How David Eicher lost the Civil War

A few years ago, in a newspaper review, I described my high hopes for astronomer David Eicher (right).

Like many people who come into Civil War history by reading Catton, Nevins, and other authors on the old editorial board of American Heritage during the Centennial era, Eicher regarded the various untold thousands of Civil War controversies as largely settled. The work, for new Centennialists, has been either to tell the story better; or to develop some biographical or unit history that strengthens the memes of 1960-65; or to explore underdeveloped subthemes.

What made David Eicher different from other young Centennialists was his fascination with dissonant minutiae – the odd factual material that if researched and studied ruptures the current consensus. He tended to use it to liven his narrative rather than pursue its implications, but at least he noticed it and was not afraid to handle radioactive bits and pieces. Eicher, unlike the general run of storytellers, was also detail-friendly, witness the tome he authored with his father. I hoped that he would cross over into a place where he need no longer square his conclusions with ancient editorial policies, where he would let the evidence lead him.

Eicher has turned away somewhat from McPherson and Gallagher – guardians of the old AH memes – he even names them here as examples of wrong thinking about how the war was won. But he has gone off the deep end, publishing a book that is overwhelmingly polemical in structure, despite the original research done for it.

Dixie Betrayed: How the South Really Lost the Civil War reminds me of a cruel remark Ralph Luker once made about Clayton Cramer: “... you begin with what you regard as a self-evident truth [and then] you clutch scattered droppings of evidence supporting your generalization…”

It’s as if the marketing concept for Dixie came first and the research came second. The thrust of the book is that “... a calamity of political conspiracy, discord, and dysfunction … cost the South the Civil War.” – Military Ink

“... the South was undermined by its paradoxical efforts to fight a war and retain state rights.” – Publisher’s Weekly

How was a nation built primarily on the concept of states' rights ever going to create for itself sufficient unity of effort to win a war the very purpose of which, from the Union perspective, was to ensure the preservation of the Union those states had pulled out of?” - Booklist

Is that the ring of a sound bite? If you think that this is extreme condensation on my part and unfair, gaze in awe at this interview. Eicher: "Lincoln maneuvered the right people into control with a different system that included such innovations as a War Board of hand-picked people he trusted. He went through generals in chief until he got to one he trusted, U.S. Grant, who he trusted and let go.”

Good grief. On what level does this statement work? It tries to compress the whole Union war effort into the management of one A. Lincoln. And it does terrible violence even on the terms it sets itself: the War Board, which lasted all of about four months, had no Lincoln picks on it – it was Stanton’s experiment and did not interact wit AL. The idea that Lincoln let Grant “go” is something Brooks Simpson and John Y. Simon have worked hard to change in the public mind for years, without result.

The generalization is wrong; its examples are wrong; it barely functions as "Won Cause" mythology.

If Eicher had begun work intending to fairly and open mindedly study the Rebel war effort, if he came to the conclusion his current book reaches, call the book “The Crisis of War and the Southern Government” or some such. Make your discovery while studying a broader issue.

I have no doubt someone could today write the same book as this based on the hypothetical defeat of the Union in the rebellion. Mark Neely has, in fact, come very close to it in his new work, The Union Divided.

David Eicher has the ability to publish history but chooses to function as a mere nonfiction writer.