Why Do I Suck at Writing Military History?

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. 

10 comments… add one
  • Ethan Rafuse Jul 28, 2008 @ 13:16

    Liddell Hart once compared battle tactics to two guys fighting in a dark room. Think how that colors the reports afterwards and any attempt to make sense of what happened then and since. In other words, no matter what you do, the one thing I can guarantee is that you are without question going to get something wrong.

  • matthew mckeon Jul 26, 2008 @ 8:10

    If its any consolation, the Duke of Wellington compared a battle to a ball, and that any account of the movements of so many different elements would be incomplete and inaccurate.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2008 @ 7:03

    David, — No doubt that’s one place to start.

  • David Rhoads Jul 25, 2008 @ 21:46

    I can’t really speak to the cognitive intelligence necessary to write coherently about battles, but I can attest from experience that a clearly drawn and well-labeled map or two can help immeasurably when it comes to reading about them. Given that, I would suggest that sitting down and drawing out a series of maps focusing on the elements of the battle that you want to capture might help you to get a clearer sense of how to structure and sequence your narrative.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 25, 2008 @ 18:27

    Jenny, — You may be right that there is something about what lawyers do that may be conducive to these types of studies. I still want to know what that is and you are probably correct that Eric may have something to say. I am familiar with the O.R. and other after-action reports. My focus is even more specific to the question of how do you take the information and organize it. What exactly does the process look like and what kind of cognitive intelligence is involved?

    Matthew, — Thanks for the Keegan reference.

  • matthew mckeon Jul 25, 2008 @ 14:19

    John Keegan wrote “The Face of Battle” decades ago, but he did write an initial survey of types of writing about battles. His writing varies somewhat, but generally he mixes:
    the role of leaders
    the influence of terrain
    the sociological background of the armies, and crowds in general
    the influence of technology and communications

    in ways that make good history and good military history. I don’t like some of Keegan’s work, he can lose himself, and the reader, in his digressions, but its a nice model.

  • Jenny Jul 25, 2008 @ 10:14

    I would say Eric Wittenberg is probably the best man in the CW blogsphere to answer a question like this.

    I don’t write or teach about battles, but I’m very interested in tactics. I’ve noticed just anecdotally that lawyers who have an interest in the Civil War tend to be fascinated with tactics. So maybe there is something to be said for a certain intellect or perhaps personality type at least being attracted to the tactical stuff.

    Although I know they are particularly sparse for the Petersburg Campaign, I would try to go back to the Official Records and start with any after-action reports. Create a time-line as suggested. Try to make things linear.

    Essentially, to me, what it seems like we try to do with a battle is make order out of disorder. Battle is inherently chaotic. In real time, there are multiple things happening at the same time and it’s utterly confusing — smoke, death, units advancing and retreating. What a guy like Pfanz or Rhea can do is take you back a step to the god-like overhead view of the battlefield, where all of a sudden what is in reality a total free for all melee actually becomes those orderly lines on the page that advance and retreat with purpose. What they are doing is taking bedlam and converting it into something intelligible. Perhaps it’s that whole creation of order out of disorder that attracts us lawyers. =) After all, like Shakespeare said, if you want to create a rebellion and the ensuing chaos the first thing you have to do is kill all the lawyers. =)

    I think the after action battle reports of the officers are very, very helpful in developing that god-like view from above. That’s what makes writing and understanding Gettysburg in even minute detail possible, for example. For the Gettysburg Campaign, you have this huge, nearly comprehensive collection of reports from Lee and Meade on down to the regimental commander of the 148th Pennsylvania and 48th Georgia. From those reports, you can get an overview, starting out first from the very top with the army commanders, then adding detail as you drill down. The battle reports are the place to start as they are often the most contemporary source; then you can compare it to later articles, letters, diaries, etc. and compare them with the actual battlefield wherever possible to make sense of things.

    (Not to overemphasize the reports, but if you read Pfanz on the Second Day, you’ll notice he seems to spend much more time on the Union side then the Confederate side. It’s not coincidental that on the lower regimental levels, the Union filed many more reports than the Southerners.)

    So the reports — which admittedly don’t exist in any great number once you get past 1863 due to heavy officer casualties and constant campaigning — is where I would start.

    If you’re just sketching the action in a chapter, I personally wouldn’t try to get into near the detail of someone like Pfanz who writes on literally the regimental and company level. I’d actually try and make the narrative as simple and as linear as possible, at least to start. Too many details, too many regiments gets confusing both to you and to your reader. Perhaps focus more on the brigade level than trying to get down to regimental level if that proves too confusing. After all, your purpose is not to write a tactical book about the Crater. I might even go look at how a McPherson or a Nevins structures describing the battle of Sharpsburg or Chancellorsville — look at the level of detail used, how it’s described — and use that as a guide.

    You mention the perspective of the individual soldiers …. individual soldiers of course see things in a microcosm of what’s right in front of them, so they aren’t the best at describing overall action. They are caught up in the pandemonium of the moment and aren’t focused on the big picture; they only see what happens in front of them. I would try not to get too caught up in that level of detail when just trying to provide a sketch of the action.

    One final thing I think is valuable about reading the reports — even ones not about your particular action — is they provide a model for how to take the chaotic action and convert it into something intelligible.

    Hope something here helps a little anyway.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2008 @ 18:14

    Matthew, – I’ll be honest with you by saying not well at all. In my AP classes I have so little time to focus on specific events that I tend to gloss over military history entirely. Just another reason why I despise the AP curriculum. That said, even when I do teach battles I tend to focus on the human experience rather than tactical matters. Beyond that I try to situate battles within the broader political context of the time. Obviously, when I take my Civil War students to a battlefield I spend a bit more time on strategy and tactics so they have a sense of what happened. But again, I feel much more comfortable with the bigger picture. So, for example, I may spend a few minutes describing the action on May 3, 1863 at Chancellorsville, but we will spend an hour for lunch on the field at Fairview and discuss our reading of Stephen Crane’s _The Red Badge of Courage_. Again, I couldn’t tell you if my lack of coverage is related to some of the reasons stated in my post or because I think these other issues are more important given the limited time that I have.

  • Larry Cebula Jul 24, 2008 @ 17:38

    I rarely read military history, but isn’t the usual tactic to introduce a few identifiable characters and switch between them as touchstones?

    “Even as Pickett watched his men fall like ripe wheat before the Union scythe, Chamberlin stood on the flank of Little Round Top. Below Chamberlin the Martian 24th activated their phasers, preparing to charge against the 10,000 black confederates of the 57th Alabama regiment, known as the “Fightin’ Imaginaries.”

    Something like that.

  • matthew mckeon Jul 24, 2008 @ 17:11

    I don’t write military history, but I sometimes teach battles. How have you made a battle, Civil War or otherwise, clear to your students?

    Suggestion: Battles are movement and conflict over space and time. Create an timeline with accompanying maps to guide your account.

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