A token plan (cont.)

Let’s have some more fun with history. Please pull down any suitable ACW history you have and look up “Anaconda.” It tends to be indexed under Scott.

Go to the first reference and follow the end note (or footnote). You’ll find one reference given – at most, two. Collection permitting, pull another work and repeat the experiment. This is the neat part: you’ll again have just one reference (at most, two) but it/they may be different! My first three pulls yielded three separate single sources! Civil War history is a carnival fun house, for sure.

In this post, you’re going to get six references to the Anaconda, more, I think, than have ever appeared in one place in any work of Civil War history. At the end of this, you’ll be loaded for Anaconda.

Now, why would an author footnote this Anaconda business at all? This use of notation is out of line with historical practice (see addendum after the post). It baffles me why McPherson, Eicher, et al, were noting Anaconda and then, of all things, linking it to a single source.

Perhaps the author is telling the reader, “I am recapping information from this one source only.” Well, why would you embarrass yourself this way when the subject must be composited from multiple sources? Why call attention to lousy research?

If you want to footnote Anaconda, do as D.S. Freeman did on so many occasions; name all the sources, say how they differ or agree, and add whatever historiographic comment is appropriate.

On to the references:

(1) A recent history of Bull Run mentions the initial trace of the Anaconda taking form in Scott’s letter to Seward of March 3, 1861. If you look at the letter, it has a single remark about blockading ports if duties are not collected. This is not enough to mark the genesis of a more complex idea.

(2) A letter sent by McClellan to Scott on April 27 contains elements of a national strategy. Scott passes GBM’s missive on to Lincoln with marginalia critical of McClellan’s ideas. Scott’s comments run a mere 13 lines when printed out on 8.5x11” paper. The last two sentences propose a cordon of ships on the Mississippi and a seaboard blockade in lieu of McClellan’s proposals. This skimpy bit is cited by some authors as their second Anaconda reference given in addition to one of the substantive notes below. People who mention this source, however, miss an opportunity to observe that Scott’s last two sentences are abrupt in a way that suggests this topic was already known to Lincoln. The whole act of passing McClellan’s ideas on to Lincoln this way implies the rounding out of an earlier Scott-Lincoln discussion.

(3) Some authors cite Scott’s letter to McClellan of May 2, 1861 as their principal source. This letter runs to a total of four paragraphs. Just one paragraph outlines Scott’s broad conception of an advance down the Mississippi while the seaboard is blockaded. It lacks details or substance.

(4) Scott’s letter to McClellan dated May 21, 1861 is a favorite citation. This again is four paragraphs in length and only one paragraph contains elements of his strategic thinking. Scott here makes some suggestions and asks McClellan to (a) comment on the ideas and (b) offer specific details to round out the conception. Rather than representing a plan, this letter invites a discussion that could lead to a plan someday.

(5) Some mention that Scott shared his plans with newspapermen and that Anaconda was described in the press. A news report would seem to me to offer a more complete picture of this “plan” than the fragments of Scott’s own writings that are currently used. I have yet to see a specific newspaper reference cited by authors, however.

(6) Nicolay and Hay left an account of the Cabinet meeting of June 29, 1861, which is linked to Scott’s defense of the Anaconda by Detzer and the compilation Lincoln Day by Day. I don’t have N&H available as I write this, but it seems from the summaries that in the meeting, Scott proposed to start an army down the Mississippi while delaying McDowell’s advance into Virginia.

And there we have it; the skinny historiographical sticks on which pop history spins the china plates of its engrossing infotainment. Oddly enough, there is no plan on file, no memorandum in Lincoln’s or Seward’s papers, no preliminary orders, nor anything tangible to promote these scraps above the rank of concepts.

Even stone soup needs some ingredients.

On to the ideas next. Some correspondence will be posted separately.

Sherman Kent’s Writing History was published in 1941, during the great Lincoln revival that presaged the great ACW book boom, and Kent, then a Yale historian, said this about the use of citations:
Many of the statements made in the text demand validation. The reader has the right to ask, “Where did he get that?” and the writer has an obligation to answer. The reader however will not question all the statements. The parts of the essay he will especially wish to have footnoted are these: (1) all direct quotations, unless obviously familiar; (2) quotations and paraphrases of documents or passages from sources, monographs, and other secondary work; (3) statistical material … (4) iconoclastic remarks … statements which at first blush seem improbable; (5) new ideas from the sources not found in the texts and monographs; (6) specific statements from newspapers… Facts of common knowledge … need no citation..
The closest match to our Anaconda citers might be (2) in which the author is telling us he is paraphrasing a single source and inviting us to compare the paraphrase with the source. This is still bad citation and bad history as the Anaconda does not sit neatly summarized in a single source (again, with the possible exception of an undiscovered newspaper article somewhere).