Morris Island - let's take heart

Historic Morris Island, in Charleston's harbor, is a shadow of its Civil War self. Most of it has washed away. It could be gone entirely in the near future.

Which makes it an odd candidate for housing development. But developers are always, everywhere applying the cold logic of the marketplace to all things in all places at all times. Island set to wash away? Buyers matter, not nature, nor common sense, nor culture.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is now on the case. He says, "We don't have anything yet." But I am encouraged.

Let me put that in good news/ bad news format. It is a mistake to put too much faith in politicians, but I have enormous confidence in Joe Riley. See here. And here. And here. I believe the island will be saved. Our team is headed by an old school mayor with an impeccable record in saving properties .... and a PhD in art history. Put your chips down and double your Riley bets.

On the other hand, the Civil War Preservation Trust is in this. The Civil War part of that title means that areas of interest to Civil War buffs are targeted to be "saved" by this particular trust. You are welcome to think "saved" means saved. But the areas are not saved for buffs but for various kinds of environmentalists and private property owners. Saved means not built on, whether or not you can ever visit the place. And recently, at Chancellorsville, CWPT expanded its definition of "saved" to also mean, battlefield land that stuff does get built on. It's really the most practical and useful definition of "saved" imaginable.

Now be aware that this trust considers any property from which Civil War tourists are totally and absolutely prohibited as being totally and absolutely "saved." They may as well be an Argentine pampas conservancy as far as the average ACW tourist is concerned, but the press likes them, they raise a lot of dough, and they make wonderful blog fodder.

Not that Joe Riley holds a Civil War brief either. Morris Island will be saved for the ducks, for tiny groups of specially permissioned bird watchers, for marine bioligists, and for uniformed civil service rangers of various types.

It will not be saved for the sake of Civil War history but CWPT will get a nice little publicity boost from Joe Riley's expert work. We'll all congratulate ourselves on preserving a site we can never visit and we'll send in extra donations with a cheery, "Keep up the good work, CWPT!"

Indeed, we will, for we are preservation minded.

A few thoughts from Riley: "“People have to be in places we own together. Places where we have eye contact, elbow contact, a sense of sharing, a sense of citizenship." He was talking about downtowns. Maybe it applies to Morris Island too. Tourist sandals pounding the ground.

Here's hoping.


Viva Rafuse

My local Barnes & Noble last week had featured on a special table a new Civil War history by a new Civil War author in trade edition. New author, new book, trade deal, B&N showcase. Gives us all hope, doesn’t it?

It was a retelling of the oft-told tale. He had to tell it better. The blurbs praised the book in terms that made me uneasy. I flipped to the first McClellan reference. The adjective "pathological" featured prominently. Fearing pathogens, I dropped the book and wandered away.

The McClellan of Rafuse’s McClellan’s War is sensible, not pathological. He is centered in a way New Agers might envy, knowing his own limits and constantly choosing means and ends suited to those limits. I enjoy the novelty of a McClellan who is not "the Captain Queeg of the Civil War" (Sears).

It is hard to communicate, in a short post, how deft Rafuse is. He has to compress without injuring the facts, and he has to render in one or two brief sentences worlds of controversies with some similitude of justice. It will be hard to exceed him in this.

It may help to convey how sure-footed this author is by describing a place where he and I go our separate ways: his account of the command crisis of August 31 – September 5, 1862. This is a worst-case situation for any historian and is my litmus test for ACW writers. It represents – genre wide – the failure of basic research and reflection in this nonfiction genre. Rafuse gets more of the crisis’s individual parts correct than any other historian to date, excepting perhaps Harsh. I intend that as strong praise.

The general run of Civil War writing gives little sense that there was a command crisis at all. Pope loses a battle, is relieved and McClellan is "restored" (to what McClellan is restored varies from author to author). The timelines linked to these two events is either patchy or wrong, by and large.

Rafuse starts off recognizing that McClellan was appointed to the command of the Washington defenses, not to any army. Honoring this fact is foundational … and different. Those few authors who preceded Rafuse in doing this eventually, in the course of their stories, rationalize McClellan out of the defenses and into field command. This is made to happen in various ways, but never accurately, never through crisp historical writing with tidy timelines.

One literary device used to get McClellan to the field with the backing of Halleck and Lincoln is to fudge the line between commander of the Washington defenses and commander of all the troops in the Washington defenses. Another move involves assigning McClellan "implicit" authority. The fixing up of an "implicit" consent to McClellan’s field command in Maryland is a post facto writing fix. Whatever magic is used to transmute McClellan the defender into the commander of the campaign army, it all tends to lose track of John Pope after September 3 at the latest. I’m telling things out of order, however.

As McClellan settles into his new assignment as commander of the Washington defenses, Lincoln and Halleck begin interviewing for a leader of the field army that McClellan has been tasked with organizing. McClellan is to defend the capital; the field army commander – not McClellan, definitely not McClellan - will resume offensive operations as soon as practical. Burnside is interviewed again and turns Halleck and Lincoln down. We don’t know who else they interviewed but they visited with McClellan a number of times in this period, which perhaps cracks the door for "implicit" inferrals later.

McClellan, getting concerned about what appears to be a Maryland invasion, begins forcing the issue with Halleck. The bosses now having no candidate, Halleck tasks McClellan himself with appointing the field commander from among the generals in his sphere. Rafuse passes quietly over the back-and-forth over the selection of a field commander, as do almost all other historians I have read.

McClellan, in light of his tasking to appoint a field commander, forces the issue with the seemingly dramatic choice of John Pope – on September 5, he appoints Pope commander of the field army that he has begun posting outside the defenses to intercept Lee. You can read this in the OR, where it has always been.

Now, on to Pope’s situation as of Sept. 5, strange as it might be to consider Pope’s fortunes after Bull Run II. Reading Welles’ diary, Pope is the subject of what I would call extravagant comments made about his blamelessness by Lincoln. He is praised, others are blamed. It seems to me Pope will get another chance. Reading Welles diary, it seems very difficult to link his later relief with the aftermath of the defeat.

But Welles notes that Pope was souring his patrons by bringing charges. Welles notes in more than one place in his diary how poorly Pope served himself with Lincoln in his demands for the arrests of Franklin, Porter, McClellan and others. He is talked down to limiting his charges to fewer officers than he wanted to punish. It seems – this is my own inference – that Lincoln and Halleck would have preferred taking care of things more quietly.

Not having described this background, Rafuse does notice McClellan’s appointment of Pope on September 5, an observation beyond the powers of nearly all Civil War historians. Where else have you seen it? But Rafuse seems to read this order as if Pope has been ordered to the field in charge of the AoV. Not bad, but not right.

McClellan’s orders to Pope are clear and unambiguous – read them yourself - Pope commands in the field. And the orders to Pope have a context – McClellan was directed to name a commander of the field army. More generally, McClellan had also earlier been assured by Halleck that when the forces were united, Mac would command Pope. On September 5, the armies are together and Mac commands Pope.

The McClellan/Pope team emerges. But it lasts only a short time.

If you have not followed the correspondence of "who will command the field army?" naturally the appointment of Pope will confuse. It is an odd event, given the story as received. One might speculate that this is an order to rejoin the AoV – the old command - for operations.

Rafuse does so and then supports this benign misinterpretation by excerpting a piece from one of Pope’s two messages directed over McClellan’s head. In Rafuse, Pope’s redacted message asks Command of what? – as if Pope were confused by the technical content of the order.
Rafuse then resolves this by capping it with what I believe is an inference – that Lincoln and Halleck had decided to liquidate the AoV and transfer its commander before McClellan issued his command to Pope and that Pope’s reaction to McClellan’s command then triggered the disclosure of some Lincoln/Halleck decision that had already been taken but somehow not communicated.

I’m skeptical, but open to a case being made on those lines. It has to be more than an inference, however. The genesis of Lincoln’s decision about Pope and his army is unknown to me and I have searched for it; what is known is that Pope angrily appeals McClellan’s orders and is then relieved and transferred. If that is a false causality, the falsity needs to be proven. An inference cannot overturn it.

Read Pope’s response to McClellan’s orders. Feel the anger.

Pope could have kept quiet and taken to the field per McClellan’s orders. Consider: even if Lincoln had previously decided to remove him from Washington but failed to communicate the decision, once in the field, Pope could not have been recalled without damaging the Administration. Once in the field, he could also have built up his stock by modeling the cooperation he had previously demanded of McClellan.

On the morning of September 5, Pope had a future. His hectoring and insubordinate messages, read against the din and clamor he raised for arrests, painted him as that very thing he wanted quashed, purged, and excised.

John Hennesy and Ethan Rafuse both seem a little baffled by the Administration’s treatment of Pope. It’s because neither has worked through the command crisis, I think.

Now, leaving Pope to get out of his own scrape, we still have the problem of putting McClellan at the head of the field army in September of 1862. As mentioned, the general run of historian has no idea that this did not happen already by September 2.

Rafuse, to his credit, avoids that trap, but he attributes McClellan placing himself at the head of the army to an authorization given by Lincoln and/or Halleck on September 5. I personally know of no such authority and I find his reference to this event ambiguous and unsatisfying. I will look into this more. Crow pie is at the ready. I think this is one of those inferences, however.

Historians generally say that McClellan was empowered to take to the field. Mac says he was not. Certainly, there was never an order and the question devolves on whether or not, with the reassignment of Pope, Halleck and Lincoln had "resigned" themselves to a McClellan field command.

I don’t think so because no one expected McClellan to take to the field when he did. Not Lincoln, not Lee. There appeared to be time yet to appoint a field commander congenial to the Administration, especially given Halleck’s concept of the campaign as it unfolded – McClellan should stay close to Washington to guard against a rebel coup de main.

McClellan the rascal appointed himself general in command of the field army. McClellan the gentleman then paid a round of visits on the day he took to the field. He stopped to see Lincoln, Stanton, Seward, which would have given any of them a chance to object, cajole, postpone. They were not available, he left his card and was off. It seems an accidental fait accompli, unless they were collaborators in this failure to check him.

Yes, people took his telegrams from the field without demanding his recall. There is a latent approval there, worth analyzing. He left the charming Banks in command at Washington and Banks was so effective and well regarded that he actually leveraged himself into New Orleans afterward. Banks’ success as commander of the defenses sweetened the pill of McClellan’s command, sweetened Pope’s departure, and greased the skids of Ben Butler’s reassignment - something that needs closer attention someday. Rafuse, unfortunately, falls into the Centennial habit of viewing Banks’ appointment in Mac’s place as a stunt to get him out of McClellan’s field command. A shame.

But Rafuse, admirably, takes some trouble to point out that McClellan’s force is not the Army of the Potomac. Not nearly. Mac himself refers to it as such at a certain point and this reference, sentimental, morale-building, whatever it is, seems to authorize large numbers of historians to blindly follow suit. Reflection is needed. In Maryland, AoP is a label of convenience that is tremendously misleading.

Rafuse also does an excellent job summarizing the conflicting directions and pressures McClellan was subject to once in the field and like Harsh arrives at the conclusion that Mac neutralized the Maryland invasion even before the Lost Orders were found.

To summarize Rafuse vis a vis the command crisis, he: (1) understands that McClellan has been placed in command of D.C. and not restored to the command of an army (2) understands that Pope has not been relieved in the period of McClellan’s command of the defenses (3) notices that McClellan has ordered Pope to the field against Lee (4) notices that there is a problem explaining McClellan violating his orders by taking to the field himself and resolves this through the device of an "authorization meeting" of some sort, possibly inferential and (5) understands that McClellan has taken leadership of an amorphous, scarcely organized force – not the Army of the Potomac – and that in a few days of marches he has nullified the Maryland invasion without a single battle.

That is immense progress in Civil War history.

[Follow-up postings here and here.]


Australians have all the luck

They've got another rip-roaring historiographic fight roiling down under.

Man, those Australians are lucky. Around here, we watch the paint dry and try out new adjectives on "best generals" and "worst generals."

Try this critic's comment on for size: "Historians, like economists, are surely well-known for their fissiparous tendency to point in different directions on almost any issue of substance."

You can tell he lives on another continent. And never picked up a second Civil War history after reading his first.

Here is another howler: "Historians, like lawyers, often deal with extremely complex issues not readily encapsulated in a sound bite, op-ed piece, or textbook sentence."

Really? Like this: "The British were the ones who paid the most attention to the American Civil War, and a lot of British leaders were appalled by the escalating level of violence and I think that was one of the motives that prompted British political leaders like Palmerston and Gladstone and Russell to try to intervene to end this increasing violence in North America."

There's some complexity from the most revered Civil War historian of our lifetime.

Our critic does state a proposition, but it's not one to be taken up by our ACW writers any time soon:
Even without going into the details of particular historiographical controversies, the history wars may be beneficial in so far as they underline the provisional and often contested status of much that commonly passes as historical, no less than scientific, knowledge.
"Provisional" material in Civil War history? Not in a field where giants walk among us, my friend.


Neely and Lowry

In his interview on Civil War Talk Radio, Dr. Thomas Lowry mentioned a school of thought that Rebeldom lost the war for wont of a two-party system. Don't know what work he was referring to - it's an intriguing point. But am more intrigued by Mark Neely's new book that suggests the Union was nearly done in by two-party politics.

[in his descriptions of] the excesses of party patronage, the impact of wartime elections, the highly partisan press, and the role of the loyal opposition, Neely deftly dismantles the argument long established in Civil War scholarship that the survival of the party system in the North contributed to its victory.

Bravo, Mark Neely.

[Photo: Bill Blair (assumed, l) and Mark Neely (r).]


Hacks and regiments

It is one of my "givens" that the Union armies were, by and large, organized by Republican ward-heelers and they represented fairly well some aspect or other of their local Republican Party political machines. There are a few minor exceptions to this.

Review the correspondence between Lincoln and Sickles, Lincoln and Butler, Lincoln and McClernand, Lincoln and Logan, on the subject of raising Democrat regiments to contribute to the Republican war effort. See especially the correspondence between Butler and Gov. John Andrew about Massachussetts commissions in Butler's early war recruiting drive.

I tend not to voice this opinion much, given the prevalence of what Ayers calls the "nationalist" interpretation of the Civil War and those rosy hues surrounding "Mister Lincoln's Army." Was very pleasantly surprised to hear Richard F. Miller talk on similar lines in the third segment of his interview on Civil War Talk Radio. A couple of his points:

* Read your state records and understand that military appointments followed patronage forms, especially from 1861-1862.

* A state commission must be understood as an explicit act of political patronage.

* Governors did not begin to worry about casualties or losses caused by incompetent appointments until public outrage forced the issue later in the war.

The most horrifying part of the interview was the disclosure that the 20th Mass. officers, stymied in promotion due to the shrunken size of their command, imported German men from abroad to fill out the regiment so that their career paths could be "normalized."

Stark. But that is the Civil War that I know. Hear for yourself.

Narrative and contingency in ACW writing

A dialog with the late Jose Ortega y Gasset.

Q: One of the things we see in Civil War history is the writer swinging between a dynamism, where many things are possible, and a determinism where the die is cast and inexorable historical processes take control.
A: At every moment of my life there open before me diverse possibilities; I can do this or that. If I do this, I shall be A the moment after; if I do that, I shall be B.

Q: This suggests that every decision is to some extent "a turning point."
A: Before us lie the diverse possibilities of being, but behind us lies what we have been. And what we have been acts negatively on what we can be.

Q: This seems to argue a fatalism. The weight of events here acts "negatively" on contingency.
A: One aims at avoiding in the new project the drawbacks of the old. In the second, therefore, the first is still active; it is preserved in order to be avoided.

Q: But people and collectives repeat the same mistakes; certainly the Civil War is filled with cycles of failed experiments that look remarkably similar.
A: Man goes on accumulating being – the past; he goes on making for himself a being through his dialectical series of experiments.

Q: And some experiments repeat and fail, I suppose. But "dialectics" seem deterministic.
A: This is a dialectic not of logical but precisely of historical reason…

Q: A dialect of accidents and choices, then?
A: This is what we have to find out on the basis of facts. We must know what is this series, what are its stages, and of what nature is the link between one and the next. Such a discovery is what would be called history were history to make this its objective, were it, that is to say, to convert itself into historical reason.

Q: This points to an emphasis on context to get at "narrative reason." It’s not like the narrative practiced today, which is streamlined, condensed, simplified…
A: … we can only throw light on yesterday by invoking the day before yesterday; and so with all yesterdays. History is a system, the system of human experiences linked in a single, inexorable chain. Hence, nothing can be learned in history until everything is clear.

Q: How can we unwind this chain of history with a story when truth is in the nature of those links in a series? When analysis is required?
A: … the reason, that throws light here consists of a narration. Alongside pure physico-mathematical reason there is, then, a narrative reason. To comprehend anything human, be it personal or collective, one must tell its history. This man, this nation does such a thing and in such a manner, because formerly he or it did that other thing …

Q: We don’t have a symbolic logic of history, but we have an analytic task, and we can perform it dishonestly, forcing it to serve literary technique, or honestly forcing it to serve in a search for historical truth. Do we abandon analysis for a process of historical reason?
A: Historical reason, on the contrary, accepts nothing as mere fact; it makes every fact fluid in the fieri whence it comes; it sees how the fact takes place.

Q: The investigation, then, produces a narrative as a byproduct of historical reason. And it does this by contextualizing every event.
A: Life being a "drama" that happens, and the "subject" to whom it happens being, not a thing apart from and previous to his drama, but a function of it, it follows that the "substance" of the drama would be its argument.

(From History as a System by Jose Ortega y Gasset, New York, Norton, 1961. All Ortega's quotes from the chapter "History as a System." Emphasis added in the last line, above.)



Civil War pop history has a love/hate relationship with contingency.

There are all these little contingencies in history that would slow the progress of a tale. Such as they are, they are shelved, along with nuance, context, and other complexities.

Some middling contingencies are welcome. These are the celebrated turning points that juice up the story.

More often than not they are based on an assertion that is not footnoted or discussed. Thus, the idea that someone missed an opportunity to annihilate someone depends on the possibility that Civil War armies could be annihilated. The idea that someone failed to punish someone else sufficiently is likewise based on unwise assumptions about relative strengths (symbolized by sloppy numbers with lots of zeroes) and/or hindsight that overlays an interpretation of the critical moment on a chaotic and fluid situation. Certain middling contingencies are conjured for dramatic effect, when in fact they are points in great trains or strings of contingencies less well understood, less explored.

If I posit the contingency, “What if Pope had accepted McClellan’s orders to command the field army on Sept. 5, 1862,” no one knows what I am talking about. They would have had to have read the OR for Mac’s orders to Pope on that day (why would they do that if pop history says Pope was relieved earlier?) and they would have had to know that Pope angrily appealed Mac’s orders twice to Halleck triggering a command crisis that finally resulted in his relief, his transfer, and McClellan’s acting in Pope’s stead as commander of the field army against Lee.

That is not a small contingency to shelve, but it has been effectively mothballed, despite the glaring record of official correspondence. Napoleon B. Buford rejecting command of the AoP is not a small contingency. Ethan A. Hitchcock refusing command of the AoP is not a small contingency. Burnside refusing command of the AoP three times is not a small contingency. If your motif is Lincoln sticking with McClellan until Nov. 5, 1862, these events are actually poison to your story.

So, although pop historians like some middling contingencies (turning points), not all such are welcome in their narratives.

The braver Civil War writer will grab the brass ring offered by a literary construct called “the point of no return.” This is the “super contingency” that changes “everything.” The importance ascribed to Gettysburg falls in this category. A good “point of no return” offers a unique combination of circumstances that will change shortly after a decision point has been identified.

I think this is a carryover from 19th Century histories.

All contingency represents a “point of no return” – the status quo ante cannot be retrieved after most choices are made. But the super contingency represents the taking of larger decisions, perhaps bigger risks, and perhaps trying for larger outcomes. These are worth examining as a problem in a separate post.

My concern with pop history is that it presents a manageable, at times static, field of view peppered with incidents selected (or created) for their narrative qualities. Movement is created by highlighting a few choices.

The author makes a show of being contingency friendly, but is actually something of a determinist (historicist). When you read titles like Turning Points of the Civil War; Vicksburg the Real Turning Point, you actually see the author change orientation from free will to determinist in mid-story. Pop narratives are filled with historicism – but the historicism is episodic.

People who work with historical contingency much more closely than historical writers are traders. The trader is constantly modeling and analyzing change, historically and in the present. I cannot imagine a trader proposing a herky-jerky model of contingency. Some events trigger larger scale changes than other, however, each incident is resolved in tandem with a cohort of other incidents producing an unending cascade effect of cumulative transformation.

In the same sense that the market represents today’s cumulative microtransactions, a day in history represents an unrolling of uncounted, untold myriads of individual decisions. Nicholas Taleb (right) speaks of a trading outcome being enveloped in a host of choices not taken and outcomes that “cascaded” from innumerable contingencies. At the same time, he has his eye out for the appearance of “black swans,” events that confound all models, paradigms, and assumptions.

I love "black swans" - I look for them in Civil War history constantly.

Traders build mathematical models to understand the cascading effects of innumerable decisions and events (see Monte Carlo systems, for instance). Civil War writers pick and choose contingencies that will get the story to its predetermined ending.

Traders are oriented towards unknown outcomes and open-ended results. Civil War writers are oriented on Appomattox.

Traders constantly revisit decisions, assumptions, and alternative models of events. Civil War writers generally look to retell the same story in approximately the same way.

Traders re-evaluate paradigms based on new information. Civil War writers use new information to illuminate corners of their existing paradigms.

Brady numbers

The Brady studio numbered its work and I have been poking around trying to get a list of all the numbered photos - and information on whether any in the series are missing or rare. Any clues, dear reader?
Motivation: Have discovered a cache of Brady Antietams in an archive and don't know if it's complete or a fragment. Includes stereoscopic views.
In other Brady news, I'm scratching my head over this attempt to outdo Brady using virtual soldiers and a modern park setting.

Units never documented

I was browsing some used books this weekend and noticed a revisionist title from the early 1990s laying out the history of the Confederate Regular Army and delineating its component units and their campaign histories. My eyebrows are still a little out of joint from that find.
On this subject of units-not-previously-documented, author Fred Ray writes to draw our attention to his new Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia .
He has quite a collection of blurbs, from the looks of it.

Passive resistance

It seems that Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans has, among its historic artifacts, a chamber pot from the time of the Rebellion. The pot has Ben Butler's picture on the inside bottom.

Dead style

The juxtaposition was framed by Nevins: dry-as-dust history versus the well-told story. He even started a movement, a magazine (American Heritage), and his own professional organization of historians to bring storytelling to the fore.

Now here's a horror film scenario for you. What if you abandon the rigor and discipline of dry-and-dust and your storytelling fails? You don't have the literary skills for narrative? Where are you then?

Most "well written" nonfiction is badly written, reaching out, stretching for the historian's idea of the absolute pinnacle of literary perfection, Newsweek magazine style.

Oscar Handlin (right) in his 1979 survey of the profession, Truth in History, had some throughts worth underlining. (Emphasis added)

The judgement of history as a literary art is the easier to deliver. The average effort requires little comment; it bears the impersonal marks of a competently edited clinical or laboratory report. The best contemporary writing deserves more attention. It is clear, and it is sometimes amusing, but it is usually frozen in patterns inherited from the past, sometimes actually in antique idiom.

The reviewer’s conventional term of approval is "readable." By whom? Actually, the word usually means "undemanding," so that it is praise to say of a book that it is easily read or skimmed. The language structure comes intact from the 19th century except insofar as the influence of journalism has simplified it.

Now there were great writers among the nineteenth century historians. […] there was a congruence between the styles of Macaulay or Parkman and the modes of expression of their contemporaries in fiction or poetry… No such congruence exists today; the historians have locked themselves apart from the changes that have transformed the English language since the time of Joyce, Eliot, and Pound.

Dead style is not just a matter of external form. It is related to what the historians have to say. We do not demand of Faulkner or Pound that they make easy reading, because we know that the intricacies of exposition, obscure allusions, and unusual diction are the means of communicating complex ideas. Do historians never feel the same need?


Signs and markers

David Woodbury has a few comments on misguided Civil War markers and Richard Brautigan (right). Which reminds me.

I was at Ball's Bluff a few weeks ago following the walking trail and stopping to read the markers with two people generally oblivious to ACW history. You walked awhile, stopped, and read something about a specific regiment.

It was a pretty long walk and we all three assumed the "markers" "marked" unit positions, since so many were unit specific. It was hard to visualize things because Ball's Bluff battlefield is in a nature preserve and the trees have been allowed to grow everywhere.

Satisfied with our battlefield tour, we completed the trail and on the way back to the car I noticed a road indicating the way to a cemetery for the war dead. That's how the road was signed and it was off in a different direction.

Going there on a whim, we discovered the battlefield. The grave of Baker. Unknown soldiers buried near where they fell.

The grave markers told us where the battle was fought. The signs were all elsewhere. It was a spectacular display of custodial incompetence.

Which plays into a story about Richard Brautigan. He and a friend were running around town putting up posters for a poetry reading. They went into a bookstore.
“Do you have any of Richard Brautigan’s work?” said Richard.

“What does he write?” said the clerk.

“He writes novels and books of poetry.” Richard’s mouth was assuming an odd shape under his moustache.

“What kind of novels?” said the clerk.

“Famous ones, you know, like great literature,” said Richard without moving his mouth very much because his teeth were gritted.

“Our literary works are over there, and our poetry section is over there,” said the clerk, pointing first to a large part of the wall near us then to a tiny clump of books in the back of the store.

“Thank you,” gritted Richard. Soon we had scoured both sections and found one book, The Hawkline Monster, in the whole store, so the Captain returned to the clerk while I hung back. “I would like to give you a little lesson in capitalism,” said Richard.

“You would find that in our business section,” said the clerk.

“I am Richard Brautigan,” said Richard. “I write novels and books of poetry. People like them. When stores stock them, people buy them. You only have one of my books because people bought the rest of them. But you do not stock more of them. That is how book stores make money. People come to them to buy books, and in return, they give the book stores money. DON’T YOU F*****S WANT TO MAKE SOME F*****G MONEY!!!!!”

The clerk couldn’t think of anything to say back, so Richard just stared at him for a few seconds until I suggested that maybe we should find some other places to put the posters.
I have to wonder if the *!#%+ custodians of Ball's Bluff Battlefield want to attract tourists and make some !#&!*+# money.


The effort to recover the battlefield at Shepherdstown has begun in earnest. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the current rescue plan is more complex than a Rube Goldberg machine, involving highway funds, the CWPT, and buying various non-battlefield properties over time to physically link the killing ground with National Park Service holdings - in the hope that the NPS will take over the battlefield at the end of the process.

The battlefield is for sale. Got $3.6 million? End the pain.

Lee and Lincoln

As mentioned in my McLuhan "interview" this week, there is a point where the cliches of Centennial history become the actual environment itself - and thereby unexamined and invisible. These cliches then provide the foundation for new combinations of "insights" and generalizations based on the embedded skew, the effects eventually becoming wildly surrealistic - like something out of a Baudrillard essay on hyperreality. I want to share a particularly vicious example with you.

In the immediate postwar, historiographers noticed reconciliation-themed Civil War narratives becoming popular and gaining the predominant "mindshare." The assumption that "We're all Americans now" became pervasive and invisible and provided a foundation of sentiment available to Unionist Civil War authors in our own day writing what Ayers calls "nationalist" histories, e.g. McPherson, his imitators, and those authors McPherson compiles.

Say hello to "Lee the American," "Jackson, the American." Say good-bye to Lee or Jackson as oath-breaking traitors responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of loyalists, as the deluded military arm of a horrifying national holocaust.

The effects of "reconciliation history" pervade Centennial works. As these Centennial writings are more literary compositions than historical investigations, they require literary machinery and artifacts - heroes and villains, tensions and struggle, and a happy ending. If we are all Americans now, the doughty Lee and the spunky Jackson can be admirable, can fulfill protagonist roles - even in a history written by staunch Union men. This creates a moral imbalance that can be redressed in part through exaggerated displays of appreciation of Abraham Lincoln.

The villains in these books, then, become Unionists who let Lincoln down. Not let their country down, let Lincoln down. Honest patriots struggling with their own limitations in trying circumstances at the bottom of the red hot crucible of war are to be dressed in jester's costumes and showered with scorn: the Popes, the McClellans, the Buells, the political generals, the failures. You are invited to hiss at them.

The position of Jefferson Davis in this kind of writing tends to be ambiguous, a sure indication that you are reading a failed treatment. Davis is a shadowy supporting actor, subject to a few carping comments about micromanagement and cronyism, but immune to any suggestion of catastrophic moral failure - homicidal pride - or the possibility of evil.

Evil were the men who took arms against the rebellion and then failed to press the attack at the moment retrocatively identified as opportune.

Centennial history is a tale of the heroic Lincoln, Lee and Jackson collaborating in a wholesome drama, the retelling of which will bind us all together more strongly than ever. Lee and Lincoln, the "nothing personal" adversaries followed similar moral compasses all the while avoiding the traps and troubles set by selfish, immoral men.

These are some of the baroque effects generated from the Civil War cliches we are living now. So I am not surprised to see that Guelzo and Maxwell have become involved in a documentary called "Lincoln and Lee at Antietam."

Lincoln and Lee. Profiles in courage?

At first I thought it sad that McClellan had been demoted so far as to become a Soviet-style unperson. For you see, there is this persistent rumor that McClellan was at Antietam and that through some quirk in the command structure, might have been Lee's counterpart. There is also this idea of matching military with military, civil with civil. Lincoln and Davis. McClellan and Lee.

Then I realized that misguided though it may be, this documentary has promoted GBM. Instead of being an albatross hanging from Saint Abraham's neck, he has become ambiguously irrelevant - a benign status long enjoyed by Jefferson Davis in Centennial work.

Well, that's progress.
NEWS | Fitchburg Art Museum to exhibit rare Civil War artifacts, photographs * Gift of Civil War relics a treasure for Atlanta museum * Commemoration of Lee evolving


The case of the phony letter

When wondering here whether soldiers' letters were being fabricated, I got an answer from Tim Reese. He had written about such an episode in a project called A Witch Came Knocking, a collection of pieces organized around the Blair Witch tourism torrent unleashed on his home in Burkittsville some years back. This excerpt runs long but is a great read - except for my blog-centric reparagraphing, it's all Tim's. Put up your feet, light up a Lucky and enjoy. (Note: I have excised one name that appears in the original ms.)

I recalled that the 1980 reenactment, in which I took part, was briefly delayed at its start because a ceremony was taking place within the [Burkittsville] Reformed church. As we idled in column on Main Street outside the church, an inquiry to one of our officers revealed that an original letter was being formally returned to descendants of the Confederate soldier who had written it while being treated for wounds here in town after the battle. We thought no more of it, the ceremony concluded, and we got on with our bang-bang to the delight of spectators who nearly engulfed the town.

In those days virtually everyone who came to town seeking historical wisdom was directed to Burkittsville’s unofficial historian and folklorist, the Rev. H A C, beloved pastor of Pleasant View Church of the Brethren outside town to the north side. C lived in Pleasant View’s rectory on West Main Street and was always amenable to fielding inquiries. I too was directed his way when I arrived.

Here I should mention that I also found that the local heritage society had fallen to moth balls in recent years and, with a handful of other sympathizers, made a naive and vain attempt to revitalize it as its last president before its name was changed, not realizing that the organization had always pursued social rather than academic activities.

My year of stewardship at least gave me access to the society’s rather disheveled files which furnished a fair record of all that had preceded me. Therein I found an old newspaper article descriptive of the presentation that had held up the 1980 parade. My mouth began to water. Here was a genuine vestige of the battle found in the town itself. Its text might very well shed light suitable for illuminating my [forthcoming book]. Unfortunately, my quest coincided with Reverend C’s relocation, after back surgery, to his daughter’s home not far away.

I was however twice able to telephone him to make inquiry. He was a delight to chat with, though getting a word in edgewise was difficult. A more bubbly, affable fellow you cannot imagine. His head seemed crammed to capacity with tidbits on houses, roads, battles, churches, grave sites, and you name it. Others informed me that his accumulated historical notes were legendary. Frankly I was overwhelmed at first.

In the society’s files was a copy of the news clipping heralding the famous letter’s “amazing discovery” including a complete verbatim transcript. After reading it my bubble burst.

The events and chronology described therein defied well-documented facets of the campaign, so I began to get suspicious—I'm only human. Following careful dissection I was alarmed to discover that the thing was a patent fraud, and so set out to publish an article picking it factually apart for the sake of those who trusted its authenticity. I assumed that Reverend C had been duped.

Sometime later I bumped into an old acquaintance, who just happened to be the de facto state historian, and asked him what he knew of the letter. He had seen my article and humorously related his reaction after reading it, he having gone so far as to show a photocopy of the letter to a mutual colleague at the U.S. National Archives who roared with laughter at first sight of such an amateurish fraud. It seemed this was old news.

Still, I had a mystery on my hands. Who had penned it and why? Would anyone accept my rebuttal so long after the letter’s appearance? And who in the historical community had fallen for it and then cited it in what context?

Some answers came sooner than others. I found that the hoax had appeared in at least three otherwise scholarly publications, and was told of still more I have never tracked down. Reaction to my article was subdued and at times belligerent. Many continued to believe that the letter had merit. Clearly I had unwittingly poked a stick into a hornets’ nest.

After a few dead ends I returned to the newspaper article to see to whom the letter had been returned and where they might be located. They were pictured receiving it in the church from Reverend C and were named as Mr. and Mrs. James Story of Georgia with their son, namesake of the deceased soldier. After telephoning nearly everyone in that state by the name of James Story, I connected with what turned out to be a relative who impatiently informed me that I was looking in the wrong state! Jim had long before moved to Charles County, Maryland (!), commuting to work in Washington.

From there it was a simple matter to contact him and arrange another visit to Burkittsville to discuss family history. He seemed eager to again visit Burkittsville and talk about it. What Jim revealed to me here in town was nothing less than stunning, and must be narrated in careful though elaborate context.

The letter, found by Reverend C in the back of an old hymnal at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, recounts a Virginia cavalryman’s sojourn with a special detail, assigned to escort Gen. Robert E. Lee in an ambulance, to General Longstreet’s headquarters near Hagerstown due to both Lee’s hands having been injured at the battle of Chantilly, Virginia during a thunderstorm in which his faithful war-horse “Traveler” had shied at a thunderbolt while Lee still held the reins, a widely-known and documented occurrence.

He also tells of the destruction of Horsey’s distillery after Rebel troops ran amuck freely availing themselves, the incident prompting Gen. Lafayette McLaws to have it burned, held up as the ostensible cause of Confederate defeat at Crampton’s Gap.

This Virginian, signed as Benjamin Prather, somehow got mixed up in the battle here above town and was wounded in both right knee and hip. Brought down the mountain as a prisoner of war, he writes of prolonged treatment in St. Paul’s where he delights to record personally chatting with President Abraham Lincoln who visited the two churches to see the wounded during his four-day October tour of the battlefields to confer with General McClellan, also well-documented.

Prather succumbed to his wounds; the letter was never sent, hence its discovery. By fantastic coincidence, the soldier’s personal prayer book had also been discovered at St. Paul’s by Reverend C.

Before meeting Jim Story it was relatively easy to establish that Lee did not part company with Longstreet’s command as it marched to Frederick and beyond. Laying all this out in front of Jim Story very quickly became unnecessary.

Several years before the letter’s discovery Jim found time to consult his ancestor’s service records at the Archives while working in Washington. From these he learned of the soldier’s death in Burkittsville and one day ventured here to attempt finding the places where he had fought and died, perhaps even his place of burial, a pilgrimage common to folks with ancestors in that war. He too was directed to Reverend C who, try as he might, was unable to point out the exact location. However, C showed Jim the Prather-identified prayer book from St. Paul’s which was proof enough. Though Jim was allowed to reverently hold and thumb through the book, C was not about to part with it, descendant or not.

Reverend C occasionally corresponded with Jim for years, most notably when the “amazing” letter surfaced—after Jim’s visit. C also repeatedly insisted that the town’s name was correctly spelled and pronounced “Birkettsville,” accent on the second syllable, a habit he lured other residents into espousing (Are you spinning, [C]?).

Jim was then invited by C to attend dedication of a new monument at the town residence of former Governor and Mrs. Endicott Peabody in 1978, using the occasion to again pay homage to his lost ancestor and his comrades by saying a few words, all the while praying he could pry the prayer book from C’s grasp, without success.

Through persistent postal badgering by the family, added to insistent entreaties by Governor Peabody, C finally relented and agreed to return the prayer book. In time a ceremony was arranged to coincide with the 1980 reenactment at which the prayer book and letter, now attributed to the “Reverend Colonel Prather,” would at long last be delivered to the next of kin: Jim and Carolyn Story, and their son, Benjamin Felton Story, his first name given to perpetuate Prather’s memory. The story made the front page of the Brunswick Citizen. Jim’s heart sank when he got home, calmly compared the ancient epistle to C’s letters, and found that the handwriting matched.

When I had regained my composure I asked the obvious final question. How could he have gone through with the church charade, then kept his mouth shut about such a hurtful desecration of his great-grandfather’s memory? Here it behooves me to say, possibly to Jim’s embarrassment, that he is a quiet, dignified, god-fearing gentleman of the first order not given to histrionics. In replying he calmly stated that the prayer book and letter had become an inseparable pair, making Jim’s attendance mandatory to retrieve the former. He kept quiet about the farce to all but family members because he had concluded that no one was really interested in an obscure soldier who died in an obscure town, victim of an obscure battle. Like it or not, I had my answer.

For the record, Pvt. Benjamin Franklin Prather, Company K, 16th Georgia Infantry, a devout young man preparing for the ministry when distracted by war, was indeed wounded in the hip only, and died of acute dysentery 9 October, 1862, somewhere in Burkittsville. He likely lies buried with his comrades in unmarked graves at Washington Confederate Cemetery, Hagerstown, in dignified quietude where no one can again hurt him. The miraculous prayer book is in fact authentic, stumbled across by C and strongly indicative that Private Prather was indeed treated at the Lutheran church. So Jim’s original quest was in fact well-aimed and fulfilled despite prolonged, insensitive jerking around. The prayer book could only be reclaimed in tandem with the bogus “letter,” both of which remain in Jim’s possession where they rightly belong, he being the only living soul who truly understands both.

Now it was my turn to keep quiet. Keep in mind that it never has been, and still isn't, my intention to defame a man of the cloth. Nor was it my purpose to play investigative journalist, looking for someone to pillory. I merely had a book to write. Curiosity however demanded the truth now matter how upsetting or difficult to uncover it may have been. Continued research would reveal still more disappointment.

A scene from Remington

Sometimes we have to round up our own drinks.

But then they taste better in the end.

(Courtesy of Tony Millionaire)

Operating on Civil War readers

A dialog with Jean Baudrillard.

DR: I understand that a nonfiction book is an argument and I like argument. But there are Civil War histories that make me feel absolutely sleazy when I put them down - the author has tried to put the make on me, tried to recruit me into his little movement. Not directly but in an underhanded way - not through argument, which would be fine, but through literary tricks - attaching me to this one, alientating me from that one, manipulating my emotions.

JB: The point in advertising and propaganda is not to believe but to make people believe. "Participation" is not an active or spontaneous social form, because it is always induced by some sort of machinery or machination...

DR: Yes, I feel that much ACW reading is about getting me to participate viscerally in the controversies of the Civil War and involves authorial machinations that have nothing to do with reading or enjoying history.

JB: Everywhere the active verb has given way to the factitive, and actions themselves have less importance than the fact that they are produced, induced, solicited, media-ized, or technicized.

DR: Given that a manipulation like Civil War pop history is about driving emotional effects, the story lines become ridiculously broad, I think. They become sketchy like outlines or biblical archetypes. Lincoln finds a general, Yahweh finds a prophet. The content is in the emotion-producing material, not in historical matter...

JB: Violence is whitewashed, history is whitewashed, all as part of a vast enterprise of cosmetic surgery at whose completion nothing will be left ... We are under the sway of a surgical compulsion that seeks to excise negative characteristics and remodel things synthetically into ideal forms.

DR: But an ideal form can be inferred from historical detail or it can be crudely suggested by the author. Rich content poses a problem to pop authors - it can lead to unexpected conclusions. It can point to unexpected forms.

JB: In order for content to be conveyed as well and as quickly as possible, that content should come as close as possible to transparency and insignificance.

DR: Leaving space for identification games, induced sympathy, aroused antipathy. Operations.

JB: The thing that characterizes operation, as opposed to action, is precisely that operations are necessarily regulated in the way in which they occur - otherwise there would be no communication. Speaking - but no communication.

DR: Writing - but no communication.

JB: Communication is operational or it is nothing. Information is operational or it is nothing.

DR: Publishing success is operational or it is nothing.

JB: Thus good communication - the foundation, today, of a good society - implies the annihilation of its own content.

DR: Because content leaves entirely too much to the reader.

(From The Transparency of Evilby Baudrillard, New York, Verso, 1993. All JB quotes from the chapter "Operational Whitewash." Emphasis in the original.)


New media and historical doctrines

A dialog with the late Marshall McLuhan.

DR: Civil War history from about 1960 on has been a slick product delivered to its public on a news broadcast model – “And that’s the way it is.” Its best-selling motifs became endlessly reworked, until motif gave way to clichés.

MM: The world of the cliché is itself environmental since nothing can become a cliché until it has pervaded some world or other. It is at the moment of pervasiveness that the cliché becomes invisible.

DR: Which causes that startled reaction from readers when the Civil War author leaves the certainties we all “know” behind. The newscast model has been remarkably robust despite sweeping changes in information technology…

MM: …they still have the illusion that the new developments are to be fitted into the old space or environment.

DR: You see that with LSU publishing a conventional book review magazine online; with authors blogging whole chapters of their print books; with the same logic of ink and paper costs limiting an online catalog as if it were a print catalog; with email being used as junk mail.

MM: Under electric conditions the content tends, however, toward becoming environmental itself.

DR: The great commonplace of the dotcom era was that it was all about content; the Internet was its content, not technology. But by publishing ACW content on the Internet, one also becomes highly aware of aspects to old style Civil War publishing.

MM: When an environment is new, we perceive the old one for the first time.

DR: And we can perceive it critically, from outside and above.

MM: An environment is naturally of low intensity or low definition. That is why it escapes observation. Anything that raises the environment to high intensity … turns the environment to an object of attention. When it becomes an object of attention, it assumes the character of an antienvironment or an art object.

DR: Subject to the criticism we would bestow on an art object.

MM: Art and education were presented to the public as consumer packages for their instruction and edification. The members of the mass audience are immediately involved in art and education as participants and co-creators rather than as consumers.

DR: Why distinguish between: the “public” of the Centennial era and the mass audience of electronic media times?

MM: The Mass does not consist of separate individuals, but of individuals profoundly involved in one another. This involvement is a function not of numbers but of speed. The age of the mass audience is thus far more individualistic than the preceding age of the public.

DR: And these engaged communities of interest, communicating frequently, at high speed, are colliding with a world still passively ingesting units of edification.

MM: The feedback loop plays all sorts of tricks to confound the single-plane and one-way direction of thought and action....

DR: ... but the loop plays tricks on us all. Imagine media interaction with a professor, student, archivist, or corporate publisher: this class of participant is self-censored and drags chains of bondage at the bottom of every email sent. The behaviour of such restricted classes of participants is going to transform any media environment they enter. The environment fogs over - its contours become vague.

MM: In an age of accelerated change, the need to perceive the environment becomes urgent.

(DR: From Essential McLuhan by McLuhan and Zingaro, Toronto, Anansi, 1995. All quotes from the chapter “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Emphasis in the original.)



* Fergus Bordewich has launched a blog to support his new book Bound for Canaan , but three postings in six months does not a blog make, my friend. And the postings are book excerpts, it seems.

* David Woodbury is posting weekly (or thereabouts) but is going for length and quality in any case. Hard to keep up blogging momentum on a weekly basis I think.

* CSPAN has actually had an ACW author on (this via Drew Wagenhoffer). That's rare.

* A new Bivouac Banner was posted last month and the newsletter is now carrying excerpts from future book releases. Good idea.

* Brett Schulte's guest poster Johnny Whitewater has taken the trouble to read Team of Rivals and is annoyed at the depiction of Lincoln as superhuman puppetmaster; he doesn't like the citational style either.

* SavasBeatie has its 2006 release list up and seems to have taken two 2005 titles into paper already. There's a new Eric Wittenberg title in the bullpen .

* Mark Grimsley has noticed that the Department of War Studies at King's College (London) has gone into the distance learning business. I have a funny Department of War Studies at King's College story, believe it or not. (Don't we all?)

My friend Delk O. and I were sitting around over a meal of Australian steak grill-fried in olive oil (lots of olive oil, the cooks were not steak eaters normally) in a contractor's mess in Riyadh back in 1979 or '80. Delk, an outspoken fellow, had just come back from London where he interviewed to study in the new War Studies department; at the end of his Saudi contract he would start his advanced degree work

"How did it go," I asked. "A little rough," he said. "After answering a lot of questions I asked my interviewer, 'So are you going to put your name on my research and then publish it?'" This was pure Delk. The interviewer, who would have become Delk's advisor answered, "Sir, this is not the United States. We do our own research here."

Bad interview technique but good answer.

Apologies to my academic friends. I do love that story. I don't think Delk got in.

New Year's Resolution

Stop teasing McPherson fans.

Hey, put that down

I'm getting beat up over at Kevin Levin's place. "We don't get what we expect, but we get what we deserve," as the people over at the Daily Reckoning like to say.

I see also that Kevin reports that Maxwell has passed a financial milestone (millstone) that may doom his third movie. And Kevin notes that the often tedious Philip Glass is planning a Civil War opera.

I would suggest he team up with Terry Gilliam for the libretto. If he can ever scare up another buck, I would also suggest Maxwell team up with Gilliam.

In his (fairly awful) Brothers Grimm, Gilliam returned with a vengeance to the explicit antimodernist motifs developed in detail in his Adventures of Baron Muenchausen. If you saw either of these films, you would know exactly what I mean. Gilliam would be perfect to represent to a mass (Northernized) audience the Southern view as developed by the Fugitives.

He's ready for his first ACW movie. Or opera.

New Lincoln statue

Given the abundance of Lincoln statues in Springfield, IL, you won't mind one more, will you? "A bronze, nine-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln, bracing himself against the wind, will [soon] adorn the southeast corner of Union Square Park across Sixth Street from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum."
Nothing succeeds like excess.
"[Sculptor] McClarey, 70, said his sculpture reflects Lincoln's two most dominant leadership traits - his openness and toughness."
Those of us who think of AL as secretive and weak will have to wait. But at the rate statues are going up - something like the rate at which an infinite number of monkeys hit an infinite number of typewriter keys - it may not be long before the proper, Shakespearean depiction emerges.


Morningside Books minus Bob Younger

Bob Younger has died. Morningside Bookshop seems poised to continue operations, looking at this staff roster.

His outfit has done Civil War readers a terrific service over the years and I myself have a few indispensable books reprinted by the shop. My hunch is that Mary Younger has been the practical half of this partnership. May she prosper.

The last fifty years of Civil War publishing have been, by and large, dreadful. Bob Younger, however, was there for us with important new work and essential reprints.

Interesting obit here by Eric Wittenberg. More here. My earlier posting about Morningside.


Crampton's Gap is in the news

The headline writer seems a tad unfriendly, though.

"Distortion, lies and fakery"

It's a mistake to think this flap is simply about misleading readers with faked biographies (or fake details). The autobiographical excesses charted in this article have their counterparts in Civil War nonfiction, too. And they are rooted in the same source - authorial hubris.
It's not about a few ink-stained rogues - it's about standards in nonfiction editing.
Is anyone faking Civil War letters from start to finish? The particulars of this current crisis in trade publishing makes me wonder.


Civil War authors of merit

... I think that success in life is largely a matter of luck. It has little correlation with merit, and in all fields of life there have always been many people of great merit who did not succeed. [...] The theory that art advances with the great artists in the van is not just a myth; it has led to the formation of cliques and pressure groups which, with their propaganda machines, almost resemble a political party or a church faction. - Karl Popper, Unended Quest
Substitute history/historians for art/artists and you will get another take on this quote.

It is 2006 and the day of the great Civil War historian has passed. "Great" in our field has only ever meant "great sales" and as the great sales fade, the claims of charlatans weaken. "The class of 1965" passes into memory - American Heritage struggles to survive - and that aggregator who decades later clumsily reiterated the historiography of '65 for cash and prizes now contends for store space with unlucky authors of real merit.

Popper: "... if I thought that there were no genuine philosophical problems, I would certainly not be a philiosopher..." We are crowding out the oafs who think there are no genuine problems in Civil War history, that all has been settled. They have become marginal.

And so I welcome the new year.

Refunds from Random House

Random House is refunding readers the cost of a nonfiction book bought directly from the publisher because the book contains exaggerations.
I like this - let it trend.

Welcome, Judge Alito

Mrs. Alito says about Mr. Alito: "He makes lists of novels that win the National Book Award, but at heart he's a history buff." " He's been reading Civil War stuff lately."
Hunch: If the National Book Award is your source for novel recommendations, your Civil War reading is likely to be dreadful, the kind of trash that wins prizes from committees of back-scratching plagiarist storytellers.
We all have to start somewhere, however. Welcome to the ranks of Civil War readership, your honor.


Bullwinkle's bullets

A few years ago, a stranger stumbled into the Usenet discussion group to ask where people liked to prospect for spent ACW bullets. The uproar was memorable, even by Usenet standards.
Since moving to Virginia, I have actually met two fellows who occasionally search our property, near the Potomac, for fallen rounds. Can this be a better use of time than searching the surrounding streams for gold? (Gold was mined commercially farther downriver until about 1948. Weekend searchers still collect gold flakes hereabouts.)
Here's a searcher who sells ACW bullets for $12 or more in cases.
Here's another fellow who has found so many bullets, he can only stow them in buckets and give them away.
The dynamic between searchers one and two, above, reminds me of an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Some sort of economic council met to deal with the problem of saved cereal boxtops. They worried that Bullwinkle's huge collection could flood the world economy all at once pre-empting all other forms of economic production. Firms would compete to book factories to make all the trinkets that would be needed to honor unredeemed boxtops.
Far-fetched? Look at unredeemed frequent flyer miles.
Searcher one had better hope searcher two loses those buckets. 

Funding fury over Richmond museum

The allocation of $1 million from a defense bill for a prospective Civil War museum in Richmond has  ignited anger.

Franklin and Mac at the gaps

Tim Reese has some newly posted thoughts on the battles for the gaps on his website.
In reading it, you may want to keep in mind McClellan's plan of having Franklin act as a flying column in Pleasant Valley interposing between Jackson and Longstreet.
"... had he broken into Pleasant Valley while ample daylight remained, he would have thus threatened Lee with isolation before the latter could safely disengage at Turner's under cover of darkness, further 'cutting the enemy in two,' allowing McClellan to 'beat him in detail.'"
I appreciate Mark Snell's undertaking a biography of Franklin, but the man remains baffling. Kearny's correspondence makes reference to Franklin often, repeatedly referring to his great talent (unique praise from Phil). Franklin impresses everyone, always. He begins the war as an adjunct member of the cabinet, acting with McDowell as the Executive's "workaround" for avoiding Gen. Scott. Grant is still seeking his services near the end of the war.
Franklin will always repay more analysis.


Fiends and oligarchs

Interesting sidelight on Alexander Keith Jr., ex-Confederate from Halifax, Nova Scotia: this fellow (Ann Larabee's Dynamite Fiend) was well known in his home town - but never as a terrorist - thanks to a press blackout.

See here.


Back Door to Richmond

Brett Schulte has posted on Robertson's Back Door to Richmond, on the Bermuda Hundred campaign.

I very much enjoyed the book, its analytical cast, and its revision of the Butler guilt trip laid on by those who thought he should have taken Petersburg; Robertson thought that Butler was a victim of diffuse guidance. He also made Butler look good compared to his corps commanders, Gillmore and Smith.

IIRC, in a series of Usenet posts some time ago, Grant biographer Brooks Simpson, however, took aim at Robertson's reconstructions of the Grant-Butler communications on mission/operations matters, arguing that Robertson had overreached his material. Butler should not have been confused.

Keep a close eye on Robertson's handling of the communications evidence. It may be a balancing act that fails but it will well repay careful reading with the pleasure only a compact historical problem can deliver.

Good cavalry and bad books

Eric Wittenberg is rethinking McClellan and his cavalry and has composed a nice post about it. It reminds me that I need to write a little on the subject too, starting with the McClellan/Johnston/Davis cavalry doctrine disputes after the return of the Delafield commission from the Crimean War.

Which also reminds me that Eric had written some time ago, in an email, that he was dissatisfied with some of the books of a small publisher I had praised, Pelican. He had suffered an especially bad experience with White Mane, too. Buyer beware he said. There are publishers with some rot on the rosters.

Now, I should warn all that I like the publishers of bad little books - and I like their bad little books too. Of course there are two kinds of bad books. The first kind, which I read avidly, has interesting sourced material mired in bad history of one kind or another. I try to skate past the bad stuff and pick up the good.

The second kind is just bad history through and through. That is a losing proposition but perhaps a price worth paying to keep a pipeline open for bad book type one.

I remember plowing through this terrible 1968 self-published bio of Gen. "Bull" Sumner by a distant relative. At the end of this wearying read lay a morsel: the author complained that people made too much of Bull Sumner being cousins with Senator Charles Sumner.

Where have you ever read that before? Something to be verified somehow, but quite the choice bit. And I only had to read one bad, obscure book to get at it.

Win-win, no?


What Emerson meant

I was re-reading the lovely Voegelinian musings of Marion Montgomery in his Why Hawthorne was Melancholy when I stumbled over a question of What Emerson Meant.

In 1864, Emerson wrote to Sen. Charles Sumner about a proposed law to set up a National Academy of Literature and Art. He thought it could offer "a jury to set upon abnormal anomolous pretensions to genius, such as puzzle the public mind now and then."

I wondered if a concern with "abnormal anomolous pretensions to genius" was sparked by military headlines or by literary goings on.

Perhaps he was envisioning the future state of Civil War history and its abject cult of authorial genius. Or perhaps he was envisioning the blog phenomenon.

Thanks for this rich quote, Marion.

The point about Polk

This LA Times columnist makes some interesting points in comparing Polk to Bush, with a side glance at Lincoln.

As might be expected from a fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Bush side of his analysis is based on pop stereotypes and the core comparison of Lincoln with Polk erroneously sets them up as contraries... to serve the purposes of a short essay, of course.

A deeper analysis would uncover a treasure trove of lessons Lincoln learned from Polk, especially in military organization and in the civilian management of professional soldiers.

Lincoln's Polkification of the Civil War (my term) had enormous consequences in losses and in efficiency trading off against gains in ardour and a certain broadening of participation.

The columnist is not far off in his assessment of Polk, however, and in the newspaper game one out of three ain't bad. Have a look.

The Dramatic Oil Company

Whiskey & Gunpowder (not the name of a a convenience store, a financial newsletter) has an interesting little piece on John Wilkes Booth's oil partnership, "The Dramatic Oil Company."

"You can find the remains and a marker of the Wilhelmina No. 1 today, on the Allegheny River Trail, just east of Titusville."

Booth's well can be visited.
NEWS | New Civil War exhibit offers in-depth look at Wade Hampton * Confederate journal turns editor into author * Hilton Head group tries to save freedmen's village site


On keeping quiet

Dr. George McClellan, founder of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, gave a valedictory address to his students at Jefferson Medical College in 1836.

I found this in a pamphlet among the papers of Max McClellan (the general's son) at Princeton University last week.

Some of his words in that address presage his son's refusal to engage his critics during and after the war:
If you have a low, crafty, and hostile competitor to deal with, let him alone and he will work out your reputaion for you. If you take the trouble to refute his calumnies too often, he will, in some measure, bring you down to his level in public estimation. ... A sensible author has somewhere observed that there are two ways of obtaining prosperity in the world - the first is by the praises of honest men, the other and surests is by the abuse of rogues.

Even the reviewers are noticing

A conventional ACW pop history retelling comes forth (Grant and Sherman, the Friendship that Won the Civil War) and even the book reviewer feels obliged to warn his readers, "the details of the famous relationship are familiar to event the most casual of buffs, and building his whole project on this framework sometimes feels slightly strained."

Why slightly strained?

At least this hackwork is being molested at the lowest-common-denominator of reviewing, the newspaper. I'll take that as an omen for 2006.
NEWS | Plans move forward on national ACW memorial * Emancipation jubilees mark Jan. 2 * Ft. Pulaski gets new chief * Civil War book collection on auction block