Ropes and dopes

I was revelling in my semiannual John C. Ropes analytic high last night and thinking.

When the talespinners who write today's ACW history get me down, way down, I like to perk up with a few passages from The Army Under Pope. The analytic parts tend to induce an almost hallucinogenic level of enjoyment.

Here's what I was thinking: how can this journalist-cum-historian be so much better than his transitioned colleagues (Freeman, Dowdey, Waugh, Swinton, Catton, Sears)?

Looking to see if anyone has kept this 1901 tome in print, I discovered that that Ropes was a lawyer, not a journalist.

Well that explains the spare storylines (just enough to hang the analysis on), the lucid presentation of timelines and evidence, and the tight, multilevel reasonings. It explains why his data comes first, arguments second, and story third.

A couple years ago, a thoroughly versed and widely read ACW author was going on about McClellan's betrayal of Pope before Second Manassas. I asked him how he could possibly hold that position after reading Ropes' superb deconstruction of Pope's claim. He made an incoherent comment that suggested to me he read Ropes but did not digest the analytic parts.

This came home to me with a bang in the book Return to Bull Run by John Hennessey. First of all, we don't need Hennessy if we have Ropes on the same subject, unless Hennessy is presenting and interpreting new data (which he was not). Second, Hennessy is/was obliged to overturn Ropes' earlier work in areas where he disputes Ropes's conclusions. He didn't. Hennesy read Ropes but just didn't get it. Didn't get the clear reasoning, the extensively documented arguments, the open-and-shut quality of the case against Pope and the problem with charges against McClellan and Porter. Hennessy would have had to give up major literary elements in his story. He was like the Amazon reviewer who summarized Ropes' book thus:

The reluctance of Fitz-John Porter to commit his corps to the fray, and of his mentor McClellan's refusal to send troops already promised to Pope only contributed to an inevitable, though not necessary defeat.

Which is the exact opposite of Ropes' beautifully reasoned conclusion. Off by just 180 degrees. (Thanks for the review, though!)

The readers and writers of ACW history today are so overwhelmingly story-driven that all the details underlying a storyline can change, every element can be shown to be something other than what they thought; they can even accept that; and yet the story must remain the same.

Our ACW readers and writers are Ropes-proof, which means history-proof.