Controversies and Commanders

Among the odd ACW materials reclaimed from the Macintosh yesterday is this 1999 review of Controversies and Commanders by Sears. The reference to Scott Sherlock suggests I had intended to submit it to Ted Savas's "Civil War Regiments" magazine (I did not). The style reflects my normal "dense" style rather than the airy first-drafts that are blog postings. The piece summarizes, in sketch form, my feelings about Sears:

Stephen Sears is a great storyteller and storytelling, however erudite the teller, sets major roadblocks before scholarship. These are inherent to storytelling: there is the requirement for a focused narrative, with as few digressions as possible; there is a framing of antagonists; there is broadbrushing of issues; there is a progressive development of tensions, conflict and resolution. A popular dramatist will make the audience easy, painting the good especially good and the bad especially bad. A masterful dramatist, a Shakespeare, will build complexity into the leading characters and convert the humdrum of plodding inevitability into the electricity of unfolding tragedy.

Where T. Harry Williams and Bruce Catton used a Biblical theme to structure their narratives - Lincoln Finds a General is rather like the Lord Finds a Prophet - Stephen Sears uses Shakespearean devices. In his fuller McClellan writings, Sears brings down McClellan under the weight of his personal failings as one brilliant opportunity after another is ruined in a catastrophic unwinding of vanity, timidity, and delusion. This approach has translated into broad appeal, making Sears one of those "crossover artists" who escapes the Civil War readership for a mass audience.

It is on the strength of this mass audience, perhaps, that a major trade publisher has commissioned from Sears a work on Civil War controversies, a work requiring the careful review and weighing of evidence. This is not Sears' forte, it is his weakest point, and it is unfair to his readers to expect them to follow a popular writer into swamps of analysis and arcana. To ease their paths, Sears chose his controversies well and considerately made his essays as story-like as possible. Unfortunately for Sears, this perpetuates the problems in his narrative works by again ensnaring innumerable delicate issues in the brambles of storytelling expediency.

The book begins with an historiographic essay reviewing scholars' treatments of McClellan. The best approach for this piece would have been an issue-by-issue review of the many McClellan controversies and how various historians handled them. Instead, we find a narrative form, of all things, based weakly on chronology, the order of appearance of major McClellan studies. The historians, so briefly mentioned, are assigned white or black hats, and Sears' temperament and his narrative requirements ensure that the black hats are handled very roughly. They are handled so roughly, one wonders if this essay will not affect his relations with even friendly academics such as Gary Gallagher and James T., McPherson.

For example, the great Lincoln scholar J.G. Randall (David Donald's teacher) is dismissed as a McClellan" apologist." So too, the widely cited Naval historian Rowena Reed. The major McClellan biographers before Sears, Myers and Hassler, are likewise labeled "apologists," without offering even token refutaion of their older (and perhaps vulnerable) conclusions. This essay is so clearly an apologia for Sears' own handling of . McClellan that one wonders why he could not do a better job in building public confidence in his conclusions.

The rest of the topics are well chosen, but are not studies, being stories dressed in controversy, and they are not examined with the thoroughness controversy demands. The shortfall is embodied in the provocatively titled "Last Words on the Lost Order." Sears simply restates his previous positions in this essay while presenting the same subset of overall evidence that supports his previous conclusions. One area in which he does reach beyond a previous position, he falls. This in the matter of just when Lee discovered that McClellan had a copy of SO 191. Sears' has previously relied on speculation to overturn the related evidence: here he finally cites evidence to overturn evidence. This issue is illustrative of problems throughout the work.

As Scott Sherlock noted in a previous issue in this journal, Sears previously discounted evidence that Gen. Stuart brought Lee word of McClellan's discovery because to Sears, Lee's behavior in the Maryland campaign did not appear consistent with such knowledge. In other words, he could not have known, and then behaved the way he did. Now, in in this book, Sears elaborates further, saying that the historians claiming Lee did know have actually gotten their facts wrong by reading into the evidence. He grants that Lee said he knew McClellan learned something but he accuses historians of jumping to the conclusion that that something was SO-191. His source is a memo cited by Douglas Freeman in Lee's Lieutenants.

Those readers entertaining confidence in Sears the scholar should read that memo. There is no ambiguity in it. It is followed by a second memo, not cited by Sears, that is even stronger than the first. These memos, recording conversations with Lee, emphatically state that Lee knew. Freeman cited them to undo the arguments of those - like Sears - who claim otherwise.

Sears, instead of taking Freeman's material head-on, addresses the hypothetical misconstructions of unnamed historians (Freeman?) in intrerpreting Freeman's own, clear-cut evidence. This is shoddy and smacks of reversal - citing your adversary as a source for your own, opposite, conclusions. In Gates of Richmond, Sears thus reversed General Franklin, mis-citing Franklin's Pleasant Valley strength figures as the source for his own radically different numbers (Sears and Franklin are on opposite poles of this issue). In his collection of selected Civil War papers of George B. McClellan, Sears cites a McClellan letter volunteering to release from his control siege-enabling engineers as evidence that McClellan was planning a siege.

One cannot emphasize too strongly that Sears must be read with the primary materials at hand. Which is not to say, he is not entertaining: he is doubly entertaining in this way and Controversy and Commanders is a trial-size package of the Sears medicine with less than the usual the candy coating.