Peer Review and the Problem of Black Confederate Studies

In my ongoing series of posts concerning the public presentations by Earl Ijames about “colored Confederates” I have consistently emphasized the importance of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  I maintain that only through the careful scrutiny of our ideas and conclusions are we able to better judge the veracity of the research and the difficult process of interpretation and analysis.  The peer review process functions as a quality control mechanism and allows historians to critique the work of others from the safety of anonymity.  Most academic journals and university presses have some kind of system of oversight in place and I have experienced it firsthand on a number of occasions, both from the writer’s side as well as from the reviewer’s side as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (2008-2010).  If there is one area of Civil War history that desperately needs oversight it is “black Confederate” studies.

Since describing it and emphasizing why it is so important is difficult to do I thought it might be helpful to provide you with an example.  I first experienced this process back in 2004 while attending graduate school at the University of Richmond.  Even before I started the program I had an interest in William Mahone and the Readjuster Movement and had hoped that I would have a chance to explore his public career in a research seminar course and perhaps as a thesis topic.  I eventually wrote an essay on Mahone and went on to expand my focus to include the battle of the Crater as a thesis topic.  My adviser suggested that I submit the Mahone essay to the VMHB for consideration, which I did.  I had published a few essays, magazine articles, and book reviews, but this was my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication so I didn’t really know what to expect.  Within about 6 months I received an email that included a letter from the journal editor and three anonymous reviews of my essay.  The editor indicated that while the reviewers believed there was some merit to the essay and thesis they would be unable to publish as is.  He suggested that I review the comments and revise the piece.  I have to say that it took me a few days to pick my ego up off the floor and get back to work, but I did.  I took just about every suggestion offered and within about 9 months I had a revised essay.  What I learned was invaluable, both about the process of writing a serious work of history as well as my topic.  I learned that thinking through complex questions is a group activity.  There must be room for honest and sometimes blunt feedback.  The result is that I have a much better grasp of Mahone and his postwar years because I benefited from the critique of three professional historians who are experts in some aspect of post-Civil War Virginia politics.

I am happy to say that my revised essay was accepted for publication by the VMHB [vol. 113, no. 4 (2005)] and even went on to win the Rachal Prize for best essay in 2005.  Given that it’s been close to 5 years since its publication I feel comfortable sharing one of the three reviews.  This is one of the nicer reviews.

Review #3

The author of this essay presents a provocative thesis concerning William Mahone’s reputation and marshals some interesting facts in support of that thesis.

Counterbalancing these virtues, however the manuscript suffers from a number or debilitating flaws: a propensity for exaggeration and for unsubstantiated—or inadequately substantiated—claims; a pervasive pro-Mahone bias; a frustrating vagueness with reference to key points; and, last but by no means least, several surprising lapses in terms of primary-source research.

The essay’s central argument is that Mahone’s involvement in biracial politics from the late 1870s until his death in the mid-1890s prompted the traditionalist “Lost Cause” Establishment to launch a coordinated, malicious assault on his erstwhile standing as a first-rank wartime commander—a development with disastrous long-term consequences for his place in Confederate heritage and memory.

There can be no doubt that Mahone’s reputation was impaired, at least temporarily, by the clashes described in this manuscript. Nevertheless, various aspects of the essay’s presentation give rise to skepticism and to a sense of undue advocacy or “special pleading.” As the author concedes, Mahone did not emerge as a figure of particular note in the rebel military hierarchy until the war’s bleak final year; indeed, his prior performance had received “mixed reviews” from, among others, the Confederate Congress, which promoted him to the rank of major general only after his brigade had helped to turn the tide at the Battle of the Crater. Thereafter, Mahone acquired two additional claims to distinction: (1.) at Appomattox, he allegedly surrendered the largest, best-equipped division in the Army of Northern Virginia, and (2.) he managed, during the final months of the war, to secure the respect and confidence of Robert E. Lee. That’s about it . . . no corps-level responsibilities, no independent command, few victories of note, some kind words from Lee, and a relatively large contingent for the last parade at Appomattox. Mahone’s record had been, on the whole, creditable, but it scarcely placed him in the same class with “Marse Robert,” Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart, Joe Johnston, Ewell, Hood, Hill, or even, perhaps, with Jubal Early.

In this connection, it should also be observed that the author provides no evidence that Mahone, during the war, received any popular acclaim from the Confederate press or public. To be sure, the citizens of Petersburg gave him a sword soon after the guns fell silent, but that sort of thing might have been expected from his hometown. Nor is it particularly surprising that the immediate postwar years witnessed effusive tributes from his old alma mater (V.M.I.) or from Norfolk (the terminus of his railroad line). In other words, this reader is unconvinced by one of the essay’s core premises— i.e., that Mahone has been unjustly deprived of a truly exalted position in the Confederate pantheon.

I would also contend that the author’s account of Mahone’s clashes with the “Lost Cause” proponents is very one-sided and is contradicted, to a considerable extent, by the evidence that the essay itself provides. As suggested previously, the manuscript characterizes Mahone as the innocent—indeed, almost passive—victim of a politically-motivated smear campaign. The image that emerges from a close reading of the text, especially re the De Peyser episode, is very different—with Mahone as the aggressor, not the victim. Perhaps anxious to foster a favorable climate among potential A.M.&O. Railroad investors, Mahone leaves war-ravaged and Reconstruction-vexed Virginia and travels to New York City in 1869. There he secures (hires?) the services of an ex-Union general for the preparation of an “authorized” biography (to be published in various Northern journals). Predictably, the biography is fulsome in the praise of its subject and commensurately derogatory in its treatment of Jubal Early and others who had, it seems, prevented Mahone from single-handedly winning the Civil War. Confronted by Early and other aggrieved individuals, Mahone disavows responsibility for the book and beats a hasty retreat—to the accompaniment of sarcastic commentary from “Old Jube.” Such a characterization may be unfair, but it is, I think, highly plausible—and also goes a long way toward explaining the “reputation war”‘ that erupted a decade later when Mahone took charge of the Readjuster movement and, as a U.S. Senator, formed a controversial alliance with the Republican national administration in Washington, D.C..

I suspect that, if the manuscript’s author were to spend a week or two skimming relevant portions of the Mahone Papers at Duke, he/she might come away a decidedly more complex, nuanced, and balanced view of these developments. In particular, it might be constructive to examine that massive collection with an eye toward discovering the uses that the general made of his wartime record during the legislative struggle over the AM&O consolidation bill, during his self-serving campaign against the sale of the state’s railroad stock to “outside” capitalists (i.e., potential competitors), and during his failed bid for the 1877 Conservative gubernatorial nomination. Viewed against the backdrop of those events, it is not surprising that Mahone used the Richmond Whig and other newspapers to burnish (and, arguably, to embellish) his Confederate credentials when he shifted into Readjuster political insurgency as well—thereby endeavoring to fend off attacks against him for “dishonoring” the commonwealth via debt repudiation and for endangering the racial status quo through his ties with black Republicans.

Barely glimpsed in this essay, Mahone’s ongoing image-making crusade provides essential context for the “reputation war” of the 1880s and early 1890s. At its core, the struggle between the general and his “Lost Cause”-oriented detractors was not simply a sterile debate over who did what at the Crater, or what Lee really said about Mahone, or who surrendered the most men at Appomattox. It was, instead, a contest for control of Virginia’s Confederate heritage—a potent weapon in the volatile, racially-charged political climate of the day.

That said, it is nonetheless incumbent upon the author of this manuscript to do a better job of investigating and elucidating the facts concerning the various skirmishes that collectively comprised the “reputation war.” It is not enough to assume that Mahone was telling the truth and that his critics were liars and knaves. (They may, in fact, have been such, but Mahone was certainly no angel.) Nor is it sufficient to cite a handful of secondary accounts by modern-day scholars as proof—one way or the other. Instead the author needs to investigate such sources as the Official Records, Battles and Leaders, wartime letters from soldiers who served in the general’s command, etc., etc., in order to arrive at some reasonably convincing approximation of the truth. In this connection, it is irksome that the author devotes three pages to a derivative rehash of the brief Readjuster hegemony but gives only the most superficial treatment to extensive newspaper debates about the Crater and about Lee’s alleged praise of Mahone. By the same token, the author subsequently does little more than acknowledge—in passing—the “Lost Cause” proponents’ “numbers crunching” with reference to the Appomattox unit surrender tallies; more troubling still, he/she covers Mahone’s l890s sally into the Gettysburg/Longstreet/Lee controversy in one or two sentences. Such matters should be central, not peripheral, to this study.

While agreeing with the author’s contention that the political controversies of the Readjuster era damaged Mahone’s image as a wartime chieftain, I am unconvinced that this damage was of great duration or has had the effect (to employ the author’s hyperbolic terminology) of transforming the general into a “lost” or “forgotten” figure. Here, once again, the manuscript lurches onto uncertain evidentiary grounds. For example, Mahone’s absence from group portraits of Confederate leaders may or may not have been the result of persisting “Lost Cause” malice. (Was the even more controversial Longstreet also omitted from these portraits? Were all of the South’ s other major generals except Mahone included?) Perhaps the limited coverage of Mahone’s wartime activities in turn-of-the-century school textbooks was, in fact, the result of ongoing political bias; alternatively, it is also possible that the textbook writers were simply inclined to give short shrift to the decidedly inglorious last ten months or so of the war (the period of Mahone’s greatest prominence). In any case, the manuscript provides no analysis of such points and presumes that readers will accept the “martyred-reputation” thesis at face value.

The same is true of the author’s implicit contention that Mahone’s battlefield accomplishments have been slighted by more recent historians, none of whom has written a biography to supplant Nelson Blake’s 1935 study of the general’s life. I would suggest, however, that this perceived failing can be adequately explained without any reference to lingering, “Lost-Cause”-induced forgetfulness: the Mahone Papers are dauntingly massive; the general’s handwriting is appallingly illegible; and, despite its age, the Blake biography has held up quite well as a sound, thorough, and balanced piece of scholarship. In fact, one could argue that the publication of that book (along with the roughly contemporaneous appearance of pro-Mahone assessments by Douglas Southall Freeman and W. H. T. Squires) signaled a rehabilitation of sorts, one that restored the general to a worthy—albeit second-tier—place among the luminaries of the rebel cause. And, if the author of this essay expects Mahone’s star to rise much higher that that, I suspect that he or she is in for much frustration and a very long wait.

As should have long since become obvious, I cannot recommend acceptance of this manuscript for publication by the VMHB. I hope, however, that this extended critique will encourage the author to do some additional research; to avoid exaggerations; to view Mahone more objectively; to dramatically expand and upgrade his/her coverage of what I have characterized as the “reputation war”; and, ultimately, to produce a study that will shed some genuine light on the Civil War heritage and its troubled, much-contested evolution in Gilded-Age Virginia.

[Note: Thanks for that.]

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20 comments… add one
  • Greg Rowe Feb 19, 2010 @ 18:49

    I, too, am appreciative for this look into the peer review process. I once thought of myself as an independent researcher, but not anymore! I’m not sure that anything I’ve written over the last couple of years is even ready for a mild version of peer review in the near future. Which makes me wonder about those who do tout themselves as “independent researchers” to the public.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2010 @ 4:17

      Glad you found it helpful, but I hope it doesn’t discourage you from pursuing projects that you hope to publish in the future. I think you have to keep in mind that we are talking about one aspect of historical scholarship. The process is there as a form of quality control and is especially strict when it comes to academic publications. It’s not perfect, but when done right it can be a real asset to the writer. That said, not everything that is worth publishing must be of such a form that it could pass such standards. It does, however, remind us that our work should be critically reviewed as part of the process of writing history. I encourage you to continue to pursue your interests and see your writing through to publication if you so desire.

      • acwresearcher Feb 20, 2010 @ 14:30

        Actually, I revisited some research material after reading this. Considering there are “popular” and “academic” publications, and the audiences of both are very different, some of my material might be fit for print sooner than I think.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2010 @ 14:52

          Pleased to hear it. I am hoping that by the end of the day I am finished with my essay on understanding the Crater as a slave rebellion. It's going to make for an awesome magazine article.

          • Terry Johnston Feb 20, 2010 @ 16:39

            I'd really like to see that, Kevin. Hope it finds a good home.

  • Vicki Betts Feb 19, 2010 @ 6:23

    I well remember my first peer-reviewed article back in 1984 that came back from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly with a red check mark over every single noun, and questions and comments on every page. And that was after earning an A in a grad class from a strict prof who was an acknowledged expert in that area of Texas Civil War history. But it was a great, if humbling, learning experience and continues to make a perfect point of reference when talking with students about the importance of research and writing skills to the field.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2010 @ 6:33

      Thanks Vicki. I find that the more time I spend on a project the more difficulty it is to be critical. We enjoy hearing ourselves talk and reading our own words. Bringing in a broader community or seeing yourself as partaking in a broader dialog is truly humbling.

  • Ed Feb 18, 2010 @ 17:18

    Yikes! What an excellent lesson in peer reviews. Did the other two reviews offer constructive criticism?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2010 @ 17:24

      The other reviews were just as critical. You have to remember that I earned an A for the seminar so I was feeling somewhat positive about the essay. You can imagine what it was like to read the reviews. Keep in mind, however, that I would not have won an award, let alone published, without those critiques.

  • Chris Meekins Feb 18, 2010 @ 15:40

    Excellent post. I have been through this experience twice myself and am batting 500. Its a shame because the one that did not get published had some interesting things in it but still awaits another revision and reworking. In the end I quite by accident found who both my blind readers were – even though my material went without a name and their comments came back without a name I recognized two of my former professors by their comments! I should say pithy comments.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2010 @ 17:10

      Hi Chris,

      I wish I could boast of a 500 average. I’ve grown accustomed to reviews like the one I posted today. I would love to know who my reviewers are, especially for my book manuscript. Having to deal with such tough reviews has definitely shaped my own approach to giving feedback as a member of an editorial board.

      • chris meekins Feb 18, 2010 @ 19:16

        It was a surprise to at least one of my professors when the article came out and my name was on it. He had kinder things to say about it then – it was a good laugh by us all.

        But its good to step out of your comfort zone, set that essay free, and hope like heck to learn from the feedback. That very experience of the free exchange of ideas, that teaching and learning moment, is so much a part of the advanced training of an historian. The article that I had published was almost ten years in the drafting, redrafting, additional research, and final drafting after reader comments. The one that failed admittedly came from only a semester and was a PhD writing class project.

        The most positive thing about such feedback is that at least you know they have read the darn thing. A major writing sample in another class was critiqued rather harshly by the prof and then he asked what I would do first to fix the 20 plus pages. I was so stunned at the feedback all I could offer was – “Um, start completely over evidently.” But it ended well – after many drafts.

    • Tom Feb 18, 2010 @ 18:23

      Well, I’m batting 1000, but I’ve only submitted one article for peer review. If I’d submitted two, I’d likely have the same average as Chris. The one comment I remember clearly was before peer review: I’d been through two drafts myself, ran it by a couple co-workers, the showed it to a former professor (he was likely one of the later blind readers). His opening comment was: “This article is in no condition to be submitted to an academic journal.” Ouch!

      The article did get published after incorporating my former professor’s suggestions and some of those of the blind readers. The whole process definitely made the end result much better. The editor at the journal was a great help. I like to think I know how to write, but a good editor will always be essential for me.

  • Margaret D. Blough Feb 18, 2010 @ 11:18

    Most attorneys I know, including myself, find it invaluable to have colleagues to bounce ideas off. Having a colleague or superior who can review a draft of a brief for content as well as typos invariably produces a better product.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2010 @ 11:22

      I couldn’t agree more, Margaret.

      Note to Readers: You will notice that I’ve turned off the Disqus Comments for now. It has not been behaving well over the past few days and I want to make sure that people have a chance to comment w/o becoming overly frustrated. If and when I go back everything can be synced back to their system.

  • woodrowfan Feb 18, 2010 @ 14:06

    I've been through the process myself and you describe it well. It is not only helpful, it is essential for writing good history and the end result is a far better piece of history. It's ot easy though (not that it should be) To be blunt, I don't think Mr. Ijames' work could make it through a rigorous peer review.

    BTW, I've read your article on Mahone. It's well done. I'm glad you didn't abandon it after the initial reviews as I know how tempting saying “aw f*** it” can be!

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2010 @ 14:14

      Thanks so much for the kind words re: the article. You are right that it is much too easy to abandon rather than head back into the trenches. It was a humbling experience because it brought into focus just how little I actually understood of my topic.

      I don't know whether Ijames's work in this area would make it through the peer review process. That said, I do think that 15 years without anything published does raise legitimate questions. While I've agreed to a public debate that should not be seen as a substitute for peer review. It may be fun to watch.

  • Richard Feb 18, 2010 @ 8:34

    Thanks for sharing. This is a nice look into the historical process that the general public does not see.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2010 @ 17:24

      I'm glad to see that it is helpful for some. Like I said I suspect that most people have no idea of how difficult it is to publish analytical/scholarly essays.

      I also hope it challenges some of the nuts out there who reduce the profession down to political allegiance. How many times have we heard other bloggers reduce the process down to “liberal elite”, etc. Well, show me in this critique where the liberal or conservative is. It really goes to show you just how ignorant some people are when it comes to this.

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