A few paradigms from Thomas J. Rowland

You wouldn't think that early war and late war are difficult historiographic distinctions to make for the Civil War, but they flew entirely over the heads of the 1960-65 generation of ACW writers and remain invisible to their star pupils (McPherson, Gallagher, Sears, et al).

Early war and late war conditions are not only easy concepts, they are almost too easy - in a pop history way they compress too much context; but they certainly serve their purpose and Thomas J. Rowland unpacked them nicely in his George B. McClellan and Civil War History. He set the early/late war historiographic paradigm against the Centennial's non-historic, entirely literary paradigm of "good generals" and "bad generals" - all operating under some sort of universal historic constants, all succeeding or failing based on character.

A few other Rowland coinages for cliched Civil War topics might be useful to keep at hand:

"Dodging the albatross" - This refers to McClellan's and Grant's reactions to Lincoln's ideas on the defense of Washington. The underlying error is to think that Lincoln's ideas were reasonable, militarily wholesome, and worthy of general acceptance - in other words to bury the underlying controversy with a snappy salute to the Chief - and to paint McClellan's aversion to Lincoln's obsession as unique and rooted in failures of character. The defense of Washington was, as conceived by the president, an albatross.

"The illusion of easy victory" - "Even a cursory review of the American experience of war dispels the notion that the outbreak of any major conflict has ever been a quickly concluded matter." Rowland favors comparisons of the ACW with the French and Indian wars: very apt, I think in terms of the duration, destruction, depopulation, and great swings in military fortune. We expect the civilians of 1861 to pathetically hope for an easy or quick victory. When contemporary historians follow them into the illusion, we give them a pass. And a Pulitzer or two.

"Bagging Bobby Lee" - This is the error that bedevils more writers and readers than any other and historian Archer Jones has done well to discredit the idea of Civil War "battles of annihilation." Jones has previously, and I think effectively, also debunked the Centennial idea that Lincoln wanted armies to focus on the destruction of enemy armies. This, Jones demonstrates, was a particular instruction given to one army in one particular context and never repeated to any other commander anywhere any other time.

Rowland has a few thoughts on this:
The interpretation that the destruction of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia should have always been the northern objective of the war has become a cardinal and inviolable underpinning in Civil War history. [...] It seems strange in many ways that Civil War analysts have, at times, overly devalued the capture of geographical locations during the war. True, each individual conquest could not guarantee the death of the Confederacy, but they did contribute toward that end.
He goes on to recite a roll call of famous places, to which we can add our own: Donelson and Henry, New Orleans, Memphis, Vicksburg, Knoxville, Petersburg, ad nauseum. The war began with plans for the capture of places and it ended with such.

At the heart of Rowland's idea of Civil War history is a cumulation of effects distributed over different contexts over time. I find that very historical! The historiography of the Centennialists is speculative, saturated in what-if, dripping with the fat of alternative outcomes, and laced with acid for "bad generals" and honey for "good" ones.

Or as the book review editor of a newspaper once told me, Civil War history is infantile. She was referring to the primitivism of certain bestselling authors and their followers.

Tomorrow I'll look at the quality of Centennial "what-if" thinking from the perspective of portfolio modeling and historic scenario testing in modern financial analysis.