5/29/2008

Spielberg's Lincoln

Some interesting details on the origins of this film project. The decision to do the movie preceded knowledge of Goodwin's book project, according to Spielberg; also, the director is aiming for a November 2009 release.

5/28/2008

For your browsing enjoyment

Land of Lincoln: Andrew Ferguson has written a defense of the Lincoln Memorial for the WSJ.

History in a new form: The former technical writer Nicholson Baker has attempted to write a history of WWII in blog format with disconnected short entries of 100 words or so posted in chronological order.

Military reform: Critic Milan Vego notices the Navy has no understanding of operational level warfare. Blogger Galrahn exlores the question of why no one believes an admiral.

Free State of Jones: One of the top 10 selling books of the last decade at Civil War Bookshelf has been the Free State of Jones. David Woodbury recently ran an interview with the author.

Shakespeare in the Civil War

The Civil War audience's love of Shakespeare is hard to fathom in this day and age. Shakespeare, nowadays, is a byword for excess, unbearable overacting, immense self-indulgence; he seems to entice contemporary players to let their hair down, scream their heads off, and wave their arms like windmills.

What could be more repulsive than the acting in a Shakespeare play in this day and age? The directing, perhaps? Surely, Civil War audiences did not experience Shakespeare as currently presented.

Some representative images from recent productions are interleaved below with quotes about or from Edwin Booth, the foremost Shakespearean actor of the Civil War era (source here):

Reviewer: The salient attributes of Booth’s art were imagination, insight, grace, intense emotion, and melancholy refinement. ... But the controlling attribute,–that which imparted individual character, colour and fascination to his acting,–was the thoughtful introspective habit of a stately mind, abstracted from passion and suffused with mournful dreaminess of temperament. The moment that charm began to work, his victory was complete. It was that which made him the true image of Shakespeare’s thought...
Booth: When I was learning to act tragedy, I had frequently to perform comic parts, in order to acquire a certain ease of manner that my serious parts might not appear too stilted...

Reviewer: In all characters that evoked his essential spirit–in characters which rested on spiritualised intellect, or on sensibility to fragile loveliness, the joy that is unattainable, the glory that fades, and the beauty that perishes–he was peerless.
Reviewer: It is the loftiest type [of acting] that human nature affords, because it is the embodied supremacy of the soul, and because therein it denotes the only possible escape from the cares and vanities of a transitory world.
Booth: ... remember that dignity does not consist of over-becoming pride and haughtiness; self-respect, politeness and gentleness in all things and to all persons will give you sufficient dignity ...

5/27/2008

"Team" of rivals - Stanton

"Goodwin has brilliantly described how Lincoln forged a team that preserved a nation..." - James M. McPherson

From the standard Stanton biography - Thomas, Benjamin P., and Hyman, Harold M. Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln's Secretary of War (1962):

Stanton declared to Wolcott, "if our people can bear with this cabinet they will prove able to support a great many disasters." (p. 125)

Montgomery Blair announced early in 1863 that he "did not speak to Mr. Stanton on business." He accused Stanton of accepting bribes and said that he "would not be surprised to hear that he was in the pay of Jeff. Davis." In another instance, Montgomery and Frank Blair, Jr., told General Patrick that "we will give it to Stanton someday": and that Stanton was Seward's tool. (p.150)

[Welles] grew to regard Stanton with as great personal aversion as did Blair. (p. 151)

The President, who found himself in the middle of all this [cabinet] scuffling and who never really tried to run his cabinet in a single harness... (p. 151)

As the Army and Stanton moved closer to the radical position on the Negro, he tried to take Lincoln with him, even to the point of acting guilefully... (p. 232)

... he had not tendered his resignation, he said, and did not intend to be driven from the cabinet by Seward. (p. 254)

The intra-cabinet feuding was beyond Lincoln's power to prevent but he let it go on much too long. Further, his willingness to let cabinet officers run their departments almost without supervision, except for the War office, had permitted vexatiously contradictory and independent policies to go on at the same time. (p. 255)

As an administrator, Lincoln had a long way to go to excellence and he never tried very hard to get there. (p. 255)

Postmaster General Blair, Stanton's unrelenting enemy, declared that Stanton "would cut the President's throat if he could," and fancied that the patronage of the State, War, and Treasury departments was being used against the President. (p. 309)

... Bates, a man of cautious legal mind who formed his judgements carefully, also suspected Stanton of secretly working for Chase. (p. 309)

... Stanton had never had a very high opinion of Bates ... (p. 423)

Chase discovered he had few real friends. On the day his retirement was announced, only Stanton and Fessenden of the Cabinet called at his home. (p. 315)

Stanton said: "You must help me defeat that [Lincoln's appointment of Dennison to secretary of the Treasury] Brough, or we are lost. I would not remain Secretary of War an hour after such an appointment."

Lincoln [not Stanton], Seward told diplomat John Bigelow in 1867, "was the War Minister, and a very good one." (p. 385)

Previously: Chase ** Welles ** Bates ** Goodwin **

Logrolling?

Why on earth would you include an essay on "Lost Cause" historiography in a collection called Battle: The Nature and Consequences of Civil War Combat?

5/26/2008

5/25/2008

Sins of omission

Despite the publicity surrounding the Fletcher Pratt Award, Pratt (known to me in youth as a sci-fi author) is fairly representative of that corruption that gripped the Centennial generation of storytellers. In addition to the suppression of evidence to enhance the narrative "reading experience," these gentlemen also dealt in artful omissions to create false contexts that allowed their narratives to work. Pratt offers a fairly stark example of this in this passage from Stanton: Lincoln's Secretary of War:
It would seem, then, that there is little mystery in why the President should appoint to the War Office one of the strongest Union men in Washington, a Breckinridge Democrat, a friend of McClellan, an incorruptible, and a man of unlimited drive and capacity to handle detail.
Pratt is leading us forcefully to the pool of merit – but will we drink up?

Aside from being recommended to Lincoln by Seward, Chase, and Cameron, at the time of his appointment Secretary Stanton was cousin to Ohio powerhouse Benjamin Stanton who had been Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Military Affairs Committee up until March 2, 1861. He had just lost a Senate contest to john Sherman but was poised to become lieutenant governor of Ohio.

His joining the Lincoln Administration should be the crux of any Stanton biography and whether these (suppressed) political considerations were decisive in that - this is the true business of Pratt's measely passage. The attempt to manage the story through "sins of omission" is all too common in ACW history. Make that the criteria for a new kind of Fletcher Pratt Award and candidates will abound.

p.s. This post has been corrected (5/28/08). It referred to the Stantons as first cousins, however it was their fathers who were cousins. It also suggested, via its syntax "at the time of [Edwin's] appointment" Benjamin was chairman, etc. Note that he had been chairman in the previous (36th) Congress as shown in the edits above. A lengthy post on Benjamin Stanton is in the works.

5/23/2008

"Team" of rivals: David Donald on Chase

"Goodwin has brilliantly described how Lincoln forged a team that preserved a nation..." - James M. McPherson

From Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, edited by David Donald, 1954, Longmans, Green & Co. New York

"Chase knew he was able, and he thought his [Cabinet] colleagues incompetent; it was his duty, therefore, to organize the Northern war effort. He began to issue orders, accept recruits, consult on strategy, and plan battles." (Introduction, p.12)

With Stanton's appointment, "He was now informed of military decisions after they were made - sometimes through the newspapers. His advice was seldom sought and rarely followed." (Introduction, p.15)

"After 1862, Chase was almost as remote from the making of political decisions as he was removed from the planning of strategy." (Introduction, p.16)

"But soon it appeared that the [President's] policy was undisclosed even to the Secretary of the Treasury. In fact nobody seemed to know what was going on ... Chase's efforts to introduce some administrative system among the President's advisers were unsuccessful, and soon he, like Bates and Welles, was wondering whether he should bother to attend the 'Cabinet (so-called)'. 'We ... are called members of the Cabinet,' he reported to Senator John Sherman, 'but are in reality only separate heads of departments, meeting now and then for talk on whatever happens to come uppermost, not for grave consultation on matters concerning the salvation of the country ... No regular and systematic reports of what is done are made, I believe, even to the President: certainly not to the so-called Cabinet.'" (Introduction, p.17)

"Measures which Chase might well have supported had he known their causes and their objectives appeared to him blind and wavering. Stanton and Lincoln adopted military policies which appeared to have no consequences except the useless expenditure of more millions ..." (Introduction, p.17)

"The less Chase was consulted on broad matters of governmental policy, the more extreme his views became; and as he assumed the attitude of embattled virtue, it became impossible to consult him." (Introduction, p.22)

"As a good administrator himself, Chase made it clear that the failures, the weaknesses, and the imbecilities of the executive branch rested not on himself and his cabinet colleagues, but upon the President alone." (Introduction, p.22)

"... he instructed an Ohio correspondent in 1863 ... 'Nor should you forget that a war managed by a President, a Commanding-General, and a Secretary, cannot, especially when the great differences of temperament, wishes, and intellectual characteristics of these three are taken into account, reasonably be expected to be conducted in the best possible manner.'" (Introduction, p.22)

Previous posts here and here and here.

5/22/2008

Beard spotting - success at last

When Rick Beard took over the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Presidential Library (ALPLM) in 2006 there were no photos accompanying the news stories posted to the WWW. Since that time he has managed to keep any images of himself off of the Internet - as befits a man who surrendered his posh office in order to work out of an obscure office behind some emergency exit doors.

Recenly, however, the Illinois Bicentennial Commission forced a mug shot out of him (right) for its Kremlin Wall. (Let's see how many of these worthies accompany Gov. Blagojevich to prison next year.) The shot is in soft focus and rather indistinct. Is that a mustache? A goatee?

More in keeping with the Mysterion's cryptic persona is the snap (topside) captured by the State Journal Register last week on the occasion of the unveiling of an amateurish portrait of Bishop Desmond Tutu. The blurred little figure on the right is Rick Beard - the first "action shot" of the man we've had in the last two years. He's hovering in the very best docent manner just beyond earshot of the embarassed mutterings of the bishop. In the same manner he managed to avoid mention in the story, which took place in his facility.

We now at least have a general idea to go on, should we encounter him at one of the many dazzling Bicentennial or Sesquicentennial events upcoming.

Previously:
Norton replaced ** Sesquicentennial mysteries ** The mystery continues ** Rick Beard emerges ** Rick Beard makes a move ** It's Abe-a-licious! ** Google scorecard for "Rick Beard" ** Rick Beard sightings increase ** Rick Beard dons his other hat ** Will there be a Sesquicentennial? ** "Setting the bar" ** CWPT on the Sesquicentennial ** Rick Beard plans a Lincoln exhibit ** From multipurpose to any purpose ** A floating signifier **Lincoln Bicentennial: ambivalence allowed

5/21/2008

Spielberg's "Lincoln"

The Spielberg/Goodwin Lincoln movie appears to be moving towards filming in 2009; that suggests it will have missed the Bicentennial by time of its release. (Check out the bare cupboard of Goodwin's movie news page.)

A couple of howlers from Liam Neeson, cast as Lincoln:

"He supported live theater, which is terrific."

"I've been to Washington, I've held his wallet..."

(Hat tip to Ted Savas.)

5/20/2008

Choose your poison

Fort Reno in the District's Northwest was closed when satellite imagery noted grass discolored in a way indicating the presence of arsenic.

Once, when he had me slapping (British-made) creosote on his fenceposts in Scotland, Grandfather told me that creosote's secret ingredient in keeping bugs at bay was arsenic.

Meanwhile, all those good people who spend so many hours sitting on their arsenic-treated decks have been spared a stroll over buried arsenic deposits at a Civil war site; the NPS closed the place.

Oh wait a minute, never mind: reopened.

"According to the D.C. Department of Health, arsenic is usually only harmful when ingested."

Is public health to science what public history is to history?

5/19/2008

Racetrack as battleground

Interesting fight in North Carolina; if the locals have never heard of the battlefield that outsiders are trying to preserve has it lost its historic significance, as the town claims?

Can land lose its historic significance? See here and here.

Honor vs. desecration

I would rate this as closer to desecration than homage. Part of the outrage against the Centennial was the prospect of this abuse of the dead.

5/16/2008

The persistent appeal of bad history

In a review of a new edition by the unbearable/unreadable John Steinbeck, Jonathan Yardley agonizes at length: Why are all of his books still in print and selling well? It's a question that resonates across nonfiction as well, where the authors of bad books are lavishly rewarded.

But to begin with Steinbeck: I recall the revulsion Vladimir Nabokov expressed toward Ayn Rand's novels; in treating fiction primarily as a medium for ideas, Rand (Nabokov felt) inverted the merit of a novel putting literary worth at the bottom. Nabokov was stridently against "message" books throughout his life. The people who revere Rand's novels would probably tell us that the ideas within are what make them worthwhile - thus bearing out Nabokov's point. (The same dynamic is at work not only in all sorts of political fiction but in political movies as well.)

To me, until now, Steinbeck has been the primitive, artless politicized non-fiction fiction writer whose sensibility people endorse by buying and reading his books. This is not enough to explain the strong sales of his entire output, however, and here Yardley does good service:
The only reason I can come up with for the high esteem in which Steinbeck is still held is his transparent sincerity. It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter. [Note: Yardley says "readers" where I would have said "non-fiction readers dabbling in novel reading" - DR.] From Jacqueline Susann to Danielle Steel, from James Michener to James Patterson, readers have recognized the sincerity of feeling beneath the utter lack of literary merit, and have rewarded it accordingly.
Do you see how useful this anlytic is?

We have, in Civil War history, a marketplace that rewards emotion, intensity, and authorial identification with causes and "characters." This leads, as I lament here often, to manipulation of readers, evidence rigging and suppression, and other pathologies that turn history upside down. The hard work of getting at the truth of an incident is often viewed as "dry as dust," as the founder of American Heritage famously said.

As with the fiction marketplace's non-literature readers, Civil War history is filled with all sorts of bookbuyers not fundamentally interested in reading history; there are the novel readers crossing over, the movie goers looking for more entertainment, the TV watchers buying a souvenir of the show; some would say even re-enactors, all driving nonfiction sales.

"The sincerity of feeling" would explain also the Troiani/Kunstler phenomena, the persistent public championing of such as McPherson, the top-flight sales of Stephen Sears, and so on.

Tip of the hat to Mr. Yardley. Let's try this paradigm on and see if it fits.

A new kind of tourism

Suicide tourism has been discovered. Would that make Vince Foster's death Civil War suicide tourism?

5/14/2008

Canadian memoirs

The only substantial account by a Canadian Civil War soldier who returned to Canada has been published. (I suppose most published Canadian veterans stayed in the U.S. postwar.)

5/13/2008

"Team" of rivals: comments from Gideon Welles

"Goodwin has brilliantly described how Lincoln forged a team that preserved a nation..." - James M. McPherson

From the Diary of Gideon Welles, Riverside Press edition, 1911. Odd that this has been out of print for 97 years, but the master narrative was set in stone fifty years ago and there is simply no longer a need for a primary source that contradicts the wonderful storylines developed by talented writers. What follows is but a smattering of the relevant material; you'll need to read the entire diary to get a sense of the brokenness of the Lincoln Cabinet.

“He [Stanton] had little moral courage nor much self-reliance when in trouble.” "… he was reckless and regardless of public expenditure." (Undated entry, p. 68)

“Strange that this change of military operations should have been made without Cabinet consultation, and especially without communicating the fact to the Secretary of the Navy, who had established a naval flotilla on the James River by special request to cooperate with the army. But Stanton is so absorbed in his scheme to get rid of McClellan that other and more important matters are neglected.” (8/17/62, p. 83)

“… I was thwarted and embarrassed by the secret interference of the Secretary of State in my operations.” (8/17/62, p. 84)

“Seward came in for a moment but immediately left. He shuns these controversies and all subjects where he is liable to become personally involved.” (9/4/62, p. 110)

"The introduction of Pope here, followed by Halleck, is an intrigue of Stanton's and Chase's to get rid of McClellan. [...] Chase, who has made himself as busy in the management of the army as the Treasury..." (9/8/62, P.108)

“Seward was ready to get rid of Cameron after he went over to Chase …instead … he [Seward] picked up this black terrier [Stanton], who is no better than Cameron … Blair says he [Stanton] is dishonest, that he has taken bribes, and that he is a doubledealer; that he is now deceiving both Seward and Chase…” (9/12/62, p. 127)

“The President has good sense , intelligence, and an excellent heart, but is sadly perplexed and distressed by events. He, to an extent, distrusts his own administrative ability and experience. Seward, instead of strengthening and fortifying him, encourages this self-distrust…” (9/13/62 p. 131)

“The Attorney-General has experienced similar improper interference [from Seward] more than any other perhaps…” (9/16/62, p. 133)

“But I cannot run to the War Department and pay court in order to obtain information that should be given. Chase does this, complains because he is compelled to do it, and then, when not bluffed, becomes reconciled [to Stanton].” (9/29/63 p. 447)

"Halleck, he [Chase] said, was good for nothing, and everybody knew it except the President." (9/29/63 p. 448)

Previous posts here and here. Image by John T. Quinn 3rd.

5/12/2008

Q&A with Russell Bonds (2/2)

We continue our interview with Russell S. Bonds, author of Stealing the General, released earlier this year and now in its third printing.

Q: I'd like to ask about three of your sources in Stealing the General: Ohio in the War, the Biographical Encyclopedia of Ohio, and The Ohio Soldier. Could you summarize, for the researcher, their usefulness?

A: The Biographical Encyclopedia of Ohio (1876) is simply that--a reference and starting point for early Ohio settlers, Civil War soldiers and other 18th and 19th century Buckeyes. But it also contains some fairly nice detail in the various profiles. (It's available online in searchable form at the University of Michigan's "Making of America" project.)

Ohio in the War (1868) is Whitelaw Reid's two-volume history of the war. Reid was a correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette, so the book is a mix of firsthand reporting and secondary history, with a sprinkle of Reid's opinions and a fairly large dose of hagiography for the various sons of Ohio (e.g. Gen. Mitchel was "ever on the offensive," and "his coming inspired the troops," and the like). (I believe it's now online as well.)

Finally, The Ohio Soldier is a veterans' newspaper that was published from 1887 until shortly after the turn of the century--think the National Tribune or Confederate Veteran, but with Ohio articles and remembrances. This newspaper contained the detailed series of 1893-94 articles by Andrews Raider Daniel Allen Dorsey, which were an interesting and at times angry counterpoint to the long-accepted version of events recounted by William Pittenger in his many book. The Ohio Soldier is an excellent resource for soldier reminiscences, but it is comparatively difficult to obtain and difficult to search.

Q: Your have a sturdy ethic, as we've been discovering, and you seem to admire some authors. What kind of reader are you: what kind of ACW books do you tend to pass up and which kind tends to interest you?

A: My reading these days is research-driven, focused on the Atlanta Campaign and its players. Beyond that, it’s tough to pinpoint the “kind of book” that interests me. Thorough studies with good bibliographies, notes, maps. Books that look like they can really teach me something. I appreciate new thinking and interpretation but am suspicious of agendas/conclusions that shape the analysis, instead of the other way around. I enjoy battle and campaign studies and have warmed to big biographies as I get older. Perhaps surprisingly—as a native Georgian with an ancestor on the Appomattox surrender rolls—I very much enjoy reading about Lincoln, Grant, and especially Sherman. I’m attracted to iconic events/characters and their historiography—e.g., the Great Locomotive Chase, Custer’s Last Stand, etc. And I really appreciate and enjoy good writing. (I’m often listening to Shelby Foote or Cormac McCarthy or Owen Parry on audio.)

In general, I tend to pass on regimental histories and memoirs (except in my research), naval history, and the Transmississippi.

Q: Are there other rules defining your "no go" zone?

A: Not really. Lukewarm interest in certain areas, and lack of time. Perhaps I need some a rule--I tend to buy more than I'm capable of reading and have my bedside table stacked with books I haven't gotten around to.

Q: Stealing the General has this large railroading element and yet your book tour seemed aimed at the Civil War readership. Did you encounter interest from railroad buffs at all?

A: I think the book has done pretty well among rivet-counting railroaders. It was reviewed by the reading magazines like Trains and Railroad History and for a long while held its own with Ambrose's Nothing Like It In the World as the top railroad book on Amazon. But almost all my invitations to speak have been from Civil War roundtables, museums, historical societies and the like--coming at it more from the Civil War angle. I did speak to one "society of ferroequinologists," where I passed around a handout with the technical specifications of the General and tried my best to answer questions about track gauges.

Q: What's your marketing advice to new authors? Where is the best return on effort and what wastes time?

A: Well, there's no substitute for a publisher who's adept in marketing, and I've been very fortunate in that regard. Westholme has done a great job getting attention and reviews for Stealing the General. Newspaper, magazine, and online reviews are all tremendously important.

But I do think there's no substitute for shameless effort by the author to drive sales and draw attention to the book. This doesn't mean only speaking engagements--though those are important, and I try to make as many appearances as my schedule allows. (And don't limit yourself to Civil War groups. I've had good turnout and surprising sales at civic club luncheons, for example. There are tons of readers out there, especially older readers, who will readily buy a good history book, but who would never shop online or walk back to the Civil War section of the bookstore.) I've been a familiar face locally at museums, battlefield parks, and area bookstores, stopping by regularly to be sure they always have autographed copies of Stealing the General in stock.

Beyond that, lots of random suggestions: Reach out to fellow authors for advice and referrals--most are very helpful and happy to be asked. Keep your name out there by doing local interviews, writing articles for Civil War magazines or columns for the newspaper. Be responsive to the online Civil War community. Urge bookstore managers to have their staff recommend the book to folks looking for holiday gifts for dad or grandpa. Make up a small flyer for your book to hand out at signings or place by the register at bookstores. And importantly, look for other angles you can work on besides the Civil War angle--in my case: railroads, local/Georgia history, military/Medal of Honor, and the movie angle (we had some interest, for example, from the Buster Keaton Society).

What doesn't work? I've had a handful of plain-ol' big-box bookstore signings, which my mother and a couple of her friends attended. (You know when you go to the bookstore and there's a desperate looking author looking pleadingly at everyone that walks by on their way to the magazines? That was me.) I wouldn't call these a waste of time, but in my experience the payoff is limited.

And if you'll forgive a bit of promotion, I'll be continuing to speak this year in support of Stealing the General, which will be released in paperback this fall.

Q: I hate to be predictable but must ask: are you researching a new book?

A: Yes. I'm working on a new book on the battle and the burning of Atlanta, again with Westholme Publishing.

Q: May I ask what the "value proposition" will be?

A: The book will focus on the battles at the gates of the city, from the relief of Joe Johnston to the surrender of Atlanta--essentially the last eight miles of the hundred-mile campaign. But I'll also cover the ordeal of the city and its civilian population, up to and including the burning of Atlanta itself. The latter, as you know, gets into a number of great historical and historiographic questions and debates, and again ties in famously with movies, books, songs, and folklore. So, a battle book, but not just a battle book.

Q: I'll look forward to that. Have you ever considered Civil War blogging, either in connection with your new research or just for the hell of it?

A: I did consider it at one point, but then I came to my senses! No, I am tempted to enter the blogging fray--I'd love to see more discussion of battles and battlefields and personalities and authors here in the deep South (or the "Lower East," as Atlanta columnist Lewis Grizzard used to call it)--but between my day job and family obligations, I have a hard enough time finding time to read, research and write as it is. So I will leave the Civil War blogging to the experts.

Q: Thanks for being a good sport and best of luck with the paperback edition.

Britain in the Civil War

This looks like a very serious piece of revision, undermining the arguments of a number of ACW heavyweights.

5/09/2008

The 1860 census online

If you are willing to pay for access to an "interactive" 1860 Census online, here's your chance. If freebies are your thing, you still have this site.

Update, 5/12/08: A reader writes,
A better free 1860 census web site is:

http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stats/histcensus/php/start.php?year=V1860

Also has facilities to select, sort and combine the data.

The unconscious reviewer

Newspaper book reviewing has reached a dismal state. Here's a fellow doubling up on Republic of Suffering and Last Flag Down:
This [Suffering] is an academic work, one that goes far to banish the romantic claptrap that surrounds the Civil War. [...] "Last Flag Down" is sheer armchair fun, a high seas narrative about a remarkable ship on an incredible voyage - and the men who sailed her.

"They're all cannonballs to me"

Is there a reporter somewhere who understands the difference between shot and shell?

5/08/2008

"The Creole Chopin"

Today is Louis Gottschalk's birthday.

He flaunted his New Orleans identity touring the North during the Civil War and was one of those exiled Southerners who supported the Union and abolition. He was the proverbial international sensation as a pianist and composer. Of white Dominican and Hatian parentage born in New Orleans, he was "creole" thrice over.

If you ever find a recording of his "The Banjo, Grotesque Fantasie" let me know where I can get it.

5/07/2008

A floating signifier

In an ordered culture the sign follows the signified. In pop culture, the the order is reversed with the sign preceding the signified. In the chaos of our super-pop culture, the sign now refers to only itself or signifies nothing at all.

Sorry to go Baudrillard on you again, but a new story from the Anything but Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is pushing the boundaries of the hyperreal (again).

The mysterious, never-photographed Rick Beard has dispatched a two-year travelling exhibition to roam the continent:

- The exhibition never unloads. Visitors clamber around the back of a tractor trailer
- The exhibit contains only replicas of artifacts
- The truck will park at major music and sporting events
- The purpose of the truck and trailer is to generate visitors to Springfield
- The exhibit is driven and "curated" by a husband/wife team not connected to the ALPLM
- They are not actually familiar with Lincoln or with the simulated objects stored in the trailer ("... the couple has visited the Springfield museum to learn answers to frequently asked questions.")

It is a fake museum on wheels that does not even try to be a museum but rather offers drunken/stoned idlers a taste of the kind of stimulation available at the mothership entertainment center in Springfield.

It is not even a sideshow per se but an attempt to inveigle random, disinterested visitors into making a long journey to Illinois where they will see a more outlandishly faked sideshow on a larger scale.

Beard has outdone himself this time.

Story here; first road report here. The road report has a marvelous sentence, "Lincoln never visited Colorado, but Colorado and the other western territories were constantly on Lincoln's mind..."

Sesquicentennial creeps forward

South Carolina's House and Senate have okayed the formation of a Sesquicentennial Commission. Meanwhile, in California, legislation for a combined Bicentennial and Sesquicentennial Commission has left Assembly committee.

5/06/2008

Save the map

Those pesky "buffs" are annoying the long-suffering NPS once again.

Glatthaar (cont.)

Kevin Levin points out the genesis of Glatthaar's new book predates Beatie's Army of the Potomac, so Glatthaar could not have been inspired by the series, as I had speculated.

Kevin believes the book to be "tightly reasoned" which (if I agreed) would simply be the characteristic of an historical essay, that is, a literary production that uses certain historical material.

I'm going to revisit this book again in a post that compares the citational and bibliographic m.o. offered by Glatthaar, Goodwin, and Beatie.

5/05/2008

Worth reading

This month - I'm not sure of the day - a major revision of the received wisdom of Gettysburg's aftermath will appear in a book called One Continuous Fight.

Written by Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael F. Nugent, "Exactly what Meade did to try to intercept the fleeing Confederates, and how the Southerners managed to defend their army and ponderous 17-mile long wagon train of wounded until crossing into western Virginia on the early morning of July 14, is the subject of this study" (to quote the blurb).

The authors are working to change minds; the care they have taken in analyzing events is something I can attest to personally as well as to the soul-searching surrounding their treatment of evidence. This is eminently worth your time and money and it will be interesting to see how this book affects future histories.

You can get a taste of One Continuous Fight in this author interview.

p.s. I see Eric and J.D. have set up a book site for Plenty of Blame. There's an interview section where they made points very much like Nosworthy's quoted at the end of this post. Here's Nosworthy: "The ease with which a patient researcher can come up with a new but justified interpretation of an already well-documented event, or be the first one to plot what is still uncharted territory, is truly counterintuitive."

Now here are Eric and J.D.:
Petruzzi: One thing that surprised me was the amount of primary source material that exists that had never been used before. It may very well be because no one has undertaken this project (of such narrow scope) in such detail before - but I tend to think that no one has dug as deeply on this topic. As for specific surprises, there were two that stand out. The first involves the issue of whether Stuart actually made an effort to keep contact with Robert E. Lee and inform him of Joe Hooker's/George G. Meade's movements. The second was the discovery of an item that could have, but for fate intervening, completely changed the way the Battle of Hanover unfolded on June 30. I will resist the temptation to reveal the nature of these surprises here - the reader will have to read the book to discover what they are! Suffice it to say that each of these items turned out to be blockbusters regarding the larger questions involving Stuart's ride.

Wittenberg: Like J.D., I was surprised by a lot of the material that surfaced during our research. Period newspapers proved to be an absolute treasure trove of great material, and we were both surprised that nobody had ever made effective use of these sources before we did.

5/04/2008

Information-free history

Military history and military science are fused at the general proposition level. Practitioners of either believe that the outcomes of war affect society, culture, and politics. They believe that such outcomes can profitably be studied. They believe that war understood may be controlled or directed toward success or failure.

From here, paths diverge. The historian, as social scientist practicing a descriptive methodology, wants to relate the clearest, truest picture of past events: which decisions and events produced which outcomes.

It is often hard to detect the military historian, to tell him apart from the chameleons and mimics that surround him. For instance, the historical essayist will be called an historian where history is actually the raw material for his literary productions. The researcher, who never exits the data collection phase, may be degreed and tenured and teach without being an historian. The polemicist views history as an enlarged Yankee Stadium in which the favored team gets cheered and the others jeered. Worst of all is the synthesizer who generalizes into narrative form the highest level observations accessible by the general public; by the time synthesis is completed, the connection to the underlying data has been lost and the reader wanders a vaguely historical setting chasing butterflies of insight with no root in reality, social science, or events.

The period just ending, a full fifty years of synthesis and metasynthesis, has been disastrous for Civil War history.

I have before me the paper edition of Battle Cry of Freedom. Between pages 534 and 535, James McPherson describes Lee’s decision to cross into Maryland in September ’62. He gives it in 28 lines, sourcing the entire analysis to R.E. Lee: A Biography by Douglas Southall Freeman. He also includes a quote from a letter which he attributes to a collection published by Cliff Dowdey. That is a synthesis that destroys.

It might be too much to call Joseph Harsh’s Taken at the Flood a 498 page analysis of Lee’s Maryland decision but I would call your attention to the subtitle: Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862. Chapter One addresses “Lee’s Strategic Dilemma.” It addresses the decision (recapped by McPherson in 28 lines) in 49 pages with 135 discursive endnotes. The decision is then revisited in Chapter Three, "Lee Revises His Strategy," with 57 pages and 116 notes. The entire unfolding of the Maryland Campaign is treated by Harsh as a study in the continuous revisiting and revision of the intitial decisions. I believe you could write a very thick book about the decision to cross into Maryland, whether or not you agree with me that Taken is such a book.

In Battle Cry, McPherson shoots a cue ball (Freeman) at the racked solids and stripes. The break is the whole game for him. For Harsh, the game is all over the table after the break.

This reminds me of an expression my ex-Marines buddies used to use. “What’s our plan for tonight?” I would ask. “Japanese Navy” would come the answer. Huh? “We’re going to fly into town, blow everything up, declare victory, and leave.”

That sums up an awful lot of ACW nonfiction.

Joseph Glatthaar has a new book, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. Perhaps he was looking at the succession of volumes of Russel Beatie’s Army of the Potomac thinking, “Why not the ANV?”

He has put his own spin on it in making it an upstairs/downstairs drama. There is the conventional history of the high command and its decisions, rendered in perfect accord with the editorial policies of American Heritage Magazine, 1959-1965; this is interleaved with anecdotes from the fighting ranks – new material hand-selected for freshness from previously untapped sources.

Think about that: Glatthaar did not seek to provide freshness at the Lee/Longstreet/Jackson analytic level but rather sought to offset an expected staleness that his retelling would present. Likewise, surveying his potential page budget, where you or I would hit the panic button Glatthaar’s reaction was to ask how he could possible fill an entire one volume history with just ANV history. His solution was to add copious numbers of personal anecdotes to brighten or offset the “big picture.” Glatthaar assumed a certain jadedness in his readers: “Oh no, not that same old Cold Harbor anecdote again.”

He views the task of the current ANV historian to include newly available microdata in a way that does not threaten the macro conclusions and surmises. I have spoken of this many times in connection with Centennial historians, like McPherson, who read new works of Civil War history and even praise them without understanding the huge hit new books are delivering to fifty-year-old consensus.

Microhistories contain dates and times and details that can undermine broad conclusions about use of time, commanders’ intentions, direction of march, relative strength, and more. This is the proper point of integration between unit level and army level histories.

The Centennialist views the new memoirs and regimental histories as the mere rolling around of a sunk ball in its pool pocket, having no effect on the larger game which they defined with finality so long ago. New authors encourage this notion whenever they use bits of the prevailing Centennial wisdom to provide "context" between slices of diaries or unit history. I saw, in one issue of Civil War Regiments the awful sight of a researcher apologizing to Stephen Sears for making a discovery that contradicted Sears' opinions. The thrust of the article, after sharing the new evidence, was struggling to reconcile the discovery with Sears' unchallangeable, evidence-free opinions.

So, Glatthaar assumes his readers want to hear the ANV story told in a very particular way - the proven moneymaker way - and at the same time they will dervive enjoyment from the new war stories that spice this retelling. That seems to be the value proposition and it is large enough a value statement to have earned the backing of mighty trade house Simon & Schuster.

We come now to my own value proposition, where I show you the kind of military historian or social scientist Glatthaar is. I offer two paragraphs in the sequence they appear on page 164 and 165.

The first addresses Lee’s decision to cross into Maryland. It is given in the bottom half of a paragraph of eight lines. I’m going to quote the entire thing:
No doubt his army was ill-supplied for a raid Northward. Soldiers lacked proper clothing and shoes, and his army suffered from a shortage of wagons and animals. But Lee, a keen student of military history, fully grasped the psychological element to warfare. Not only had Lee seized the initiative, but the Army of Northern Virginia had also built a momentum. In the eyes of his men, and to an extent in the hearts of Yankee troops, a feeling of success for the Confederacy blossomed – an attitude of Rebel invincibility under Lee’s leadership. Now was the time for a bold advance.
We are dealing here with a hateful citational style in which one paragraph gets a maximum of one endnote; that endnote can contain multiple sourcings and it is up to the reader to figure out which source covers which statement. In using this style, the author implies that any series list of sources addresses a series of assertions (serially!). It is very difficult to infer multiple sourcings to a single statement under this style.

Now for this paragraph, Glatthaar references two sources: Lee’s after action report and a letter he sent to Jeff Davis. But we have a hodgepodge of assertions: (1) the state of supply (2) the shortage of wagons and animals (3) Lee being a “keen student of military history” (4) Lee “fully grasping” psychology (5) the army having momentum (6) a feeling of success among the rebel troops (6) a feeling of rebel success in the hearts of Yankee troops (7) an attitude of invincibility (8) now being the time for a bold advance.

How do we allocate these among the sources?

Please notice that the entire paragraph is a dodge: it does not say what was decided or why or how. It mimics coherence in a false resolution: bold advance. Did Lee propose a “bold” advance? Then what was this slipping over the river in order to besiege a piddling garrison at Harpers Ferry with 2/3 of the army. Are sieges “bold” advances? And what does it mean to repeatedly refer to “feelings” in a paragraph that should interpret the rationality of a decision?

I don’t think we need a minimum of one source per claim above, but we’re entitled to know, below the level of metasynthesis, what was decided, why and how. The great Sherman Kent explained when notes are to be used (in his book Writing History):
“(1) … all direct quotations… (2) quotations and paraphrases from documents … (3) statistical material …(4) iconoclastic remarks … statements which … seem improbable (5) new ideas from the sources … (6) specific statements from newspapers…”
So we move into Maryland with Lee in a fog of “fully grasping” psychology with that great momentum a supply-free, shoeless, wagonless army enjoys in order to “boldly” besiege a tiny garrison while displaying our attitude of invincibility. Thank you sir. May I read more of this kind of history, please?

The next paragraph takes us “downstairs” among the troops. It consists of 13 lines of snippets, with men taking off their shirts in the river, feeling intoxicated, drinking water, and yelling. It has seven sources. We really need to know about the yelling and water drinking and thank heaven Kent's second base (above) is thoroughly covered.

After the author looked at the history of the ANV, saw he could not make his page budget and added these yelling and water drinking anecdotes, Glatthaar found he still had way too many pages to fill so he generated a large number of informational or topical chapters: "Medical Care," "Manpower," "Becoming Soldiers," etc.

Here’s a paragraph from “Becoming Soldiers:”
The drill and discipline pulled units together. It hardened them for the battlefield experience and it created an elan within companies, regiments, and even brigades. Soldiers, who already identified with their companies from recruitment at the local level, began to see themselves as a group. One soldier out of line, one soldier fouling up drill, and the entire company, regiment, even brigade looked sloppy. For all to achieve, each individual component must succeed, and each person must rely on everyone else to perform effectively.
I wonder what Brent Nosworthy would have made of that.

In his new book, Nosworthy gives a nice overview of the degeneration of Civil War military history. He notes in his conclusion that a few years after the war, military men analyzed battles and methods of combat to derive a way of fighting better in the future. By the 1870s and 1880s interest declined in the ACW as representative of modern combat. “Writers and historians began to filter out technical details … These were now viewed as unimportant, and in fact, impedimenta when trying to tell a compelling and interesting story.”

And so we have reached the point of abstraction in Glatthaar where drill and discipline are separated from fire and movement; it’s about feeling part of a group and “performing effectively,” presumably in whatever you may do. The mistake that fouls a firing line, exposes your formation to enemy attack, or slows an advance is really about making your buddies “look sloppy.”

I give these as examples of Glatthaar’s historical sensibility and his “commitment” to military history or science. We have reached a point of generalization where so much meaning has been leached out of the history of the ANV that all that remains is “a compelling and interesting story.” If that.

And that is where many of your best-selling Civil War authors want it to remain. It will take only a few big successes for books like these to enshrine these standards for another 50 years.

5/01/2008

Catering to randomness

You're in a strange city with time on your hands. Your hosts take you to see the sights. You are an "accidental tourist" with the chances of your coming back for another look being zero.

Or you're a Civil War battlefield tourist. You make multiple visits. Even small changes will draw you back: new signage, cleared woods, new trails, new subtours.

Which tourist deserves nurturing by the Gettysburg park management? Apparently, number one: the accidental, reluctant, barely interested human statistic.
Wilburn said the museum and visitor center were constructed not so much for Civil War buffs who are likely to go to Gettysburg no matter what and appreciate it, but for people who have little knowledge of Civil War history and need more help understanding what took place.
Why? Are they gong to be charmed into writing letters to Congressmen to increase funding? I would try to elicit that from well-cared for regulars instead. Are they going to swell the ranks of rangerdom with knowledgeable applicants? I think you're getting that from the "buffs." Will they make private donations to the private charities that support the park? Or is that more likely to come from the "buffs"?

The maximum possible upside is that the careless, distracted, hurried tourists will tell utterly disinterested friends and neighbors that their trip was somewhat "interesting." That's it. Big win.

And if they somehow were motivated to return, they would fall into the "buff" class to be taken for granted.

This is the only "industry" I know of that proudly teaches its staff to ignore regular customers and then tells newspapers about the policy.

I wonder if we could somehow get these clowns in front of a restaurant owner, a sports team owner, a television network executive, to hear about the value of repeat business and regular customers. Maybe for a day some casino could give them the VIP treatment its regulars get. Maybe an amusement park operator could take a few minutes to help them understand
This industry has already achieved maturity and a very high population penetration rate in the domestic market, leaving operators with the challenging task of attracting high levels of repeat visitors.
Repeat visits are a phenomenon no one at Gettysburg is trying to understand.

ACW university president number two

Sorry I missed the ascent of Edward Ayers to the presidency of the University of Richmond last month. This is interesting, coming after the appointment of Faust to Harvard. Two incidents don't make a trend, so we will tread softly here.

Like Faust, Ayers' public identity is "Civil War historian." This was underlined in a Civil War symposium in Richmond celebrating his promotion. Present as speakers were Faust and Gary Gallagher and each spoke out of their books. There was Ayers talking about Reconstruction; Faust on the social and cultural effects of mass casualties; Gallagher on pop culture.

There was no military historian talking shop.

Perhaps the academic establishment has a specific idea about what ACW history is - e.g. social or cultural analysis and think that historians of this type seem suitable for leadership of a college.

I said earlier that Faust's appointment would influence the direction of publishing in Civil War history. So will Ayers' appointment, both in the same way.

He's not a critic

Some pieces on Gary Gallagher's new book are beginning to appear and they are focusing on the film aspects rather than the literature, paintings, etc.

Charlottesville Daily Progress: "I’m not an art critic. I’m not a film critic."

Star News: "Gallagher does useful service, however, by giving notice to powerful, complex films..."

Boston Globe: "... it is almost impossible to convey to a modern audience why the Union meant so much."