Interpretation Please

Can someone please tell me what Dimitri is up to in his two most recent posts on Historians and Numerology?  He makes a number of generalizations that are incredibly vague:

Whatever they teach the aspiring Civil War historian in the academy, they teach an indifference to numbers that is remarkable.

Rather than buckle down and do some serious accounting, the historian retreats into the world of numerology – mystical numbers, numbers of destiny, numbers of power, sanctified by the priests of a buddy system that produces Pulitzer Prizes. Many have the guts to say figuring doesn’t matter, or we can never know exactly, or even that it is difficult to reconcile the material. So why try? They then go on to elevate champions and demote goats based on suspect figures.

First, is there any merit to his initial claim that students in the academy our woefully ill-prepared to deal with "numbers" in their research?  Second, is there anything beyond the standard list of suspects that we’ve heard about before that apply to this second passage?  If not, wake me up when this is over.  How about a couple of real examples to flesh out what you mean in all of this?  How about just one example from the literature to work with?

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

4 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Oct 4, 2006 @ 12:02

    Shawn and Harry, — Hey guys, thanks for writing. My problem with Dimitri is that you almost always have to wait for a real example from the literature. The other problem is that all of his generalizations seem to connect somehow to the issue of McClellan historiography. I may be mistaken, but Brian Burton’s recent study of the Seven Days’ (Indiana University Press) reassess the numbers and presents a more balanced picture. The idea that anyone who criticizes M’s conduct in the Seven Days’ is somehow fundamentally misguided is absolutely ludicrous (i.e., the centennialists).

  • Shawn Woodford Oct 4, 2006 @ 11:38

    Hey Kevin,

    Having read Dimitri with some regularity now, I suspect he is working up an argument defending McClellan’s conduct during the Peninsula Campaign, based on his having to deal with a numerical inferiority stemming from political interference that prevented McDowell’s corps from joining the Army of the Potomac before Richmond.

    I find this an interesting question actually, because there does seem to be some confusion as to the actual troops strengths of the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia during this period.

    I think Dimitri is on solid ground criticizing the way Civil War historians have handled the matter of troop strengths. Fox and Livermore are the starting points, but they based their studies on incomplete data and often used approximations. Over time, these approximations have been taken for fact, and populate nearly all contemporary Civil War studies. For instance, what really was the strength of the armies at Antietam? The accepted figures seem to be 40,000 Confederate and 85,000 Union, but I’ve seen variations. And it does make a difference if Lee had 50,000 to McCllelan’s 85,000 instead of 40,000 to 90,000. It is much harder to criticize McClellan for his conservative tactics if his numerical advantage was just 8 to 5, instead of over 2 to 1.

    On the other hand, I doubt this has much to do with shortcomings in the quantitative skills of Civil war historians, and more to do with sloppy historiography. Few people have gone back to do the mundane work of checking snout counts with contemporary records. One person who has done this is Steven Newton in his _Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864_. Newton systematically mined the Official Records for troops strength details for the entire Confederate Army in early 1864, and came to the conclusion that the Confederates had managed to replace the combat losses from 1863. He found that the official Confderate returns for late 1863 and early 1864 had undercounted the available troops by 75,000 or so. This evidence would tend to contradict the Lost Cause mythology of dwindling Confederate manpower, at least through the beginning of the 1864 campaigns. Lee and Johnston were able to keep up their field strengths by drawing on reinforcements from quieter sectors. It supports the argument that it wasn’t until after Atlanta fell and Grant had laid siege to Petersburg that the bottom really fell out of the Confederate war effort.

    It also appears that many more unit records are aggregated and available now than in the late 19th Century, allowing for more detailed analysis of actual troop strengths than Fox and Livermore could do. Newton addressed this in his book, although noting that getting into the archives and doing so is extremely time-consuming. But the data are available, and the questions they pertain to are germaine…



  • Harry Oct 4, 2006 @ 11:27


    I can’t speak for Dmitri, and don’t know if the vagueness of his postings are purposeful and leading up to somehting or if he assumes his readers are all on the same page. I usually just wait it out. But on the subject of numbers and specific examples, it could be that he is referring to instances such as R. K. Krick’s essay in “Struggle for a Vast Future”. In that essay is a sidebar which states that after Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Confederate army in front of Richmond, he “reversed Joseph Johnston’s policy of careful retreat by attacking McClellan’s larger army while it was divided.” Recent scholarship such as Leon Tenney’s GMU thesis on numbers in the Seven Days and even older works like Livermore that Dmitri mentioned are at odds with this statement.

    Numbers are a topic on which surprisingly little work has been done. Mostly I think because it is mind numbing work and decidedly unsexy. But I think as more people (probably plain folks) with more time and resources dig into them, particluarly those in the medical records, we will have to change much of what we have accepted as given in the past.


  • Mike K. Oct 4, 2006 @ 8:30

    I’m having a hard time following his thought process as well. We’ll see what the next installment brings.

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