: “Wirz had wanted to be a doctor all his life, and in 1854 he joined Webber…as his apprentice.”

Marvel, p. 37: “In August of 1862 Wirz assumed command of all Richmond prisons, exerting a strict but reasonably humane authority over the Federal captives. He denied the Yankees any opportunity to communicate with their own officers, or to buy contraband from civilians, but he did not hesitate to arrest a guard for shooting one of the prisoners.”

Ruhlman, p. 78: “By August 1862, Captain Wirz was in charge of all prisoners in the Richmond area. …[H]is administration was strict but humane in its treatment of prisoners of war. Wirz removed any opportunity for the prisoners to communicate with their officers, forbade the sale of contraband by civilians to the prisoners, and quickly arrested one of the guards for shooting a prisoner.”

Marvel, p. 37: “Wirz took Ould at his word, embarking on a quest of another four thousand miles, crisscrossing the Deep South from Columbus, Georgia, to Houston, Texas.”

Ruhlman, p. 79: “Wirz took Ould at his word and sojourned another four thousand miles, tracking across the Deep South from Columbus, Georgia, to Houston, Texas….”

Marvel, pp. 39-40: “…a dozen men came down with the symptoms of fever, headache, wracking spasms of vomiting, and the little red eruptions….”

Ruhlman, p. 143: “…a dozen more prisoners were showing symptoms of the disease: fever, headache, spasms of vomiting, and small red sores….”

Marvel, p. 45: “Wirz worried the quartermaster for tools, and early in April Colonel Persons learned of a supply available in Augusta. He stopped by Richard Winder’s quarters to apprise him of them, but the quartermaster lay writhing in bed with an acute attack of rheumatism.”

Ruhlman, p. 83: “He kept after Capt. Richard Winder with constant requests for tools and reminded him if the critical need. In early April, Colonel Persons received information that a supply of tools was available in Augusta, Georgia… Upon arrival at WinderAs quarters, he found him incapacitated from rheumatism.”

Marvel, p. 244: “Then he called a procession of former prisoners who seemed determined to outdo one another in their recollections of WirzAs barbarity.”

Ruhlman, p. 192: “In their testimony, it appears as if the former prisoners were determined to outdo one another in their recollections of…Wirz’s brutality.”

Marvel, p. 244: “Men swore they saw Wirz shoot prisoners at point-blank range, citing names that never appeared on the death register.”

Ruhlman, p. 192: “…others told of witnessing Wirz shoot prisoners at point-blank range…. They gave names of victims who never appeared on the death register.”

Marvel, p. 245: “The alleged affidavit survives, bearing a date of August 27, 1864… and it is signed in a perfectly steady hand.”

Ruhlman, pp. 194-95: “The alleged affidavit… bearing the date of 27 August 1864, can still be viewed and bears a signature written in a strong, steady hand.”

Marvel, p. 246: “On the chilly morning of November 10, Wirz rose in his cell at the Old Capitol and wrote a last letter to his wife, whom he had apparently not been allowed to see….”

Ruhlman, p. 209: “The morning of 10 November 1865 was cool. Wirz sat in his cell writing a last letter to his wife. He had not been allowed to see her….”

It would be an understatement to say that it doesn’t look good for Ruhlman.  Ruhlman earned his PhD in history from a school in England and is currently teaching at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  UT is going to have to take a look at its peer review process and try to figure out how this one got through.  What I don’t understand is why they didn’t send the manuscript to Marvel for review.  Marvel’s book on Andersonville is considered by many to be the definitive study; it’s not as if there are a significant number of historians who focus on Civil War prisons.

Is Russel Beatie The New Douglas S. Freeman?

There is an interesting thread over at the Civil War Forum about Russel Beatie’s latest volume in his multi-volume study of the Army of the Potomac.  The thread starts with a post by historian Jim Morgan who offers his own critique of McClellan Takes Command: Sept 1861 – Feb 1862, which is vol. 2 in the series.  Volumes 1 and 2 were published by Da Capo while the next volume is slated for release by Savas-Beatie.  I think that is correct.  Scroll down to post 14 of 18 to read historian John Hennessy’s very critical review of volume 1.  While Morgan points out multiple factual errors Hennessy notes both specific factual mistakes as well as more significant interpretive and historiographical problems.  In short, it looks like this series is a disaster.  I have no plans to read these books since I stay away from books published by Da Capo (unless they are those excellent reprints) as well as other small independent presses.  Of course there are specific titles that must be worth reading, but I don’t have the time or energy to sift through it all. 

Sounds like a number of people will be looking to see what Savas-Beatie does with volume 3.  Given Hennessy’s review of volume 1 and Morgan’s review of volume 2 it is difficult to imagine any significant changes in the works.  The publisher can at least correct the grammatical and factual errors if indeed they utilize a sufficiently strong peer review process.  Oh, and by the way, David Woodbury confirmed that the Beatie in Savas-Beatie is none other than Russel Beatie.

As far as I can tell the standard by which multi-volume works must be compared with is Gordon Rhea’s Overland Campaign study.

Historians Write, But Does Anyone Listen?

Thanks to Brian Dirck over at A Lincoln Blog for providing a link to Ed Ayers’s thought-provoking review of Nicholas Lemann’s book, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.  Ayers raises a number of interesting questions about our popular perceptions of Reconstruction and the general publics failure to take into account the significant interpretive developments that have taken place since the end of World War II.  From the review:

Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War tells a story we keep trying to forget: White Southerners used every kind of violence at their command to destroy Reconstruction after the Civil War. Beguiled and benumbed by Gone With the Wind, many white Americans still imagine Reconstruction as a crime against the white South, marked by the sins of the carpetbaggers and the corruption of the Reconstruction governments. It is good to have this stubborn fable of Reconstruction refuted by a gifted and respected writer. It is good that it received a front-page New York Times review with a striking graphic of a Confederate battle flag in which the stars have been replaced by bullet holes. May it be widely read.

I disagree with Ayers that this is a story that we "keep trying to forget" since most Americans – and even those who consider themselves to be "Civil War buffs" have never known anything else.  Just the other day I came across a post from a fellow blogger who referenced the same overly simplistic view of Reconstruction even as he sets his sights on researching a crucial aspect of that period.  No one has done more to package the best of recent historical scholarship into books that have wide appeal.  But let’s face it Reconstruction is much too difficult for most white Americans to grasp.  I see this every year when I teach this subject.  Feelings of guilt are strong and for those more focused on the war itself, Reconstruction fails to provide anything approaching the glory of the battlefield.  So, what are we left with but talk of "scalawags" and "carpetbaggers" and a set of simplistic assumptions that assumes a unified white South and obedient former slaves.  The overarching problem for most casual observers of the period is that Reconstruction seems to challenge an overly optimistic view of American history that assumes continual progress.  Forget that this was a period where African Americans voted, were elected to office, and were able to pass legislation that often benefited poor southern whites for the first time.

Ayers also briefly comments on the failure of academic historians to compete with popular writers such as Lemann:

That is too bad, for the writing of history has never been richer, deeper, or more inventive than it is today, and historians have never been bolder in tackling new topics in new ways than they have been in the last two generations. The writing in many academic books is as good as the best nonfiction. These books have made a place for the people who have been left out of the best-selling histories, and they are the driving force behind the most innovative historical documentaries on television; they help shape the next generation of history, driving innovation and creativity; they are debated in fervent discussions on campuses across the country and around the world. But they remain part of a secret conversation and do not make a public mark as books.

Anyone familiar with recent titles authored by professional historians can sympathize with Ayers.  It is safe to assume that Ayers hoped to crack this barrier with his most recent book, In The Presence of Mine Enemies, though it is unclear to what extent he achieved this goal.  Academics have to take some responsibility for this failure and for the general public perceptions of the Ivory Tower.  In the end, however, Ayers’s observations have little to do with popular v. academic history, but with a general lack of interest in reading serious history that challenges some of our basic assumptions from this period.  It comes down to education and the teachers who man the trenches day in and day out.