Do we really need another Civil War?

11 03 2008

While I voted in Civil War Interactive’s recent poll as to the top 50 Civil War books of all time, I really didn’t pay much attention to the results, other than to see what my fellow voters liked. To think this poll, or any other, truly represents the penultimate in Civil War publishing is like thinking the Miss America pageant represents the penultimate in feminine beauty. It is such a subjective thing that one should take the results with a grain of salt.

Kevin Levin was upset that very few books that approached the war from a social perspective were mentioned. That brought a response from Eric Wittenberg, whose history of Jeb Stuart’s ride at Gettysburg was voted number 50, that those who voted just weren’t interested in social aspects of the war, preferring to read, I assume, only military histories. After Ethan Rafuse commented on the list, Brooks Simpson asked his blog readers to vote on the top five books they felt advanced the study of Civil War history in the past 20 years, since the issuance of Battle Cry of Freedom.

This proves to me that we are in the midst of another Civil War, i.e., the historiographical battle between the militarists and the socio-political crowd. Sadly enough it isn’t new and, like most wars, is unnecessary. The study of history is not a zero-sum game.

Tactical historians like Eric and J.D. Petruzzi, among others, serve an important role in the study of the war. Only someone who is interested in such a detailed study of Stuart’s ride, however, will buy the book. It won’t sell to the general reader interested in the broader topics of the war. I think both men certainly understand that.

To be fair, even a book as widely circulated as Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering will only appeal to a select, though certainly larger, share of the population. I would argue, however, that the reason more people will buy Faust’s book than Eric and J.D’s has nothing to do with the quality of work but that Faust’s topic, death and how soldiers and society handled it, will interest far more people than a specialized tactical study of the retreat from Gettysburg which both men, along with Mike Nugent, will bring out this year. While I look forward to their book, Faust’s will interest more because not only does it cover fighting, it provides an analysis of what could (and did) happen as a result.

But if I was reading a book purporting to be a synthesis of the war, I would expect that the author consulted both before putting pen to paper.

While I don’t like taking sides, it has been my personal experience that most people who are interested in the socio-political aspects of the war will also read books on military matters. However, the opposite rarely seems true. In doing so, I think militarists are only getting (and those who write are only giving) part of the story. A reader can argue that it doesn’t interest them. That’s fine. But an author has a different standard he or she should be held to. An author who wants me to believe their work strives to be comprehensive not only has to tell me what the soldiers did, but give me a deeper understanding of why they did it.

In the biography I’m writing on Everton Conger, the capture of John Wilkes Booth represents obviously the major part of the story. But I plan to give equal time to his life before and after that event. In fact, the reader won’t even meet Conger until the second chapter. The first chapter will deal with his father, Enoch, who I’m finding was one of the major influences on not only Everton but his other siblings as well.

Some might question why I would spend so much time on someone not central to the only reason Conger merits a biography. I would argue that, based on the research I’ve done so far, even though Enoch was not physically near his son on April 26, 1865, he indeed rode with him because of the influence he had on his son as he was growing up. To understand that influence it is necessary to understand what influenced him.

Those expecting only a few pages on Everton’s early life with the expectation that the bulk of the work will talk about capturing Booth will be disappointed. It may even cause some not to be interested in buying the book (assuming, of course, that it finds a publisher). However, I’d rather be true to the story I’m trying to tell rather than fashion the story to fit someone else’s preconceived notion.

Every aspect of Conger’s life will be covered, just as every aspect of the war should be studied.

By everyone.

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6 responses

11 03 2008
Brooks Simpson

In truth, I have no interest in taking part in the discussion over the CWI poll. However, I did not care for the discussion that followed, because it really could lead to nothing positive. My idea was to channel the discussion in a postive direction … thus the poll. It won’t be the last one.

11 03 2008
Kurt Cruppenink

Very interesting remarks. My Civil War interests began with Lincoln and most of my earlier reading was military in nature. As you state however, this is a fairly shallow way to try and really understand that momentous event. The list was interesting to me. I’ve probably read about half of those mentioned. I feel that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals deserves much higher ranking as one of my own personal top five. The Diary of Gideon Welles is conspicuously absent. One very old work that I feel is very essential for getting a true feeling for the forces at work before and during the war is Parson Brownlow’s, Rise, Progress, and Decline of Secession. I’d include that one as a must read. I’d love to hear other’s views on their personal “must read”.

11 03 2008
Randal Berry

Thats interesting Kurt.
I had heard Doris Kearns Goodwin didn’t actually WRITE “Team of Rivals”, but had her own “research staff” write it. I have the book and thought it was okay, but didn’t get to finish it LOL!
Randal Berry

12 03 2008
Rob Wick

Brooks, if I mis-characterized your poll or the intentions you had, I apologize. However, I think the whole issue of polling in any sense will cause trouble, simply because, as the CWi poll showed, there’s too much dissension between the two groups I’ve identified (and there are certainly subsets of groups that grow from those that may feel left out). Even though I voted in your poll as well, I still think none of them really tell us anything valuable. We all approach this from our own vantage point and perspective so what you or Kevin or Eric believe to have advanced the field would, I imagine, be different from what I believe. I doubt you’ve had too many people put Ed Steers or Mike Kauffman’s books in the top spot like I did given my view that the study of the assassination is the poor stepchild of Lincoln scholarship. That said, I applaud your efforts to try and bring something positive to this.

Kurt, I think military strategy and tactics has its place in the field (and I admit that by studying more of the socio-political aspects, I am woefully ignorant of the military side) but I also believe that to gain a far richer understanding of the conflict the social and political aspects must be studied. The battles didn’t happen in a vacuum. Whether Longstreet should have committed his troops sooner on the second day at Gettysburg is a moot point, in my opinion, if you don’t understand, in a deeper way, what brought them to Gettysburg in the first place.

Randal, just curious as to where you heard that about Goodwin’s book? That would seem to be a pretty serious accusation for someone to make about an author.

Best
Rob

11 03 2008
Randal Berry

Rob,
I will tell you in an email, I probably should not have posted that on a public blog, and for that, I APOLOGIZE.
However, I didn’t accuse anyone, you surely don’t think Doris put that book together by herself do you?

Randal Berry

11 03 2008
Rob Wick

Randal,
I understood your comment to be what you had heard from a third party or what you had read. I didn’t think you made the accusation yourself.

I believe there is a big difference in an author having research assistants or other people helping her and them actually writing the book. I’ve hired three research assistants to gather materials for me where it would be cost prohibitive for me to visit the archives myself, but at all times I was in control of their work.

Maybe I misunderstood your meaning. Always glad to have your comments here.

Best
Rob

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