12/23/2008

McPherson on Lincoln and Obama

Someone was kind enough to send in this link. James "Concentration-in-Time" McPherson was asked to name similarities between Lincoln and the president elect. He names just one: cool disposition.

I don't understand how someone can see Lincoln this way. His verbal jabs come in an unending stream indicating a continuously poor temper. Centennialists try to make this a McClellan thing, but Lincoln snapped at everyone. When he fully unloads on somebody - say a Carl Schurz - the result is frightening and yet it brings him no lasting peace (he's soon jabbing again). He is often bored and expresses boredom in bad jokes and inappropriate behavior. In between his restlessness from boredom and his uncontrollable flashes of anger are troughs of depression marked by listlessness, inattention, and not-too-masterful inactivity.

At times, he publicly loses control of his impulses. He invites the officer in charge of his security detail to sleep in his bed. He has his cabinet sign a bizarre document signifying nothing but the imminent election of McClellan. He stages an amphibious assault consisting of himself and a few aides against Norfolk. He signs cotton trading permits like there's no tomorrow. He solicits Ben Butler to be his running mate in '64. He gazes over the parapet to watch early assault his position.

The list goes on: cool is Lincoln's missing ingredient.

12/22/2008

Look who's been reading pop history

Seen on today's Daily Reckoning:
Historians will try to make sense of it. But all historians lie. Not intentionally. It's a professional requirement. They look back and think they see a plot. From then on, every circumstance is bent, greased and wedged into the story line. The basic facts are the same any way you look at it; the dramatis personae don't change. But the historian can make readers laugh or cry. He can turn it into morality play or an amoral farce.

12/18/2008

Don't let them spoil your appreciation of history

The Good Fight that Didn't End is a new book collecting the journal entries, letters and newspaper articles of Henry Goddard, a Connecticut cavalry officer. He has a journal entry dated November 10th of a type seen often:
Maj. Gen. G.B. McClellan, having been relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac, we had a grand review from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., the general riding past us and bowing to the cheering, he was accompanied by his successor, Maj. Gen. Burnside. It was a splendid sight, but a sad day for the Army. Curse the politicians who drove the general from his place just as his plans were developing.
At this point, the editor normally inserts an explanation on why the soldier holds foolish opinions not approved by best selling Civil War authors. This editor signally failed to do so.

The next part of the journal entry will look like indecipherable gibberish to the responsible editor and historian alike:
I never was a McClellanite till this last campaign, which has been managed splendidly. We have seized and held every gap in the Blue Ridge before him and got in the rebels rear here at Warrenton, and now he to whom we owe all this is removed.
The journal writer seems to be talking about some imaginary campaign that never happened. If the editor had replaced the passage entirely with elipses [...] he would have saved readers a lot of needless confusion.

Speaking of "gibberish" in another new book, One Continuous Fight, the authors write of Pennsylvania's Gen. Gregg capturing 2,000 Confederate stragglers and 3,000 Confederate wounded in a single incident after Gettysburg. I'm not sure how this could have happened in a pursuit not authorized by Civil War historians, but in round numbers, this looks like 7% of the total force brought by the South onto the battlefield taken in just one incident of the retreat.

If these numbers look "wild," Continuous Fight offers another tidbit a few pages later. Again, the speaker sets out to purposefully confuse the reader. Here is the colonel commanding the 4th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry:
I count up out of five hundred men of my regiment with whom I left Potomac creek, twenty-five with me mounted. The rest are, heaven only knows where, dismounted, killed, wounded, scattered, and not at hand.
His command has become entirely notional - to him. But to us, Civil War historians and readers, there are no notional Union commands, only excuse making and balking. I would have footnoted this passage with a comment about battle fatigue, things we say when stressed, etc.

Before you start wondering about all of this kind of crazy talk, be assured that the quotes listed here will only slip through those works not edited by knowledgeable and vigilant authorities. Stick with brand name authors and especially avoid diaries and letters if you want to maintain that clear-headed, hard-earned understanding you have held for so many years and worked so hard to attain.

Don't let improperly presented source material spoil your appreciation of history.

p.s. These are excellent books, all irony aside, and the point here is that if your author is not "spoiling your appreciation" of previous readings, shame on him.

12/17/2008

Tagg: Where's the team?

Larry Tagg has launched a blog and his first post attacks the Goodwin meme of Lincoln leading a team of rivals working in harness for cause and country. It's really all you could want or expect on the subject from a single blog entry. He sums it up:

"Lincoln’s 'team of rivals' was hardly a success—rather than act as a template for modern administrations, it should be a cautionary tale."
Again, one must ask where are the Lincoln scholars? What island are they vacationing on? Tagg is indeed the author of Lincoln: the Story of the Most Reviled President (as well as his better known Generals of Gettysburg) but his public persona is more that of singer-songwriter.

The heavy lifting is being left to others. Good heavens, I mean they're sending in graduate students to do the talking instead of the professors. Disgraceful.

Exception: Allan Guelzo weighs in with a a firm veto. "Nor did Lincoln encourage rivalry," he notes. Amen. James Oakes, a scholar who is just beginning to turn his attention to Lincoln, is also displeased. He notes, "there was nothing new in what Lincoln did," and "not much of what made him great can be discerned in his appointment of a contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas to his cabinet."

Got another exception to the rule of AWOL Lincoln experts? Send it in.

Meanwhile, nearly all of the flak fired at Goodwin's Zeppelin is coming from mere political bloggers, left and right, who due to their interest in politics have bothered to look at the validity of the meme.

Below the Beltway: Not much of a team, but definitely rivals; Team of Rivals? More like a Dysfunctional Team of Enemies

Demockracy: Team of Dysfunctional Rivals

Open Left: bad analogies can be destructive

Truthdig (Joe Conason): Not a team of rivals at all. Get this:

When the journalistic pack bites into a tasty cliché, they often refuse to let go, lazily chewing and regurgitating a phrase like “team of rivals” long after the flavor is gone.
Hah. Finally, let me quote myself quoting Thomas and Hyman two years ago:

"The intra-cabinet feuding was beyond Lincoln's power to prevent, but he had 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 independant policies to go on at the same time."
Lincoln scholars, your break's over. Get to work.

Hat tip on LT's new blog to Ted Savas.

p.s. An alert correspondent sent in this link about the time this was posted. Foner is quoted but not contra Goodwin; he makes a generic remark about hubris instead.

About all those critical thinkers

I think we all (advanced ACW readers) ask ourselves as we read, "Where did this come from?" and "Why do I believe it?" or "Why does the author believe it?"

We are by nature close readers which makes for critical thinking. At the same time we are confronted by an endless stream of naive, careless work from historians coming out of or going into academia. How can this be?

There is an interesting passage that helps explain the situation in a Defense Intelligence College publication, "Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis." It stunned me:
Despite its importance, critical thinking is not widely taught in schools and universities. A mid-1990s California study on the role of critical thinking in the curricula of 38 public and 28 private universities ... concluded that university faculty members 'feel obliged to both claim familiarity with it and commitment to it in their teaching, despie the fact that ... most have only a vague understanding of what it is and what is involved in brininging it successfully into instruction.' Indeed, the authors of the study found that while 89% of the faculty they interviewed 'claimed critical thinking was the primary objective of their instruction,' only 19% could define the term and only 9% were evidently using it on a daily basis in their instruction.
Emphasis added. You can look more deeply into the study and its sponsors here.

The famous paper that told us how incompetents imagine themselves to be competent ("Unskilled and Unaware of It") seems apt. It appears in the same way that uncritical thinkers imagine themselves to be paragons of critical thought, indeed teachers of critical thought.

And so this river of naive, polemical, nonfiction sludge pours forth. There is no reducing it, much less stopping the flow.

(Image from despair.com)

12/16/2008

Team of Rivals: publishing datapoints

Surprise: No one in the UK has bothered to put out Team of Rivals.

However next year, Viking will release it in UK on the slender hope of a presidential connection and a wash of Bicentennial publicity. (Any movie tie-in will not activate until 2010 at the earliest.)

The story reporting these things also says that "the book has sold more than 1.5 million copies" in the USA. (That would be 273,000 copies per year for the five-and-a-half years it's been out.) This bit is interesting as well:
The deal was done through Karolina Sutton at Curtis Brown for a "modest" sum.

12/11/2008

A new book from Ethan Rafuse

A Maryland campaign guidebook is out - one that probably lacks the requisite errors, invective, and ridicule. Nevertheless... see top of list.

A Wal-Mart for the Wilderness

"Historians fight proposed Wilderness Wal-Mart."

More detail is available from the local paper.

Funny, I had never before heard of the "National Coalition for History:"
NCH is a consortium of over 60 organizations that advocates on federal legislative and regulatory issues affecting historians, archivists, teachers, researchers, and other stakeholders.

12/09/2008

Glenn LaFantasie: McPherson critic

Civil War and diplomatic historian Glenn LaFantasie has been running quite a good ACW blog and recently posted a most thorough review of McPherson's Tried By War.

Glenn's review represents a superset of the Tried by War criticisms voiced on this blog. He is irked by McPherson's "relaxed and slatternly approach" in data handling and considers that this effort "seriously calls his exalted position into question."

He notes not only McPherson's borrowings from other writers but his underhanded way of repackaging those takings in a way that gives him credit for what he has appropriated.

I can write multiple posts just on this one review (maybe I will) but read it yourself. It represents the complete indictment of an utterly dishonest and slovenly effort.

Great stuff, don't miss it.

(Update, 12/11/08: Glenn informed me that he uses posting dates to order the content on the site and that the March 2007 date on the post is not the publishing date - the posting went up this month. My own post, above, has been modified to reflect that.)

More Gomorrah than the law allows

You've seen it on Drudge and elsewhere: the governor of Illinois has been arrested at long last.

The sudden resignation of Richard Norton Smith as head of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) some two years ago now looks slightly less mysterious. Blagojevich, flaboyantly and openly pay-to-play, must have scared Smith.

This has ramifications for the past and present staffing of the ALPLM. Even Newsweek understood this three weeks ago, with the arrest of the ALPLM's political rainmaker.

I say "even Newsweek" because the community of Lincoln authors and scholars has maintained an ironclad silence, refusing to issue any comment about the ALPLM, its fallen director, its compromised board, and the context of corruption in which it operated. Future directions, suggestions for new directors? Nothing.

This tells us that Lincoln writers and researchers view the ALPLM as something owned and operated by Illinois (or "others") rather than something of their own. It suggests that this tourism mecca was "disowned" without fanfare early on and intellectual interest in it remains as low as it has ever been. That's the charitable explanation.

There is a second possibility. Here in the realm of Civil War history, we have all types of historians: researchers, storytellers, analysts, genealogists, collectors, art experts, antiquers, etc. On the other hand, I notice that the Lincoln crowd is all too much of one thing only: public historians.

As previously noted here, public historians have a Gomorrah ethos. As Lot argued with God that He should spare the cities on the plain if one righteous resident could be found, the public historian argues that no expense is wasted, no narrative is too twisted, no presentation is too perverse if even one little child can eventually be brought to the altar of history thereby.

This Gomorrah ethos explains how the Lincoln crowd can be indifferent to a Goodwin book, an ALPLM crisis, the Bicentennial minstrel show, endless knick knackery, and various publicly staged imbecilities. As long as the "greatness" message comes though, a child may feel the magic, and then someday...

What? Design fantasy exhibits for a patronage sink?

12/08/2008

Draw


Speaking of Civil War poker, Harry Smeltzer reminds us that Union BG Robert Schenck actually "wrote the book on poker" - as seen above. (Note how he has morphed from "general" to "the honorable.")

Logrolling in our time (cont.)

Russell Bonds writes:

Have you seen the NY Times top 10 books for 2008? Two things of note:

1. Faust makes the list with Republic of Suffering - a "powerful book"

2. 9 of the 10 books were
published by Random House (7 of those under Knopf). Wow. Small and university presses need not apply?

At 15.9% of the market share, 90% of the list being Random House stuff is a red flag.

The byline on this piece belongs to the "editors of the Book Review" of the New York Times. Editors are those people who are supposed to notice things going wrong and right them. But if you work in a place where the editors write and no one edits, you might be working in a failing business dragged low by a collapsing ethos. Your tragic workplace then becomes a much bigger talking point around the water cooler than any lopsided book choices.

Let's look at the first book review in the omnibus.* Note that this first book is by one Millhauser who is also a reviewer for the NY Times. His book is a collection of short stories. A collection of short stories topped the list of great books in 2008. Remember all of those short story collections you read this year? This one was the best. And it just happened to be by a NYT contributor. Go team!

The third ranked book in the list is also by a NYT contributor, a fellow named O'Neill. It's a novel about New York written by a New York Times contributor. Yeah team! We're hittin' it out of the park here at the Times.

Let's see. Twenty percent rolling our own logs, 70% rolling logs for the editors at Knopf, with a 20% log rolling effort reserved for other pals at Random House. Let the other 84% of the market take care of itself.

* If, BTW, these editors think that Nabokov was a "fabulist" who "invents spookily plausible parallel universes" their employer will need to take out a second mortgage.

Publisher rankings from
here.

"Logrolling in Our Time" was a feature that tracked publishing corruption in in the defunct Spy magazine.

Here and there

Civil War invention: five card stud poker and the straight hand. (This drives up the number of active re-enactors by a lot.)

Judah Benjamin has a new website. The site makes him a cofounder of the Illinois Central, a nugget missing from Wiki. McClellan and Banks gain a connection if true.

Newest Lincoln re-enactor: Conan O'Brien March 2 at Ford's. Andy Richter as Mary Lincoln?

12/03/2008

Bantam and Doubleday may fold

Gawker is predicting the imminent demise of the Bantam and Doubleday divisions of Random House.

Civil War publishing will not be affected.

Bantam has been weak in ACW publishing although it used to publish military titles generally; Doubleday lacks an ACW publishing as well, although that marque has been running a book club with some ACW offerings.

Another McClellan-at-Gettysburg report

The excellent new Gettysburg Union pursuit study, One Continuous Fight, contains one new (to this blog) McClellan report from a Sergeant Charles T. Bowen of the 12th U.S. Infantry. Bowen hears that McClellan is advancing at the head of 40,000 Pennsylvania militia: "If this is true, I rather think the rebs will find a warm spot somewhere around here," he notes.

Bowen's writing, Dear Friends at Home, was published by Butternut & Blue seven years ago and adds to our GBM-at-Gettysburg stockpile (see here, here, here, and here).

The point of the blogging thread, McClellan-at-Gettysburg, was to emphasize the difference between history as received and history as experienced. For many veterans, McClellan was part of their Gettysburg experience. The "fact" of his presence being "false" makes their experience worthless to many historians who produce an account of the battle outside of the experience of its participants.

And we reward them for this.

One Continuous Fight by Wittenberg, Petruzzi, and Nugent, is very much about the same problem. It sets history experienced by the AoP after Gettysburg against the reader's naive beliefs about the battle's aftermath. The reader's views, based as they are on sanitized historical "truths" tend to show up as "false" in matters of experience, memory, and activity.

It must be embarassing to the many dead on both sides to have been killed in the midst of a pursuit that never took place.

More on Continuous in a future post. Meanwhile, keep searching for anomalies.

12/01/2008

Debunking "Team of Rivals"

Matthew Pinsker, someone I would characterize more as a political historian of the Civil War than a Lincoln historian, has stepped up to the plate to knock down Goodwin's meme of there being a "team" of rivals in Lincoln's cabinet.

Not to diminish Pinsker's editorial, but anyone who has access to cabinet diaries can do the same.

The special value added here is his pointing out the considerable political cost Lincoln paid by putting defeated competitors in his government - a cost that hurt Lincoln's effectiveness and thus - inevitably, one may conclude - the war effort.

The behavior of Lincoln scholars in this matter has continued to be utterly contemptible.