An interview with Russel Beatie

The third volume of Army of the Potomac will appear this month and I was able to interview Russel Beatie last week through the good offices of his publishing partner Theodore Savas.


DR: If you meet people who have read Nevins, Foote or whomever and they ask "why another series," what do you tell them?

RHB: In my opinion, no one has done what I am doing, which is an in-depth study of the officer corps of the Army of the Potomac, nor has any one done it the way I am doing it. I am going back to the original sources, doing my best to ignore secondary studies, and thinking about what the participants wrote, using my training as an attorney of longstanding to sift through the evidence and reach reasonable conclusions about what the sources are telling us. People can and do differ with some of my conclusions, but each is honestly and thoughtfully reached.

DR: How many volumes do you have planned for the series, and how many have been written?

RHB: I really have never given the idea of a set number of volumes serious thought. I research, ponder, write, and move on. Each installment appears as it is written. I am currently writing the fourth installment.

DR: In your books, you praise Bruce Catton, James McPherson, and others, and yet reading the “old masters” triggered decades of personal research. What motivated your research if Civil War history was in such good hands?

RHB: I have praised James McPherson, Ethan Rafuse, and similar original thinkers. There aren’t many. I have never praised Catton. In my opinion, he did not engage in deep analytical thought, his research was not that good, and he wrote like a journalist (“they went swinging down the road,” a colloquial style like that would have made any student sorry in the classes I took as a young schoolboy). Many people love his style, and he triggered widespread interest in the war, which is a good thing. But I have not praised Catton as a Civil War historian. As for the research, I think there are far fewer serious original researchers in the field of Civil War than one might expect to find. There is no substitute—none—for working with original documents, walking the ground whenever you can, and reaching your own conclusions.

DR: Given the amount of research you conducted, why did you choose a narrative format in which to share it? Did you consider editing document collections, or a series of analytic monographs, for instance? I wouldn't blame you if did not trust historians to apply your discoveries without showing them how.

RHB: Editing document collections does not provide the field for analysis that narrative history does. I have found only one collection of letters and one diary I would consider editing for publication: The Henry Ropes letters in the Boston Public Library (which won’t even let me copy them), and the diary of the Comte de Paris, which I had fully translated from French into English. Very few researchers have used more than a few pages of the count’s diary, which is really an indispensable source for studying G. B. McClellan and the AOP.

DR: Can you give readers a sense of the kind of discoveries you made and the effects of same on our understanding of the ACW?

RHB: As for discoveries, I am not sure what you mean. I am not certain I have made any great discoveries. My overall goal is to apply powers of reasoning and analysis to facts often well known to others who have come to the subject with a predisposition and (in my opinion), too little serious thought. Whether I have been successful to date is up to each individual reader.

Squeezing tiny pieces of evidence for all they can give, perhaps stretching at times, I have found the relationships between the officers to be far more important than I initially thought they would be. I think or at least hope my study demonstrates this.

DR: What kind of major documentary gaps did you find? I understand there are no collections of McDowell's and Halleck's papers, for instance.

RHB: Documentary gaps? Where do I begin! McDowell is one of the most baffling figures of U.S. military history and one of the most important, and he left us with virtually nothing: no memoirs, no articles, and no manuscript collection. Except for what has been reproduced in the Official Records and a few other scattered items, that’s it for McDowell. Generally speaking, no personal papers survive for Griffin, Hooker, Burnside, and Pope except in the collections of recipients. One can find gaps looking in nearly every direction.

DR: You write using a fog-of-war technique using multiple Union perspectives immersed in real-time events and the understanding of the moment. Most writers coddle the reader with easy-reading omniscience, but you deliver a rigorous staff exercise. Do you think they appreciate being challenged? In other words, what kind of reader are these books for?

RHB: I use the fog of war because I like it and because I write these things for myself, not for the world at large, The makers of history do not begin their performance on stage with a crystal ball in hand, and we cannot fairly evaluate a man’s performance if we attribute omniscience to him. I am aware that my style is out of today’s mainstream, and so different than what most readers are used to digesting. Whether I am successful in what I do and with the approach I utilize is something each reader will have to decide for himself.

DR: I seem to notice an avoidance of canned concepts and labels in your work. For instance, there is no mention in your new volume of the "Romney Campaign" per se; relevant incidents are richly described at a level of detail readers have never seen before but the storytelling framework is that of Lander getting a handle on his command (and working out his relations with McClellan). What is your view on the many hard-and-fast ACW conventions and categories? Should we use some, none, all?

RHB: It is interesting that you picked up on that. By now, I think you have concluded that I am an independent thinker who does not care about conventions and the like. I have introduced some minor concepts of my own with my own names for them, e.g., the Scott Rule for promotion, the Great Conspiracy (even though it existed only in the mind of the McClellan clique), and so forth. If old names do not serve a purpose, I do not use them.

DR: One of the marvelous things about these volumes is the evidence handling; not just the weaving together of many unknown and known sources to refresh or revise a famous incident, but the justness in evaluating materials. Is this not diminished by converting indirect quotes to direct quotes? This practice seems to serve a literary purpose only.

RHB: I greatly appreciate the compliment from a man who passes my test for being a thinker himself. Yes, the practice you mention serves a literary purpose. I am not a slave to Douglas Southall Freeman, but I first saw the practice in Lee’s Lieutenants, my Bible for permissible conduct. Initially, a reviewer or two took issue with this and publicly complained about it. I thought deeply about this before utilizing it, and would not do it if I thought it detracted from the final product.

DR: There seems to be a lot of new thinking in ACW history. You have praised Rafuse; can you comment on Joe Harsh, David Detzer, Mark Grimsley, or any others?

RHB: I believe I praised the quality of historical research on the Civil War and military history in general in one of my Introductions. The thoughtful monographs published by University Press of Kansas, Kent State Press, and others have contributed to our understanding of the things that make military history a valuable contribution to the public knowledge. This was ridiculed when I was a schoolboy. I read new works about the War to find new concepts, a better understanding of a particular issue, clues to new sources, etc. Whenever I pick up a new book, I go straight to the bibliography. As for the historians you mention, I enjoy Harsh’s original thinking. I do not go to school on all the new publications, and so cannot comment on the others.

DR: How would you characterize reaction to your Army of the Potomac series thus far?

RHB: Reactions have generally been fair and complimentary unless I am missing the boat somewhere. I know that there are (or were) a couple historians planning studies along similar lines, and so they were not altogether thrilled when my work began appearing.

DR: You allude to other military reading in your footnotes. Are you doing original research in other areas?

RHB: No. I wish I had the time and could do so, but my command of foreign languages is inadequate. I would like to be able to read ancient Greek, Latin, German, Russian, and ancient Hebrew for Josephus. For now, I will focus on finishing this series, which is going to take me a while.


Signed copies of Volume III of the Army of the Potomac are availble per inquiry from Savas Beatie publishing.