What Constitutes A “Gaping Hole” In The Literature?

The other day Eric Wittenberg commented on what he sees as a "gaping hole" in the literature on the Gettysburg Campaign.  The specific hole in question has to do with the amount and quality of the coverage of the Second Battle of Winchester which took place between June 12 -15, 1863.  According to Eric, the two studies currently available to readers differ in overall quality; one of the two is a White Mane book, which is no doubt of little use.  The one book that is given some credit is part of the Battles and Leader series published by Howard Press:

The books in the Battles and Leaders Series are especially hit and miss. Some of
them are quite good. Some are simply atrocious. The book on Second Winchester is
solid, but its battle narrative is only about 85 pages long, meaning that
there’s not a great deal of depth there. 

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much about this battle beyond what I’ve read in a number of books covering the Gettysburg Campaign.  I’ve always thought that I understood enough to make sense of how the battle fits into the campaign and specifically in connection to the movements of the two armies north towards Pennsylvania.  What I don’t understand is how a more detailed study would constitute the filling of a gaping hole.  What is it about the 85 pages that is insufficient?  Is it simply a matter of knowing much more detail about the movement of soldiers or will it allow us to see something new about the campaign?  I am skeptical.  In other words, why can’t we just say that here is an engagement that can be fleshed out in more detail on the tactical level.  However, we wouldn’t be missing much if no one ever got around to writing it. 

Seems to me that a study which fills a "gaping hole" must help us understand something in a new way.  It’s not that we simply end up knowing more about the subject but that we know it better.  For example, Jennifer Weber’s Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North provides us with the first detailed study of the most conservative wing of the Democratic Party.  It’s important because it reminds us that as Union armies struggled through the summer of 1864 the North continued to struggle with deep political divisions.  Now this book fills a gaping hole.

In the comments section to Eric’s post Art Bergeron suggested that the individual battles that constituted the Petersburg Campaign can be classified as gaping holes.  Now, I actually agree with this assessment.  In agreeing, however, I want to be clear as to why.  As many of you know I’ve been working on a book-length study of the Crater.  The first chapter of the book is an overview of the battle, but it is not a detailed tactical study.  And I should say that there is only one reliable book-length military study which was authored by William Marvel and Michael Cavanaugh back in 1989.  It is part of the Howard Series and is 120 pages in length (minus the tables and references).  I guess there is room for a more detailed study, but it seems to me that this wouldn’t add much to our understanding of the battle.  In my overview I concentrate on how Confederates evaluated the battle and connect their accounts to the broader issues of morale, nationalism, and race. 

My point is that the Petersburg Campaign constitutes a gaping hole because there are important questions that need to be answered beyond the tactical and strategic facts on the ground.  More detailed and proper analysis of the military will help us answer important questions.  Given that our tendency is to see the war in terms of an inevitable Confederate decline following Gettysburg we need to know much more about how soldiers viewed the progress of the war on both sides.  How confident were Union soldiers compared with Confederates as they made the best of life in the trenches?  How poorly off were Confederates in terms of supplies?  What did morale look like and were there continued signs of Confederate nationalism?  And of course we need to know much more about the interconnectedness of the battlefield and the home front and politics.  I’ve read through most of Jason Phillips’s article "The Grape Vine Telegraph: Rumors and Confederate Persistence" which appears in the most recent issue of the Journal of Southern History.  Phillips does an excellent job of analyzing how Confederates perceived the war and how they generated rumors to assuage their concerns about the progress of the war throughout the final year.  Phillips provides a great deal of coverage of the war in Virginia.  We clearly know more about this period from the Confederate perspective, but we still need to look more carefully at the Union war machine in Virginia.  I am thinking of something equivalent to J. Tracy Power’s brilliant study of Lee’s army

I am not trying to nitpick with Eric’s preferred choice of study.  What I am suggesting is that lack of coverage or too few pages does not constitute a sufficient condition for historical study or a gaping hole in the literature.

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2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2006 @ 9:51

    Eric, – I don’t understand why you think this is a “cheap shot.” Of course we can have different definitions of what constitutes a “gaping hole” but you never really offer a definition in your post unless I missed something. I was simply trying to offer a brief sketch of one and in no way was criticizing you. Why is it so difficult to see my post as an invitation to engage in dialogue? Seems to me that the blogging format is perfect for this.

  • Eric Wittenberg Nov 17, 2006 @ 9:21


    While I respect your viewpoint, I respectfully disagree.

    Each person has his or her own definition of what he or she views as a gaping hole in the literature, and this, in my humble opinion, is one. I think it unfair and perhaps a bit of a cheap shot to criticize me for that.


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