It was a beautiful summer day last Sunday and I took the family to Antietam battlefield to see some blue skies, cornfields, and monuments. As a former infantryman and (Korean) battlefield tour guide, I explained nothing and said very little. I hate battlefields dressed up as public parks, but I like public parks very much when taken on their own merits.

As we meandered, we crossed paths with a tour group; they were as passive and as relaxed as we were but with enough spark in them to have enlisted a tour guide to inform them of this and that. This park historian, absurdly costumed like a Smokey-the-Bear forest-fire species-protecting give-me-those-matches ranger, was being a good guide. Her energy level was at least two notches above the crowd’s. She was well spoken and she was shouting:

“The irony, the greatest irony of this entire battle was that these Dunkers, who were pacifists, who were abolitionists, who were prohibitionists, lost their church in this battle…”

The poor thing, no doubt an avid reader of pop history, had made a pop history blunder. She had substituted a literary effect for historic truth. The battle was not fought on a Sunday, there were no Dunkers in the church to reap any irony, and no one seems to have checked in with the congregation after the fact to find out how they felt about damage suffered by their precious real estate during an invasion of rebellious slaveholders. Did they have an irony attack? Did they lament the defeat of vile treason at the cost of a church? Did they gripe about lower property values? And, in the scale of historical significance, do the Dunkers’ feelings merit one whit of consideration?

If you want to make false history, project assumptions and then reactions to assumptions. Dress up some nice piece of symbolism in irony. Stage a literary effect. Take the historic meaning of an event and park it under the shade of metaphor, under wordplay, painted with literary effects and analogy. Have a good time. At least you’re in a park, where good times are authorized. Given the high literary quality of today’s Civil War histories, you’ve followed the leaders.

As long as the public understands that historical truth is subject to literary technique, this park ranger will represent history at its best. She is an apt student of the here and now and she knows her audiences.

Given time and some luck, this may change. Imagine park historians doing real history; I'll give a real life example soon.


In the world of Civil War publishing, the last few seasons have been great: important, fresh titles asking for rethinking on key assumptions and, each in its own way, an end to the current , false consensus.

The University Press of Kansas was good enough to send me an advance copy of The War within the Union High Command by Thomas J. Goss, due out in October. Goss attacks the picture of political generals that has been given in military histories and he develops a couple of important themes not generally accepted by most military historians: (1) all Civil War generals were political (2) the requirements on a general often exceeded (and far exceeded) military operations.

As his publicist points out: "With Union armies poised to launch the final campaigns against the Confederacy in 1864, three of its five commanders were “political generals”—appointed officers with little or no military training." How could this happen? The military historian might say that with the lengthening of the war, the political pressures on Lincoln increased, with a correspondingly higher need for political appointments to military duty.

Goss would argue that the three out of five (Butler, banks, Sigel) were there because of their consistent contributions to the war effort. He gently asks conditioned readers to broaden their view of this civil war to include the possibility of political ends being served by political means, even in uniform. "Goss challenges the traditional idea that success was measured only on the battlefield by demonstrating significant links between military success and the achievement of the Union’s political objectives."

Union generals operated in a politically charged environment; their fortunes might rise or fall based on the ups and downs of their political godfathers; they succeeded or failed based on their support in D.C.; the political capital they created (or lost) for their sponsors dictated the course of their careers ... absolutely. Goss does a good job in taking readers through the basics in this, including examinations of the patronage behind McClellan, Burnside, Banks, Butler, Pope, and Sherman. I would have gone much deeper than Goss, but the broad audience is not ready for a deep study of patronage.

In a field where we have hardly gotten beyond military explanations for events, this line of argument would be too much to expect of a new author, and so we are grateful to Goss for at least trying to expand the boundaries of our analysis.


Welcome new readers; I hope this little effort is helpful and stimulating without being too irritating.

These are exciting times for Civil War history. Consider:

* The stream of discovered and published primary material is constant and growing

* The number of independent scholars publishing their work has never been higher

* The number of ACW titles appearing annually has never been greater

At the same time, there is a consensus view of the war that persists. The consensus was slowly and painfully developed through the 1940s through the 1960s. It covers hundreds of individual points of American Civil War history (hence the slowness to build, the pain of achieving).

We know, common sense tells us, that a consensus covering hundreds of points and spanning thousands of published authors is contrived. It is simply not possible for active scholars in a vital field brimming with fresh infusions of primary materials to agree on so much, so vehemently. So something is wrong with our field. We need to fix it. Maybe this blog can help.