6/26/2008

Limits to history

History needs speculation and narrative but their must be limits to both. What those limits might be could make a good topic for a post. Let's start with the notion that the historical material, the record, sets boundaries. It would therefore make a poor project to go where the record is thinnest in order to gin up a thick, colorful volume with loads of imagined incidents and details - and yet this is done to great profit by outlaws who roam "the badly policed borders of fact and fiction."

Imagine histories in which the authors' narrative and speculative impulses have run wild - so completely wild - as to produce what this essayist calls "History in the absence of evidence." He quotes a passage in which one of these intoxicated writers has abandoned the limits of his material to soar high above ... uh ... mere facts?
We do not know whether he was slim or burly, tall or short, handsome or disfigured, his voice deep or nasal, his complexion olive or fair. We know only that he was thick-skinned, that some combination of good genes and good luck bestowed on him a genius for survival. We have no idea what a lover would have remembered about his touch or a fortuneteller would have discovered in his palm, yet we can guess that his hands were strong and nimble, skilled at crafting illustrations of infinitesimal detail yet also adept at handling a harquebus, the unwieldy predecessor to the musket. We cannot say whether he inherited dark eyes from the Gauls or blue from the Normans, but the more we learn about him, the more we are convinced that those eyes, whatever their color, took everything in and gave very little away.
Spread your wings, fool, but don't call it history.

Hat tip to Russel Bonds for the link and to Despair for the graphic.

6/24/2008

Gary Grigsby's War Between The States

Games are story machines. They are designed to create narratives in which the real has been replaced with symbols and the manipulation of these symbols in the course of gameplay produces an imaginary reality.

I have been playing a game for the last few days instead of doing my assigned Civil War reading: Gary Grigsby's War Between The States and here are a few elements of the story it tells...

The war is about managing people - not just about putting the right person with the right attributes in the right position, not just about assembling talent pools, but principally about managing the interactions of people on the same side of the war. This is most intriguing and cuts to the heart of my interest in the ACW.

The war is a political balancing act - here it is represented by a point scale with the player trading off political credits for losses in an attempt to maintain equilibrium.

The war is won opportunistically not strategically - as Hattaway and Jones formulated it, here in play is the politician's concept of war: the accrual of a succession of victories (wherever, however) leading to political strength on one side and political debility on the other.

The enemy's army is not your object - a steady-state recruitment engine regenerates armies over time so as the North your object must be territory with factories and resources, elements that assist or impede loss replacement.

The regular reader of this blog can tell how much reading Grigsby and I have done in common and a number of conclusions we might share. Working through the game you notice his thumb in the eyes of a number of Centennial commonplaces. There is one, however, that does survive, albeit in modified form:

Lincoln's re-election is crucial - McClellan's election does not end the game but entails a turn-by-turn political points penalty on the North and a bonus for the South. One could say Grigsby had failed to heed McMurry's The Fourth Battle of Winchester but he is holding true to his view of the war being a political balancing act. While he seems to reject McMurry's premise that politics could not reverse the military course of the war by '64/65, neither does he make McClellan out to be a peacemaker or appeaser (which would be nonsense). I interpret the political "cost" of a McClellan election here to represent (a) a fundamental discrediting of the Republican conduct of the war (a major election theme in '64) such that the ability to prosecute the war on any terms is harmed and (b) that the political divide of a Democratic president and a (largely Radical) Republican Congress would here be unworkable (as the accession of Johnson proved).

All in all, this game was designed by a reader you would want to spend time with. I'll give some gameplay specific notes in a later post, particularly looking at how the interactions among commanders are managed.

Brett had a couple of posts up about the game, which is how I noticed it.

Civil War Talk Radio - the archives work

Hat tip to Brett Schulte for his summaries of Civil War Talk Radio episodes and for asserting that the archives function works (I long assumed it was broken).

The counterintuitive things is you encounter a blank list powered by an obscure interface control here. The "Content Library" list takes time to populate (in my browser) and I did not recognize the microphone head on the right as a scroll button.

Problem: All the recent shows lack titles and descriptions. However, if you scroll down far enough, the older shows are named and described. (See for instance my interview on 10/21/05).

Don't let the glitches put you off - you'll recognize most of the authors, publishers, and bloggers in the archives.

6/23/2008

The Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada

by Benjamin Drew

From the publisher:
In the early 1850s, white American abolitionist Benjamin Drew was commissioned to travel to Canada West (now Ontario) to interview escaped slaves from the United States. At the time the population of Canada West was just short of a million and about 30,000 black people lived in the colony, most of whom were escaped slaves from south of the border. One of the people Drew interviewed was Harriet Tubman, who was then based in St. Catharines but made several trips to the U.S. South to lead slaves to freedom in Canada.

In the course of his journeys in Canada, Drew visited Chatham, Toronto, Galt, Hamilton, London, Dresden, Windsor, and a number of other communities. Originally published in 1856, Drew's book is the only collection of first-hand interviews of fugitive slaves in Canada ever done. It is an invaluable record of early black Canadian experience.

Benjamin Drew was an American abolitionist from Boston whose work was made possible thanks to the support of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society and John P. Jewett, a renowned anti-slavery sympathizer from Boston who had unexpectedly reaped a fortune from publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852.

George Elliott Clarke is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. An award-winning poet, playwright, and screenwriter, he is the author of Execution Poems, winner of the 2001 Governor General's Award for Poetry.

The natural destiny of every preservation coalition

The Cedar Creek battlefield preservation coalition is breaking up. Given the number of jerry-rigged ACW battlefield ownership consortiums out there, I'm surprised there aren't stories like this every day.

Buy it, own it, be done with it. You don't want the equivalent of a condo board taking decisions about historical ground. And if the ground is hallowed, never ever multipurpose it or you end up like these people.

Here's a high level recap from AP. * More detail from the Winchester Star * And more from NVDaily.

Papers in the attic

Col. William H. Emory's papers were donated to the University of Maryland in 1990. Researchers are still finding ever more Civil War and family papers in the attic of his mansion.

6/19/2008

Blog mortality

Sons of Confederate Veterans have started blogging; otherwise the trend is against us with a number of abandonings: Billy Yank, Chris Army, and Don Hogan. Another three bloggers have suspended temporarily (they say) so we'll keep an eye on that as well.

The mailbag, ten years ago

Mark Grimsley posted an inquiry that really brought the memories back. He was asked if he could help identify an art object. If you follow the link, notice the improbable relationship between Mark's publicly shared interests and the inquirer's obscure object. This tenuous metaphysic tends to be a feature of such requests, along with urgency, obtuseness, and rudeness.

I can't remember when I last got a letter like that but I used to get a lot. Help me price this McClellan saddle. Help me identify this coin. What is this Bible worth? Ten years ago, all of us on the Web got an immense amount of continuous email from this kind of freeloader.

It was just astonishing what total strangers would ask you to do for them - and these were not, by and large, patient requests. The bait was that you allowed yourself to believe you were dealing with a reader whereas you were dealing with a searcher. If you were so foolish as to satisfy such inquiries, as Mark has done with his posting, you never heard back from the correspondent ("thanks" or "great"): you had served your purpose.

My response to these folks became, Send me the object for closer scrutiny. And that was that.

And oh, all those genealogists! They needed free research assistants. I am writing to you as a direct descendant of George B. McClellan (Do I tell this oaf his children died childless?).

Remember also the endless basic questions from students? What happened to those student emails? Why aren't the kids still harassing us for answers to their homework questions?

Way back then, Eric Wittenberg was a sort of guest answerman on a Civil War site where he entertained cavalry questions. I remember him blowing his stack a few times when students would try to finagle the better part of a paper out of him. My feelings exactly.

Nowadays, I'll pass the TV while my wife is watching Antiques Roadshow and think - they have their own TV program now. That's where all these bloodsuckers went.

6/17/2008

A different kind of Sesquicentennial

Illinois will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

They should hire George Will to help. While touting his newest book on the radio yesterday, he called Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided the greatest work of American history ever written - without qualification.

Missouri joins Sesquicentennial roster

What better way to commemorate the Sesquicentennial than with a new Civil War museum?

6/15/2008

The Lincoln-McClellan manpower dialog - Welles remembers

It is a sad sight to see military historians continue to resort to discredited, wildly improbable numbers in order to compare imagined relative field strengths of combatant forces in the Civil War.

If the historian is a talespinner, he has no choice but to gin up some numbers. He needs them to advance the drama. One side will be the underdog, the other the favorite. One leader will have used his resources wisely, one will have squandered advantages. Grades will be awarded by the historian based on these false ratios: for boldness, for relentlessness, for achievment, for good stewardship, for best effort. Take away the numbers and at least half of Civil War history loses all meaning and goes away.

As mentioned in previous posts (see below), Lincoln and McClellan were engaged in a long-running sub rosa dialog - one that could never be made public for political reasons - the outlines of which come to us in snippets of letters and conversation. The most famous bit involves Lincoln's comment about shoveling fleas across a barnyard, a remark stripped of its context (the dialog) in order to provide a witticism that bears no scrutiny.

The fleas were not made invisible on arrival at the AoP; the fleas either never arrived or wandered off their pile. The fleas are the agent, not the shoveler nor the pile across the barnyard. "Shoveling fleas" is about a special kind of manpower crisis, not a McClellan idiosyncracy.

Gideon Welles has an entry in his diary that summarizes the problem in a way even misguided readers of Centennial history can appreciate. In his entry for Sept. 8, 1862, Welles notes Lincoln called on him and while they were talking they were joined by a political appointee, Mr. Barney:
They [The Army of Virginia] were becoming reckless and untameable [Barney said]. In these remarks the President concurred, and said he was shocked to find that of 140,000 whom we were paying for in Pope's army only 60,000 could be found. McClellan brought away 93,000 from the Peninsula, but could not today count on over 45,000. As regarded demoralization, the President, there was no doubt that some of our men permitted themselves to be captured in order that they might leave on parole, get discharged and go home. Where there is such rottenness, is there not reason to fear for the country?
(To understand how, on September 8, 1862, the President and his advisors could still be referring to the AoV as a standing, independent force, you need to scrape off a lot of bad history. Start here.)

Baselining Union strength
The Centennialist takes the payroll numbers and fudges to taste. These are the highest numbers available and therefore the worst. Fox did better; then Livermore improved on Fox by (a) counting which parts of a command were actually on the field and (b) discounting a fixed ratio for detachments and details. Livermore's adjustments show - among many other things - McClellan outnumbered in every battle from Williamsburg to Malvern Hill. But Livermore's numbers, again based on payrolls, were much, much too high, although they produced an apples-to-apples correlation to Rebel figures.

To give you an idea of the state of Civil War history, few authors have yet progressed to the level of using Livermore's rational adjustments of the irrational pay muster counts. And yet, the best figures we have are - and never, ever cite - are the Surgeon General's, published in the late 19th Century. Regimental surgeons compiled and averaged daily roll calls (soldiers present for duty) on a month-to-month basis. In calculating sickness, wounding, recovery, and death, the Surgeon General refused to use the politicized payroll garbage our Civil War historians eagerly ingest. When you count noses you get some sense of Lincoln's fleas and barnyard. I'll quote myself from 2003:

For example, notice the medical department's view of the manpower pool of the Army of the Potomac as it marches towards Richmond:

4/62 - 71,250
5/62 - 72,536
6/62 - 78,733

This is the total count of men available to McClellan to capture Richmond; this is before illness, wounds, malingering, battlefield desertion, and shirking. Doesn't match the pop history version of things, does it?


I go into this in a post called Numbers, Losses, and Surgeons.

The dialog
Our Brave AWOLs introduced the Surgeon General's information. It mentions Lincoln's count of 30,000 Union stragglers within two hours of the start of Antietam and McClellan tasking Meade to show Lincoln the miserable state of strength in Hooker's corps at that battle.

The McClellan / Lincoln manpower dialogue: duly noted by Neely picks up more of the sub rosa strength communication between Lincoln and McClellan as reflected in the Union Divided. "Neely characterizes Lincoln as 'obsessed' with the disparity in AOP muster roll numbers and boots on the ground ..." Would that our historians were so obsessed. In Neely, we find a Lincoln of settled opinion on the matter: "Lincoln tells Browning that the absolute highest ratio of AOP strength that could be brought on to the field was 60 percent." There are more Lincoln anecdotes in the post.

Confederate numbers
I work through some Confederate strength issues in Historians as numerologists: what Mac saw. Why a Union commander could count 200,000 CSA enemy becomes immediately clear when we consider Joe Johnston's testimony and Pinkerton's excellent methodology. This much without even considering Governor Lechter's emergency drafts and militia mobilizations. The question passes from one of whether McClellan was simply outnumbered (Livermore) to a consideration of indications of how egregiously outnumbered he was.

With all their shootings and hangings, were the Rebels better at curtailing straggling and desertion? This post looks at the belief that the Union suffered less straggling than the Confederacy - a position I find counterintuitive. I argue my points in Confederate AWOLS: the glass is half full.

Casualty counts
In Bloodlust of the Civil War historian we join Mark Neely, Jr., in a new book one chapter of which is devoted to analyzing why Civil War historians inflate and manipulate casualty counts. Our problem with numerologists practicing history goes far beyond strength calculations.

6/13/2008

Hallam's War gets noticed

Blogger Betsy Rosen is still collecting plenty of reviews for her Confederate-centric first novel, Hallam's War.

Memphis goes for a Shelby Foote hook.

Augusta sees something "crisp" and "sparkling."

Philly deals out the tough love.

Marin County does a feature.

Grave robbers strike

But they're lazy grave robbers and don't dig down the full six feet.

6/11/2008

A two-dimensional heaven?

As long as I had to rely on the publisher's description of Awaiting the Heavenly Country, I was intrigued, a potential bookbuyer.

Reading the author's own comments on his book have turned me around. Have a look at this piece on HNN: flat, generic, insight-free, dumbed down to the utmost level while appearing in a venue by and for historians, no less.

Cultural studies without the culture - it's like cream vs. Coffee-Mate. My interest is fading fast.

6/10/2008

Scranton's indifference toward Lincoln

Scranton just noticed: a Lincoln monument is missing. It was a bust above and a 16-foot stone structure below dedicated in 1909. It was lost sometime between 1910 - 2008. If you have any information...

The other Lincoln Museum

It's closing its doors but hopes to keep its collection together. Gerald Prokopowicz once served there.

6/06/2008

The Blairs did it

Very interesting post by Harry Smeltzer (pointing back at Mark Grimsley) on the subject of the much-hyped "public pressure" demanding an advance in the summer of 1861.

I have myself read every newspaper available published at the time in the New England region that is stored in the Boston public library and I not only found no such clamor but rather the opposite. After the Union defeat at Manassas, the Boston Herald editorialized hat it was those wicked, conniving Blairs who drove Lincoln into this.

6/04/2008

James McPherson, book machine

He's giving Harold Holzer a run for his money; James McPherson has at least two books coming out during the Bicentennial and he's already dancing circles around Holzer promoting these unpublished works on the lecture circuit (start here).

Meanwhile, both of these public historians have achieved filmography pages on IMDb (see here and here). Speaking of which, dig the Oscar night poster (right) Pritzker has put out for one of McPherson's lectures.

Ladies and genlemen: for the best synthesis of top-selling narrative Civil War histories ... the envelope please.

If this ambitious pre-publication tour is intended to create buzz for his new titles, the buzz is not showing up on Google; there are plenty of speaking previews, no speaking reviews.

The books in question are Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (October 7, 2008) and Abraham Lincoln: Presidential Life (February 1, 2009).

For the crowd hitting each other with water balloons to learn about history, these will no doubt be challenging works filled with fresh insights. For the rest of us, indications are not so good.

The publisher's description of Presidential Life suggests that we have here a synthesis of best-selling Lincoln books. Why not? As a coach once told me, "Keep doing what works for you."

We have no publisher's description on Amazon for Tried by War, but summaries do appear here and here. This book stakes a claim to novelty: the idea that Lincoln developed the role of commander-in-chief. I will match Polk against Lincoln in this, precedent by precedent; nevertheless I am jealous beause McPherson has beat me to half of the story I have long wanted to tell.

The role of the general-in-chief needs an historian. Its birth and then long disfigurement during the Scott incumbency is important history; McClellan's attempt to revive it, likewise; and its stunning diminution under Halleck, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Schofield beg to be analyzed.

Any general-in-chief analysis is the flip side of the commander-in-chief coin. The two need to be considered together. As I mistrust McPherson's powers of analysis, his historical knowledge, and his impartiality, I expect this book to pollute a what could have been a pristine spring of inquiry.

But I could be wrong.

It could also be that McPherson has more Bicentennial titles in the works than we know of and that he could overtake Holzer for the title, "Greatest number of publishing opportunities seized during a public commemoration."

The race is on!

(Hat tip to Russell Bonds for alerting me to these forthcoming titles.)

The Davis "problem" and public history

, Oh, the sorry lot of a public historian. This is at the very crux of the limitations of public history:
... the Kentucky History Center will bring some context to these rivals in the midst of a yearlong celebration of Lincoln with a daylong discussion of Davis on June 27 that attempts to put him into the proper historical context.
All you need is a day to do that?
It's not easy, organizers say. While avoiding the hero worship of the "South will rise again" crowd, many folks don't know that before he took the helm of the doomed Confederacy, Davis was a Mexican War hero, Mississippi congressman and senator, and secretary of war during the Franklin Pierce administration.
Note that these folks are defining "context" as a recap of career highlights boiled down to "good" and "bad" episodes that might be balanced using some sort of relativistic formula - if only they could find one. As simplistic (to us) as this non-historic reductionism would be, its "complexity" stymies the public historian:
As John Coski, director of research at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., puts it, he [Davis] was a man with many gifts who ended up on the wrong end of history. That makes historical interpretation more difficult.
If you end up on the "right end" of history, public history becomes easy. Again, "history" is to be a simple list of career milestones that will meet approval from casual modern visitors.
"How do you deal with him? What's the tenor?" asked Coski, a symposium speaker. "How do you make him acceptable for a large mass of people and not just leave him in control of the people who wish the Confederacy hadn't lost?
How do you make him acceptable ... welcome to public history, the history that's not.

Harold Holzer, book machine

Harold Holzer, the Webb Garrison of Lincoln authoring, has no less than three books coming out to mark the Bicentennial next year:
"Lincoln President Elect" arrives in late October and shows how Lincoln "faced the most dangerous transition period in American history," Holzer says.
Feel the excitement? Wonder how it turns out.
He is also coediting "In Lincoln's Hand," a companion volume to the Library of Congress's big Lincoln 200 exhibition that opens Feb. 12. It will include scanned reproductions of original Lincoln letters and speeches, each with a comment by a prominent politician or writer—including Toni Morrison (on the Gettysburg Address), John Updike, Mario Cuomo, Newt Gingrich, Gore Vidal and NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Alter.
You couldn't just write captions yourself (Gore Vidal's nickname for Holzer is "the Caption Writer," btw). You've moved beyond that to seize a huge backscratching opportunity. You've commissioned all these cadets to act as your junior Bicentennial rangers.
And for the Library of America, Holzer is editing "The Lincoln Anthology," a collection of 85 writers on Lincoln's life and legacy.
The logrolling never stops. The frivolous literary and political celebs get to write captions for your picturebook; here your scholar pals get their slice of an essay collection.

Looks like the Bicentennial is generating three Holzer books and about 300 IOUs.

(Topside: Holzer speaking a caption for a picture of Holzer.)

Disconnected

The fun and games element used to entice unwilling students into a subject like history can be so disproportionate that there is not even a whiff of content left:
Students at Parkside Middle School [in Minnesota] recreated the battle of Fredericksburg, but instead of guns, they used water balloons. [...] the battle is known one as the most one-sided of the war and a terrible loss for the Union side. The students say this is a great way to learn history.

Jordan Everts, student: "Learning about Fredericksburg, how humiliation is good for the heart and strength can be so powerful, it's fun."
Don't laugh. They enjoyed their water fight and made their "history" teacher feel good about himself.

6/03/2008

Commemorate, don't celebrate

The South Carolina Sesquicentennial commission faces a challenge: "The commission should commemorate events, not celebrate them."

Pre-emptive vandalism

The logic of the news reporter never fails to surprise:
One concerned local civil war buff notes the inscription on Elijah’s stone stating he had been wounded at Gettysburg. Fearing it would become a likely target of destruction, he removed the stone to protect it.
Vandalism with honor?

6/02/2008

The end of the Civil War

Fox News ended its evening newcast tonight celebrating the end of the Civil War on this day in 1865. Today is the day of E.K. Smith's surrender in Galveston.

Surprised and pleased? I am. Not because Fox got the date right but because they overthrew the myth of Appomattox.

Here are the possible dates for "end of the Civil War" ...

(1) Appomattox (4/9/65) - Rationale: best hope of the Confederacy surrenders.

(2) Durham Station (4/26/65) - Rationale: second best hope of the Confederacy surrenders.

(3) Mobile (5/4/65) - Rationale: third best hope of the Confederacy surrenders.

(4) New Orleans (5/26/65) - Rationale: last army east of the Mississippi surrenders.

(5) Irwinsville, GA (5/10/65) - Rationale: president of CSA captured.

(6) Washington (5/10/65) - Rationale: Johnson declares armed resistance at an end.

(7) Galveston (6/2/65) - Rationale: last CSA army west of the Missisippi surrenders.

(8) Doaksville, OK (6/23/65) - Rationale: Confederate Indian tribes surrender.

(9) Havana (11/65) - Rationale: Toombs, John Reagan, Breckinridge, and Kirby Smith fail to form a Confederate government in exile.

(10) Liverpool (11/6/65) - Rationale: CSS Shenandoah surrenders.

Do you see how extreme the Appomattox position is? What's your choice?

Faust was merely the first

We have a new ACW sub-genre: death studies.

If Republic of Suffering represented a neutral survey of the possibilities of Civil War death studies, Schantz's new Awaiting the Heavenly Country takes some hard and fast positions:

They [soldiers] grasped that death itself might be seen as artistically fascinating and even beautiful. - from the book

"The premise of this very interesting and very satisfying book is that an antebellum American culture of death contributed mightily, even decisively, to the destructive nature of the Civil War." - Reviewer


Not that the survey aspects are neglected:
Schantz addresses topics such as the pervasiveness of death in antebellum America; theological discourse and debate on the nature of heaven and the afterlife; the rural cemetery movement and the inheritance of the Greek revival; death as a major topic in American poetry; African American notions of death, slavery, and citizenship; and a treatment of the art of death--including memorial lithographs, postmortem photography and Rembrandt Peale's major exhibition painting The Court of Death.
"The art of death"... Was the ACW fed by a death culture? If so, this seems like an overture made by one death culture (19th century) to another (contemporaneous). I doubt ours can understand theirs.

Doings at Ford's

Ford's Theatre is tapping into that Bicentennial spirit: see here and here.