Nosworthy's critique of ACW history

Brent Nosworthy's Bloody Crucible of Courage puts his conclusions at the end of the work, after he has made corrections to various misconceptions. I don't think that makes sharing his conclusions with you a spoiler since it would have been better for him to start with the indictment and then frame the case.

I'll start summarizing part of his critique with a trivial point close to my spleen, use of the term "Napoleonic" by ACW authors. You would be amazed, for instance, how many people think that McClellan's sobriquet "The Young Napoleon" refers to Napoleon Bonaparte rather than Louis Napoleon. They have no idea of the cultural footprint Napoleon III left on America in the 1850s, including that of trend-setting facial hair.

Yes, facial hair: McClellan imitated Napoleon III in grooming; he was younger than Napoleon III; his beard style is called "the Napoleon." (BTW, Napoleon I was clean-shaven.) Stephen Sears says some ladies once exclaimed that Mac looked like "a young Napoleon." Sears knows what they meant - but he falsely plays the Napoleon I analogy in every writing and is followed in this by imitators and admirers. By the same token, PGT Beauregard was sometimes called "the Little Napoleon," under the same false Searsian light. Beauregard imitated "the Napoleon" beard too. He was taller than Napoleon I but shorter than Napoleon III (thus, a "little Napoleon" in appearance). Victor Hugo's famous polemic "Napoleon the Little" was published in English in America before the war, lending a coinage for wags to invert for PTGB.

As we cannot anytime soon exhaust the facial hair foibles of ACW historians, let's go on with Nosworthy and loftier stuff. Points are Nosworthy material, comments are my own:

POINT - "… the use of the word Napoleonic … has two different meanings, depending on the time of use. This is a subtle distinction that has unfortunately been lost to posterity … confusing generations of Civil War historians" "Up to 1848 the term refers exclusively to Napoleon I. However," by the late 1850s, "the meaning shifts and is used to characterize the new [military] methods of Louis Bonaparte…"

COMMENT - Bloody Crucible spends much ink reviewing the innovations of Napoleon III and their effects on pre-war European and American military doctrine.

POINT - Civil War history generally "ignores foreign accomplishments. It is … part of the process that decides what is important and what can be dismissed out of hand."

COMMENT - It is an indicator that we are not dealing with a research mindset but rather a storytelling dynamic in which nonessentials are jettisoned for speed.

POINT - ACW historians tend toward framing it as the first modern war; Europeans see it as the last musket war. The Europeans are closer to the truth. Beliefs about rifles widening battle space in the ACW "appear to be overly simplistic."

COMMENT - Bloody Crucible spends much ink on this too. This particular error represents a lazy hand reaching for a easy conclusion.

POINT - "When judged strictly by first-time use under battlefield conditions, the Crimean War saw a greater number of technical innovations."

COMMENT - Which leads Nosworthy into the risky position of charging ACW historians with an insecurity vis avis European history and materials.

POINT - ACW historians magnify and exaggerate wartime accomplishments.

COMMENT - On a military level, they have no context and want none. When you have Pulitzer winners like McPherson using expressions like "never before in history," run for the hills. On a literary level, this is a trick played on readers. The writer has inveigled the reader to emotionally identify with some person or unit in the story and the exaggerated praise passes through to the reader vicariously. Stroking the "characters" pets the readers.

POINT - The tone of too many ACW histories are marked by smugness and television era thought-bites.

COMMENT - The author of a Civil War "story" is projecting confidence in his thesis and trying to enlist the reader emotionally rather than rationally. The mass reader, with no concept of good research or bad, needs these primitive demonstrations of certainty to stave off book-buyer's regret.

POINT - Magnifying and distorting the accomplishments of historical figures is disrespectful and shows a lack of appreciation for who they were as they were.

COMMENT - Remember that on a literary level, every "character" has to play to some type to advance the story; and the reader has to be flattered that he identified with the right "character." On the historiographic level, the distortion has been well explored by Thomas Rowland, for one.

POINT - "This tendency to appreciate accomplishment in a specific context and then elevate this performance to "best in kind" is "frequently encountered" in 20th Century Civil War literature.

COMMENT - Again, a literary device to impress the non-analytic reader and to flatter readers vicariously: "You identified with the good; and let me tell you how great the good is, oh wise bookbuyer."

POINT - "All too often the historian succumbed to the urge to discount any shortcoming of the Civil War soldiers and commanders and exclusively focused upon, or even magnified, their positive qualities. Statements that tout some aspect of the Civil War as "the most," "the first," or "the best" when unaccompanied by a detailed analysis to substantiate the claim are usually symptomatic of this tendency."

COMMENT - This is part of a general aversion to analysis. The Civil War historian is a storyteller illuminating some byway of the master narrative developed around the time of the Centennial (1960-65). The failings of soldiers and leaders were staggering, consistent, and seemed to get worse with time; and there was no post-Vietnam soul-searching into "why we failed" except generally to blame Democratic generals.

POINT - Microspecific histories (regiments, campaigns, biographies) tend to dispense the "received wisdom" in place of accurate general context, thus strengthening generally wrong views of the war.

COMMENT - As recently covered in this blog. Which means the microhistorians perform a disservice - promulgating a nonsensical party line - along with a service - uncovering details that enrich understanding of some specific.

POINT - Someone is going to have to develop a horizontal history that integrates all these vertical studies (microhistories).

COMMENT - Eric Voegelin made this comment half a century ago in response to the universities' love of specializtion. Take a campaign analysis as deep as Tim Reese's, and you have a building block for the reconstruction of the history of the war.

Note that these observations are a few from Nosworthy's 26 years reflecting on the errors in Civil War military history; it took Beatie three decades of reading Centennial narratives to mount his own magnificent corrective in the Army of the Potomac series. These are companion efforts in setting right the sad project called "Civil War history." These are the beginning of a great revision that is underway.