To validate one's place in the universe

Brent Nosworthy says, "If the urge to simplify reduces the type of information the historian is willing to explore, the desire to validate one's place in the universe insidiously influences evaluation processes."

This behavior has a lot to do with why, after decades of new discoveries and bold revisionism, we are still mired in an inadequate and dishonest Centennial-era interpretation of the Civil War. Thus,

* Most regimental historians try to give context for unit history borrowing big picture elements from the master narrative.

* Most biographers of this or that personality give context also by borrowing from the master narrative.

* Most revisionists undertake to "fix" a comparatively small element of the master narrative while leaving the edifice intact.

The Civil War master narrative generally represents an aggregation of reductive fallacies. (I recapped the history of the Centennial master narrative in 2003. Here are parts one, two, three, four, and five. And here is one definition of "master narrative.")

This means your regimental history or biography, which is rooted in concrete historical events, events that can clarify and improve the overcompressed, synthesized and generalized material, is subordinated to the very same dubious, high-level generalizations and surmises.

This "desire to validate one's place in the universe" really hits home when I read piecemeal revisionism like Steve Newton's Joseph E. Johnston and the Defense of Richmond. His premise is that we largely misunderstand Johnston. As far as his arguments are rooted in Johnston's particulars, Newton's book is a great read. In those scenes where McClellan shows his face, he is whacked hard with the Centennial stick, suggesting that Newton's sympathy goes only so far. One of the oddest features of this work is its general deference to the Lee legend. How could you struggle through a Johnston re-look without fresh eyes reviewing everything connected with that general?

In the McClellan Society, some good souls are awaiting my redo of the Nevins-Catton-Sears-McPherson canon with a book-sized adjustment of GBM's reputation. But the problems with McClellan historiography point to a larger analysis being unsound. Re-examining McClellan while preserving the master narrative of Centennial orthodoxy is doomed by internal contradictions.

When we understand, to take just one important example, that the Grant/Lincoln relationship was very difficult (see especially Brooks Simpson and John Simon), the results of that analysis affect everything touched by the "Lincoln finds a general" meme.

Some authors will get right in your face with their "place in the universe". Kathleen Ernst, in her Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign, offered a specialist study that could have illuminated some airships of popular synthesis from ground level. She veered into the big picture business in a couple of places, not to survey the military-civil policy from army heights, but to vigorously and emotionally condemn McClellan's pace of campaigning! Showboating is a way to demonstrate that you have internalized the consensus view.

Other specialist works, if they don't celebrate the received wisdom directly, show that the master narrative has instilled a certain numbness toward novelty; I often see authors ignoring their own discoveries. I'm thinking, for example, of Priest's Before Antietam and to a lesser extent, Schildt's Roads to Antietam. In the course of tracing units' movements through this campaign, there appear both circumstantial and direct evidence that McClellan issued orders throughout the day on which the Lost Order was found. I compiled over a dozen of these instances from these two books. But consensus tells us this is impossible and neither author seems to notice what the unit movements are telling him historiographically.

John Hennesy, in his Return to Bull Run, returns to the field so effectively covered by John Ropes a century ago in the Army under Pope - without mentioning John Ropes. And in recounting the many captures of enemy orders during Pope's campaign, he scatters the stories throughout his narrative without pulling the tally together: it was five times in 26 days the generals read each others dispatches. You would think a pop historian would have an nose for gee-whiz nuggets. Not where they embarass pillars of the establishment, who have said that McClellan's discovery of Lee's orders was unique in the ACW:

Gary Gallagher: "No other commander on either side during the Civil War enjoyed a comparable situation." "The Maryland Campaign in Perspective," Antietam: Essays on the 1862 Maryland Campaign, Gary W. Gallagher, ed.

Stephen Sears: "Even the great Napoleon himself had never been presented with such an opportunity..." Landscape Turned Red.

James McPherson actually maintains that never in history had such an event occurred as McClellan's discovery of Lee's orders. See Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. (Don't miss his praise of Hennesy's Return to Bull Run in the notes.)
I won't go into the biographies or regimental histories, except to say to any authors contemplating such work: if your editor tells you to use the ACW master narrative to put readers in the picture, answer that you are developing a whole new context for future generalists to synthesize. Tell them that your material is the picture.

And tell them that it is the treatment of specialist material by generalists that will validate (or invalidate) the generalist's own place in the universe.

Meanwhile, if in your reading you keep an eye out for "insidious influences," you won't be disappoined.