Good luck to Dr. Thomas P. Lowry. His 1998 Stackpole release, Tarnished Angels: The Courts-martial of Fifty Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels seems to have been rereleased last year by the University of Nebraska Press under the title of Curmudgeons, Drunkards, and Outright Fools: The Courts-Martial of Civil War Union Colonels.
The University of Nebraska Press has done many good things in Civil War publishing, not the least of which was issuing the late Rowena Reed’s Combined Operations in the Civil War.
But here’s a gripe about the cover of Lowry’s new book.
The design is a Terry Gilliam-like (Monty Pythonesque) clipout of a line drawing of a standing Union officer reoriented from vertical to horizontal with a whiskey glass cut and pasted onto his chest. The fellow appears to be lying down and passed out. The image is cropped and the facial features are not entirely visible.
But this is a famous engraving of General George B. McClellan; if you could see it unaltered, it would be the one in which he holds his gloves in the small of his back and his binoculars against his right leg. McClellan was the general who court martialed the “Curmudgeons, Drunkards, and Outright Fools” and he spent a great deal of personal political capital doing so, since these men tended to be appointed by Republican governors. He outraged various political patrons to provide for the safety and security of the army.
And now it is McClellan who is the fool, drunk and prostrate, thanks to a careless design. They even smudged over his shoulder straps to replace his general's stars with an indistinct eagle.
In a field where the historians hardly know what they are doing, it seems harsh to criticize a design. But the cover of the Lowry book is about a much bigger problem than jacket design, one that could be summarized in a phrase: "Just tell the story, don't sweat the details." It's the ruling ethos in our little corner of the publishing industry. And in this case, we see the worst-case outcome; the actual, common-sense meaning of an historical event is fully reversed. Because the details were not sweated.