The state of Civil War history, part 5 of 5

If McClellan's postwar Secret History project pointed the way towards a more complete understanding of events, it should be noted that nothing like it has been attempted by historians.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in his Diary (never intended for publication) offers a running commentary on which Cabinet officer is backing which military career and to what effect at any given time; and he gives us his understanding of the political genesis of this or that campaign. Welles' diary was published fully after its discovery; since the ascent of Cattonized history, the one version to appear that I know of (David Donald's, out of print) has been heavily edited and interpolated with comments to deflect many of Welles' clear and simple observations into more acceptable frameworks and to make Welles' material less offensive to the "master narrative" followed by writers and publishers today. Welles Diary could be the starting point of a reconstructed Civil War master narrative.

The Welles material can be correlated with other Cabinet diaries, long since unpublished. There is also much rich private and confidential correspondence. The vitriolic, harsh letters Montgomery Blair sent to General Ben Butler in their mutual intrigues against General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, for example, go a long way toward explaining the origins of the Bull Run campaign. (These have not published except electronically, on a subscription service.)

Even if one were to self-consciously limit one's self to strictly military matters, the Cattonized narrative cannot stand up under examination in light of fresh sources ... many of which have been available for years but ignored by popular historians. Russel H. Beatie has consciously set out to use such sources in developing a military history and, also self-consciously, revise Catton/Nevins/Sears/McPherson. What he is producing is not McClellan's Secret History, nor is it a full and accurate account of the war, but it is a first step: getting the military side of the story straight.

The travesty against history embodied in the formula "Lincoln Finds a General" has finally been challenged in the sphere of commercial publishing. To take on the entire Civil War history establishment with just three books is no trivial matter, however. Now is the time for others to join in a complete and critical review of the shabby history left us by by fifty years of "great" storytelling.