9/29/2009

Gusher

As I play catch up compiling titles for listing on Civil War Book News, I am overwhelmed by the number of cheaply rushed-to-market reprints with no value added. Publishers are going to print with bicycles and seashores on their insta-covers; most shockingly, they can't be bothered to write a description of the book for Amazon or B and N where the title is listed.

Here's someone who did design a cover and write a description but he pioneers a new shortcut to market. From the description:
This is an OCR edition with typos.
Beautiful.

I have never excluded titles (except juvenile) from listing at that site but have had to make a new policy: If you're a reprint with no description listed, good luck.

May extend this exclusion policy to all paperback editions previously listed in HB as well as simple reprints lacking revision.

Ugh!

9/26/2009

9/25/2009

Lincoln's councils vs. Jomini's councils

Lincoln's persistence in forcing on McClellan councils of war reminds me of a passage in JFC Fuller's The Foundations of the Science of War in which he quotes Jomini at length. Fuller sets up the quote with an observation close to my own heart: during peace, generals "are always talking about command, and the qualifications of the commander, [then] the first thing they do when war is declared is to abrogate it." (Nowadays they are delighted to surrender command either in peace or war.)

Then comes Jomini:
It has been thought, in succession, in almost all armies, that frequent councils of war, by aiding the commander with their advice, give more weight and effect to the direction of military operations. Doubtless if the commander were a Soubise, a Clermont, or a Mack, he might well find in a council of war opinions more valuable than his own; the majority of the opinions given might be preferable to his; but what success could be expected from operations conducted by others than those who have originated and arranged them? What must be the result of an operation which is but partially understood by the commander, since it is not his conception?

I have undergone a pitiable experience as prompter [aide] at headquarters, and no one has a better appreciation of the value of such services than myself, and it is particularly in a council of war that such a part is absurd. The greater the number and the higher the rank of the military officers who compose the council, the more difficult will it be to accomplish the triumph of truth and reason, however small be the amount of dissent.

What would have been the action of a council of war to which Napoleon proposed the movement of Arcola, the crossing of the Saint Bernard, the manoeuvre at Ulm, or that at Gera and Jena? The timid would have regarded them as rash, even to madness; others would have seen a thousand difficulties of execution, and all would have concurred in rejecting them; and if, on the contrary, they had been adopted, and had been executed by anyone but Napoleon, would they not certainly have proved failures?

In my opinion, councils of war are a deplorable resource, and can be useful only when concurring in opinion with the commander, in which case they may give him more confidence in his own judgment, and, in addition, assure him that his lieutenants, being of his opinion, will use every means to ensure the success of the movement. This is the only advantage of a council of war, which, moreover, should be simply consultative and have no further authority; but if, instead of this harmony, there should be difference of opinion, it can only produce unfortunate results.
The careful reader, noting the use Lincoln made of his cabinet's counsel, understands that it was never really about councils of war anyway.

9/24/2009

Habitats of the great spotted errata

If you've ever tried to correct an error in Civil War publishing (or pontificating), have a laugh and be glad we aren't reading physics. (Incident is certified true in the first addendum.)

9/23/2009

McChrystal and ACW strategy

Civil War readers who want to stretch their strategy legs a bit might enjoy reading Stanley McChrystal's report to the sitting administration. Spoiler alert: don't read further down if you want fresh impressions from the link. Read the linked document first.

***

My view of the current general officer corps is reflected in an earlier post, and it strikes me that this is what you'd expect from that cohort: a policy brief asking for policy commitments rather than a strategic assessment with recommendations. It goes without saying that Civil War authors and readers become positively unhinged when they see policy discussed by generals, especially in certain Harrison Bar letters, so you likely caught this yourselves.

What was required was a paper that says, "If you define victory as this, here's what we can achieve; if you define it as that, here's what we can achieve; if you want status quo, here's what's needed." Also, "Here's what's happening as I see it."

Sometimes, today's bureaucrat in uniform will will excuse himself from reviewing and presenting any options to civilian leaders by saying "There are no good options." That leaps to a policy conclusion (not the job of a soldier) without investing work in option development for civilian review. The current chair of the Joint Chiefs is an absolute master at this as was his predecessor.

This report has its merits and it is interesting to see history unfold, especially when it puts to use our reading and thinking from another sphere.

The antebellum duel

As conceived by Tony Millionaire.

Journalist massacres Centralia story

Curious news: the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War appears to be dedicating a memorial to the Union victims of the Centralia massacre on Sunday. A memorial honoring the Rebels has been on the site since 2006, says the AP.

Union catch-up after locals honored Bloody Bill Anderson?

More likely, the crack journalists of the Associated Press have confused the Centralia Massacre with the Battle of Centralia days later, and perhaps mixed up the honorees.

"Confederate soldiers who died in the battle have been honored at the site since 2006," says the wire. What site? Is AP referring to this historical marker as a Confederate memorial? It's not on the battle site and it's not a memorial.

Let's disentangle some professional journalism to get nearer the truth:

(1) Union soldiers killed in the battle have been honored since 1957 by this Centralia memorial. It's in a graveyard.

(2) The Daughters are erecting a memorial to Union victims of the train/depot massacre (which triggered the battle days later).

(3) There is a battlefield info station in Centralia Park that explains the clash that followed the massacre. It is not on the battlefield.

(4) There appears to be no collective memorial to Confederate battle dead at Centralia, nor to the butchery of Bill Anderson, unless it is on private property and kept quiet.

The biggest question is where is the new monument? AP began its story: "A Civil War battlefield in central Missouri has a new monument..." Do they mean a public park is getting a new monument?

Perhaps this is misinformation from the Daughters. Why would victims of a massacre at the depot be honored on a battlefield? Especially since that battlefield land is inaccessible, not public. (Again, the battlefield marker is itself in a geographically irrelevant public park.)

Have you ever seen a story in which almost every piece of information is wrong?

Missouri readers, help us out here.

History majors

History majors 1970/71 to 2003/04 ("the last academic year with available figures") declined from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent of the undergraduate body.

The author lumps history's decline in with that of the "literary humanities."

9/17/2009

ACW blogging

Larry Tagg is actively blogging again but the topics are presidential rather than ACW per se. I was worried about Larry but did not label his blogroll link "inactive".

In fact, some inactive listings have come to life (glad I kept them on the blogroll).

Billy Yank is back but the lure of the daily headline keeps him out of Civil War topics.

Brian Dirck, whom I also labeled inactive for awhile, has the latest Lincoln movie news.

Civil War Sources is now quite active.

And I'll round up the newly dormant links in a separate post.

9/16/2009

Earl Hess in the Trenches

There is much to like in Earl Hess's In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat -- and I like it very much. This is a book that fills a gap, rounds off a good series, and breaks new ground. It has interesting (and necessary) information on nearly every page. The photos and diagrams add information and pleasure.

Although Trenches may be an author's triumph it is – sadly - an editor's failure.

Hess has drawn his target and placed the shot square in the center. But the target is too narrowly drawn and the important data is off his periphery; his editors needed to counsel him. This is the main problem. The second issue is in editors not forcing the issue of the details not being detailed enough (as a former builder and user of entrenchments there is much more that I want to know). Finally, overlaying it all, seem to be some general publishing decisions that really rankle. Let me start with those.

The titles, main and sub, are misleading. "In the Trenches" implies an Osprey-like approach that puts the reader hard in the material world of dug mud. This is where you live; this is how you eat; here's how supplies are distributed; here's how you repel an attack; your latrine is over there; your parapet is this high. That's not what this book is about.

If the title is misleading, the subtitle is obnoxious: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat. Hess has an ill-conceived throwaway line in the preface that may have been sourced for the subtitle: "Field fortifications helped to bring about final Confederate defeat in the Civil War." When you make such a statement, you are committing to a line of argument. When you put it in the title, you're doubling down on a promise to show how entrenchments used by all defeated one side but not the other. That promise is never seriously taken up. This has the appearance of cynically greasing the skids to a broader audience by enlarging the scope of the work (virtually, not in fact).

The press release for this book, by contrast, gets it right: "This book covers all aspects of the [Petersburg] campaign…" A title should have been crafted to reflect that. Note the campaign content in earlier titles: Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864; Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign.

What we are looking at here are campaign histories with an emphasis on field fortifications. If you come to this book expecting a monograph on entrenchments, forget it.

And this may explain our next glaring editorial failure. As this is the third title in a series, we would expect an essay that acts as a capstone, telling us where we've been, how and what changed, and what it all means. There is not even a single paragraph summary at the end of Trenches to tie the three works together. If the editors viewed these as stand-alone narrative histories with no analytic connection, only then could we arrive at such a decision.

Moreover, Hess in this work recasts the historiography of Petersburg offensives – an innovation. He rejects the current structure of classifying offensives and creates his own – which undoubtedly is offered here for future use to other historians. The effect is to tilt the emphasis even further away from analyzing field fortifications towards an overall weighting as campaign narrative.

By allowing Hess to draw the topical circle so narrowly, major issues loom to trouble the reader. What did the builders of the trenches intend? How did they fit into the operational plan – if there was an operational plan (or do trenches signify the abandonment of operational planning?). What did Grant and Meade think they were doing? Never mind the lip service of past historians, what were they or their subordinates trying to do?

Opportunities for comparison abound and since Hess wrote books about earlier uses of entrenchments, we would expect comparisons, but these are missing -- another odd editing anomaly.

In Battle Tactics of the Civil War, Paddy Griffith pointed out that the manpower-per-foot of entrenchments faced by the Union at Yorktown was much denser than that faced at Petersburg: he gave his calculations. Why wouldn't more comparative data like that be rendered here and then analyzed?

Another striking thing for the early war historian is the conduct of the siege at Yorktown compared with the entrenching done around Petersburg. The overriding Union purpose at Yorktown was to prepare for an extended, obliterating artillery strike, followed by an advance with an amphibious landing behind the shattered lines. Artillery – and the will to use it – are afterthoughts in Hess's book. Entrenchment seems to be an end in itself rather than any means to an end. The entrenchers are not campaigning at all but seem to be acting out the very parody of siegework as misportrayed by Republican editorialists early in the war. This raises historiographic issues which again are left outside the scope of the work.

Viewed as a campaign narrative we lack here the various commanders' intentions; viewed as a monograph on trench warfare, we lack structure, analysis and depth; viewed historiographically, we have here a new way of counting the battles around Petersburg; viewed as the last part of a trilogy, we have lost our train of thought. I think Earl Hess had in mind a book that interested him and he wrote it for himself, not a bad thing at all. I encourage you to read it.

His editors, however, missed their chance to make the "interesting" important.

9/09/2009

Civil War drawings shown

A large stash of vivid, unpublished Civil War drawings is on display in Boston. Unfortunately, they are illegible in this news story. The museum site offers better views and the 650-picture collection has its own site. Best is the browse-by-subject page.

Shown above: detail from McClellan's Laurel Hill pursuit of Garnett. The on-the-scene artist wrote, "Raining in torrents. Mud over ankles. Men worn out. At first cannon shot they waked up and at every shot quickened their steps till the[y] came in leaning forward and going double quick. Military stores of all description scattered on the road."

9/02/2009

A complete guide

The Complete Gettysburg Guide is a new kind of guidebook. It doesn't set up a new paradigm for guidebooks, but rather adjusts each standard component to produce a large overall change. This makes it as different from ordinary guidebooks as an army staff ride is from, say, a battlefield tour.

Consider a basic, conventional guide. There's a map, usually B&W, showing roads but little detail, with numbers that key to explanatory text. The idea behind the numbers drives the organization of the guide. The spots on the ordinary tour map can be there based on popularity; accessibility; efficiency of touring; and, very often, "ownership" (belonging to a park). The sequence of stops can be based on covering-the-most-ground-in-a-day; or "must see" criteria; or places being closest to the road; or richness of historical data for that spot. This builds a high degree of arbitrariness into most tour guides. Here, author J. David Petruzzi and his publisher address arbitrariness as a matter of "completeness." The title, The Complete Gettysburg Guide, could as well have been The Rational Gettysburg Guide, or The Historian's Gettysburg Guide, chronology providing the motive organizing the "spots" in this work.

The work (which has its own website) follows the time sequence of days, beginning with opening cavalry clashes and finishing with follow-on battles. (It includes , at the end of the book, visits to cemeteries and rock carvings, which are obviously off the timeline.) The narrative is keyed, not to your day, or an allotted time you will spend in any one spot, but rather to the event, with events broken up intra-day (you might say into "phases"). Each of these phases gets its own beautiful map by Steven Stanley adorned with a clock. The map shows dispositions as they were on terrain as it was; the clock allows the visitor to align time of day to the tour; and the historic description of events allows visualization of events in place.

I mentioned adjusting components. The maps are spectacular, as anyone who receives Stanley's maps in CWPT mailings could expect. The minimum position for publisher Savas Beatie would have been to provide a route map; here we see many top-notch battle maps as a kind of bonus. The clock aspect is also important in maintaining fidelity to timeline – the organizing principle for the whole tour.

Another adjustment: the battle narrative. These are not here compiled or recapped from same-old-same-old; J.D. Petruzzi has researched and written material that would otherwise stand alone in a splendidly written work based on new accounts and including fresh contemporary (and current) imagery. There is a great deal of good reading here, irrespective of touring.

So we have these vivid, and interesting battle descriptions – good history - graced by fascinating maps and novel imagery inhabiting a guide book done completely in color, the "guide" part of which is also special.

On a mechanical level, the guidance, the driving instructions, is at a level of detail rarely seen, involving tenths of a mile and GPS numbers. GPS is becoming more common in guides, but here the driving instructions are painstaking and perhaps idiot proof. (Let me try them out before certifying them idiot proof.) More important, Petruzzi is moving the reader around a lot, intra-spot. The user is looking at an event from multiple angles - and I do mean multiple!

One charming thing is that the directions are boundary free. You may wind up in someone's field or driveway or parking lot; the points of interest are not organized on the principle of park limits.
The book design and production are another area in which the idea of the guide book is kicked up a couple of notches. This reasonably priced hardback is done entirely in color, as I said, and it follows the best principles behind magazine design - Steve Stanley did the design as well as the maps. It is laid out better than your glossy ACW mags and includes sidebars, breakout quotes, and more and better relevant imagery. It is a completely thought-out book that may remind older readers of the joy once brought to them by the American Heritage History of the Civil War. Kudos to the team: to J.D., Steve Stanley, and their publisher.

A final word that seems never to make it into guidebook reviews. Whether an author intends it or not, the guidebook is a produced and directed artistic experience. I'm not referring to the physical book but to the effects on the user who is being directed. There is little doubt in my mind that J.D. Petruzzi has distilled into his directions and narrative a specific - and beautiful - experience that he wants me to have. Guidebooks like this are rare and ambitious; a Russian mystic once said that great art attempts to produce the same reaction in all experiencers. This looks like an attempt in that class.

This is a tome that can be thoroughly enjoyed without leaving home – perhaps an unintended consequence of its excellence. I intend, however, to use some of these glorious, dry, cool September days to try the book out. If any guidebook deserves to be exercised, this one does.

Russell Bonds

Thinking about what I wrote yesterday: as I go deeper into the immensity of War Like the Thunderbolt, it becomes plainer that there is bigger story.

This is a long book (517 pp in the advance reader's copy) sustained at the highest literary standard in which Russell Bonds maintains - despite the limits of a narrative structure - an honest historic sensibility with justice to evidence for all. There may be quibbles, and the author does like the occasional sly-and-dry dig, but he is all about getting at the facts of the matter rather than slighting evidence to pour formula down the throats of the reader.

Friends, those who read Sears while despising his dogmas, say to me they buy his books out of love for his writing. Here is a better writer with fewer dogmas. They like the vividness, the knitting together of contemporary testimony Sears offers. Here, there is more testimony, and it is fresher. They like the campaign focus in title after title combined with an epic perspective in each. Thunderbolt has this, in greater proportion here, as if matched to the broader geography encompassed in the story.

So, it seems to me possible that Sears, no longer able to deliver new works at reasonable intervals, is to be overtaken in the marketplace by one who writes better English, writes better history, and who satisfies more reader needs than those that made Sears a top-seller. I am not only comparing Bonds to Sears per Sears but more to the point, Sears as the leading popular Civil War author ... the survivor of a once popular genre. To see the (to me, close) interval between Stealing the General and Thunderbolt, and considering the quality of each work, stamina speaks out and the potential seems to be here for the first major new Civil War author in a generation publishing general works at intervals to a standard that generates (and deserves) an enthusiastic following.

This is all market talk and something of an injustice to the author's inherent merits, but I want to finish in the same vein. His many virtues we'll take up another time.

The end of Centennial dominance of ACW publishing has arrived as we knew it would. The authors have died out; among the survivors, results are meager, activity is low. Exciting new studies appear with discoveries and analysis faster than the old guard can assimilate them or discredit their authors. The pot has been heating but has not come to a boil.

My own anti-narrative biases led me to hope that the big change we long for would come not just through new content but through new forms, non-narrative forms. Grandpa would be thrown out with the bathwater. I was naive. Thunderbolt suggests that narrative will replace narrative in the same market and for the same readers, except that it will be better narrative informed by better history dealt out by an honest broker aimed respectfully at a knowing audience.

This may then be how the Centennial ends, and this therefore is no place for any petulance over historiographic form. Whomever frees us and however he gets here, we need to be free.

Thank you Russell and thank you new and future narrative historians. It will be your skill and sensibility in managing narrative that sets you above what went before.

9/01/2009

"War Like the Thunderbolt"

The Wall Street Journal has excerpted a chapter from Russell Bonds' new book, "War Like the Thunderbolt." This is accompanied by an book review by Winston Groom - which seems to have been written by one of Groom's characters, Forrest Gump. It's accompanied by a similarly distracting comments section ("I'm no expert but I got this a few years ago from watching BookTV and I forget the author's name...").

But good for Russell - two placements in the Journal, three cheers. Could it be his publisher, Westholme, has some juice?

Graced with an advanced copy, I can say that this is beautifully written narrative history. It is exactly what the Civil War nonfiction buyer is looking for. Bonds is careful in his research, artistic in his assembly of testimony, deliberate in his analysis, cautious in judgement, gentle with reputations, measured in his tempo, and interesting throughout.

Narrative history is not for me. This book is so well done, it takes away all the easy criticisms a typical narrative reading offers and puts me up against the bedrock, generic issues of narrative structure per se. That has nothing to do with Russll Bonds, however, and can be saved for a future meditation.

Meanwhile I continue to read, enjoy, and highly recommend this book.