Richard Norton Smith, the TV commentator, writer of presidential histories, ex-CEO of several presidential libraries, has been nominated by the governor of Illinois to head the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

The glaring question is whether the head of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum needs to know much about Lincoln. Smith has written many books, but none on Lincoln (to my knowledge). Now, if he is no good at administration, he will need a shadow administrator. If he is no good at fund raising, he will need a shadow fundraiser. If he is weak on Lincoln matters, he will need a shadow scholar. It could be that Smith is an expert administrator and a fine fund raiser as well as being completely up to date on Lincoln studies. In that case the governor has done well.

The previous governor tried to address the scholarship requirement in a creative and appropriate way, by tying the Library and Museum to the University of Illinois at Springfield where a new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Center for Governmental Studies was created. The school's experts would provide the Lincoln bona fides, while the head of the Library and Museum could be just a public face trading on celebrity for the good of the institution. "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Mac Neil." This way, you could have a publicity hound at the helm and scholarship would still be served. You could even have a worthless political hack at the helm of the Library and Museum and real Lincoln work would be done.

The current governor has overturned these arrangements in addition to nominating Smith thus underlining the Library and Museum's function as a tourist mecca, an engine of economic growth, rather than a center of scholarship.

We can admire the governor's acuity in seeing the connection between pop history and tourism. Just as artists are political pawns when acting as shock troops of urban gentrification, so historians often provide the siren voices luring visitors to sites designated "engines of economic growth."

Who says libraries and museums have to be centers of scholarship anyway?

Time for a new feature.

NEWS | Antietam battlefield suffers storm damage ** Gettysburg foundation unveils new plans for battlefield facilities ** Compromise offered on CSA flag over Missouri graveyard ** Mississippi group addresses unmarked ACW graves ** Iowa town bans Rebel flags ** Lincoln scholar Jaffa attacks positivists at Princeton** Cheney tours Chickamauga**


Have you seen this very heartening story about Louisiana's plans for developing Fort Randolph and the Red River campaign corridor? According to current plans, the emphasis will be on the marvelous engineering story to be told. This is powerful because it makes the site an artifact that can be explained, touched, and pondered;it makes history immediate, a far cry from the high-level regurgitated pop history served up by federal park historians at too many National Park Service sites. This is shaping up as state custody at its best.

And speaking of that oddity of federal service, the "park historian," did anyone ever suspect that the Corps of Engineers employs archaeologists? They are involved in some business involving the reclamation of the CSS Georgia. Local groups will try to raise money to incorporate the ironclad's remains in Savannah's Battlefield Park, which is devoted mainly to the Revolutionary War siege of the city. It is a well thought-out state site: "The National Park Service surveyed the site in the 1970s, but dismissed its historical significance." Lucky Savannah.

In other Confederate Navy news, a political fight is developing in South Carolina over the corpses found on the raised submarine Hunley. There is a plan to lay them in state on government property and it seems Republicans are in favor and Democrats against. No Union men were ever so honored. By Republicans. Or Democrats.


The state of Civil War history, part 5 of 5

If McClellan's postwar Secret History project pointed the way towards a more complete understanding of events, it should be noted that nothing like it has been attempted by historians.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in his Diary (never intended for publication) offers a running commentary on which Cabinet officer is backing which military career and to what effect at any given time; and he gives us his understanding of the political genesis of this or that campaign. Welles' diary was published fully after its discovery; since the ascent of Cattonized history, the one version to appear that I know of (David Donald's, out of print) has been heavily edited and interpolated with comments to deflect many of Welles' clear and simple observations into more acceptable frameworks and to make Welles' material less offensive to the "master narrative" followed by writers and publishers today. Welles Diary could be the starting point of a reconstructed Civil War master narrative.

The Welles material can be correlated with other Cabinet diaries, long since unpublished. There is also much rich private and confidential correspondence. The vitriolic, harsh letters Montgomery Blair sent to General Ben Butler in their mutual intrigues against General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, for example, go a long way toward explaining the origins of the Bull Run campaign. (These have not published except electronically, on a subscription service.)

Even if one were to self-consciously limit one's self to strictly military matters, the Cattonized narrative cannot stand up under examination in light of fresh sources ... many of which have been available for years but ignored by popular historians. Russel H. Beatie has consciously set out to use such sources in developing a military history and, also self-consciously, revise Catton/Nevins/Sears/McPherson. What he is producing is not McClellan's Secret History, nor is it a full and accurate account of the war, but it is a first step: getting the military side of the story straight.

The travesty against history embodied in the formula "Lincoln Finds a General" has finally been challenged in the sphere of commercial publishing. To take on the entire Civil War history establishment with just three books is no trivial matter, however. Now is the time for others to join in a complete and critical review of the shabby history left us by by fifty years of "great" storytelling.


The state of Civil War history, part 4 of 5

General George McClellan probably interacted with more Union political figures than any general in the Civil War. He mentioned, after the war in a letter to his future literary executor, that he had started a project he called his "Secret History" and that this woulld be a true account of his relations with various political figures. The idea struck him in Europe, shortly after the war. He said little more about it, except that the writing was in the form of various memoranda.

Stephen Sears, in Young Napoleon, confused McClellan's Secret History with a McClellan book manuscript destroyed in a New York warehouse fire. The burned book, if surviving notes are any indication, would have been a military history of the type published posthumously under the title McClellan's Own Story. The Secret History was something different and has never been found.

If we take McClellan's goal, a "true history" of the war based on civil- military interactions, we realize that we can now begin to outline it without requiring his personal recollections. Enough diaries have been published, enough letters, enough memoirs.

The assiduous historian, sidestepping the single-track, narrow-guage railroad laid by American History and its partisans, will encounter powerhouse state governors mapping regional military strategy in gubernatorial summit meetings; minor cabinet members issuing military orders to officers in the field; unknown generals like Hitchcock, Patterson, Dix, Lane, Hunter and Sherman working in tandem with congressmen and cabinet members for major military ends; and one will even find Eastern campaigns no one has even heard of, like Winfield Scott's 1861 three-pronged operation against Harper's Ferry -- a clever victory that fathered many Union defeats.

McClellan, then envisioned what a full history of the war would include. We know, from studying his career, that he understood the following basic Civil War facts:

* Individual military careers were created and sustained by political sponsors
* These sponsorships were dynamic and subject to flux
* Lincoln generally did not sponsor military careers
* The sponsorship of governors, congressmen and cabinet members carried different weights and combinations of such sponsorship were very powerful
* The longevity of senior generals corresponded to the strength of their civilian sponsorships
* Military sponsorships of military careers held only limited promise.
* No officer in the high command was ever, even a little bit, "apolitical."

These points should mark a starting line for any serious Civil War historian.

[To be continued]


The state of Civil War history, part 3 of 5

The idea of a Union high command must strike many readers as strange. We know there was an Abraham Lincoln and we know there were generals. Where was the high command?

It was not a chartered institution. The high command was an alternating cast of primarily political players that sponsored careers and campaigns, drafted plans and proposals, that made decisions, and that took charge on many war issues. Abraham Lincoln was a member -- occasionally absentee -- of this motley body.

The way the Civil War narrative has been framed by Catton, by American Heritage, and by the remaining exponents of the AH editorial line makes the idea of a Union high command very strange indeed. This is because of the distraction quotient involved in charting who's in, who's out, what are the plans, who's cooking up what with whom, and so on. This does not make for good storytelling at all. It smacks of what pop Historian A. Nevins dismissed as "dry-as-dust history."

The reader of Cattonized history has absolutely no idea that General Ethan A. Hitchcock after being offered Grant's command in the West, then McClellan's command in the East, was made head of the Army War Board and chief of staff of the Secretary of War's military cabinet; that during his term, he vetted every military decision the government made. Hitchcock who?

General Hitchcock is but one small emblem of the truth that an accurate account of the management of the Civil War is far, far outside almost anyone's current working model. He represents a little alarm bell, one indicating a malfunction in the story structures we have been buying.

There is matter of the Democratic political general, John McClernand, visiting Antietam field with Lincoln. What was he doing there? His aide says he was selling a plan; he would raise troops to capture the Mississippi valley and McClellan would command those troops. Only McClellan had enough authority to honestly and fairly manage a subordinate trio of McClernand, Grant, and Sherman, McClernand's aide said. After McClernand left, McClellan told General Darius Couch that he would be transferred to the West soon and that he would be selecting key subordinates to take with him. Again, this is a little example, of excised history, not to be found in the master narratives where it would be considered a meaningless detour.

When the detours are all marked on the great map of the Civil War, clear patterns emerge, patterns that tell us what the options were, who presented them, how they were selected, when, and for what purpose. The patterns portray shifting power structures, changing plans, and the decisionmaking apparatus running at full throttle. Why you would discard this material in favor of storytelling is a direct comment on your sensibilities as an historian.

Which brings us to the matter of McClellan's Secret History.

[Continued tomorrow.]


The state of Civil War history, part 2 of 5

Bruce Catton was a newspaperman with a gift for organizing complexity into straight, fast moving stories -- military ones. He was first told by publishers that there was no interest in the Civil War but he became, in the 1950s, an overnight success anyway.

Catton dealt in themes that resonated with depression intellectuals and the WWII veterans, e.g., the idea that the war was a soldier's war, that the real heroes were the "GIs" not the generals; and he made use of regimental histories to bolster that approach. His output (1951-1978) also collapsed Williams' verbose five-volume discourse on Lincoln finding a general into a bromide that could be written on the back of a cocktail napkin. "Whatever else history is, it ought to be a good yarn," Catton is reported to have said. A good yarn cannot stand too many digressions or too much complexity.

Military historians following Catton have outdone him by further compressing the "find a general" motif into a mere passing reference, one that can be invoked like a prayer at every political crossroads or can be dropped like an iron lid over the open political sewers menacing reader traffic on Talespinner Avenue.

By 1954, Catton was recruited by another Civil War writer, Allan Nevins, into his American Heritage magazine. Catton and Nevins shared similar views of the war; one nearly completely aligned with mainstream Republican Party newspapers of the war period. The magazine also featured members of a splinter organization founded by Nevins when he broke with the American National Historical Association. (The scholarly Association, as mentioned in an earlier post, had reservations about sponsoring a pop history magazine run by Nevins).

Catton worked for many years on American Heritage and through the magazine and his many books, he won admirers both of his writing style and of his personal views on the Civil War in the East. His lasting contribution to Civil War studies has been the idea of the Union Army as hero, the Union Army as actor, as tragedian, as redeemed at last by a savior, U.S. Grant, in service to a prophet, Abraham Lincoln. His popularization of the business of finding a general has been even more important.

Catton's disciples command the high ground of Civil War publishing today. He co-authored one Pulitzer-winning book as an American Heritage project working with a young staffer named Stephen W. Sears in 1960. Sears has stayed true to the editorial lines laid down at his old magazine. James McPherson, another popular Civil War writer in the American Heritage style, began his teaching of the Civil War at Princeton in 1962 under a great weight of Catton popularity. McPherson recently honored his personal intellectual debt to American Heritage by editing a book called A Sense of History: The Best Writing from the Pages of American Heritage.

"A Sense of History" ... a wonderfully inexact phrase and yet a precise description of what American Heritage achieved. "A sense," or "something like history."

As "finding a general" became more widely accepted as a placebo for historians' military-political indigestion, the military and political subgenres themselves became more polarized and less able to confront overlapping issues. Oddly, the political writers seemed as eager for political "purity" in their books as the military writers were for "military purity" in their narratives. And so we find to our surprise political historians making as free a use of "finding a general" as their military specialist colleagues. It pushes complex military messes out of political spaces.

Nevertheless, political historians face many incidents where "finding a general" simply cannot help them with their storylines.

Consider General John Fremont freeing the slaves ahead of schedule, or General David Hunter arming them and plotting slave revolts without the necessary presidential authorizations. These important problems tend to get tucked into airtight poli sci topic pockets (like "Lincoln's emancipation policy"); they are treated as simple civil matters, as political incursions by non-political actors. Rather than analyze such incidents in depth, the political historians content themselves with reciting the prerogatives of the commander-in-chief, the importance of keeping the military subordinate to the civil, and with treating Fremont and Hunter, among many others, superficially and outside of their contexts. In fact, they have a deep context that straddles both the military and political. It was this that sparked McClellan into writing a series of memos after the war. He called the project his "Secret History" and referred to it as the true story of relations between various political and military figures. (These memos have not been found.)

The idea of civil and military figures having "secret relations" as opposed to interacting strictly on the basis of battlefield performance, is the photo negative of "Lincoln finds a general."

More tomorrow...


The state of Civil War history, part 1 of 5.

Lincoln Finds a General is not only the title of a book, it gives us in four words everything we know about civilian management of the Civil War. For a long time it has been all we have ever cared to know.

In 1941, with public interest in Abraham Lincoln rising, T. Harry Williams offered the public an unusual book, Lincoln and the Radicals. With great sympathy towards Lincoln, he showed a seesawing political struggle for military control of the war lasting several years up until Lincoln lost his grip for good. Williams took particular interest in General George B. McClellan's career, McClellan serving as a case study of how political operations against specific generals could serve anti-Lincoln purposes.

This was an idea similar to one developed in J.G. Randall's important Lincoln biography, the first volume of which appeared in 1946. Randall wrote chapters headed, "Behind McClellan's Lines," "McClellan's Demotion Assists Lee," and "The Breaking of McClellan." There is a sense, in both these books, that McClellan embodies Lincoln's early war policies and that they made a sympathetic and complementary team.

In 1949, on this wave of Lincoln interest, a mathematician named Kenneth P. Williams wrote that first volume of a five-part work, Lincoln Finds a General, an apologia for what appeared to be Union experiments in military leadership. Williams told a story from the President’s imagined perspective and cast as Lincoln's antagonists neither Rebels nor Radicals, but his own failed Union generals, principally George B. McClellan. It was striking in its Unionism, on one hand, and in maligning loyal U.S. commanders, all the while praising the Rebellion's own military cadres. (There have been many more cases of Unionist schizophrenia since then.)

In 1952, the other Williams, T. Harry, produced an extended essay, Lincoln and His Generals, in which he developed Grant, Sherman and McClellan into archetypes that could illustrate gradations of military merit. The work seemed derived from a much earlier study by J.F.C. Fuller. However, there were now echoes of Kenneth Williams in this work, which was a greater commercial success than Lincoln and the Radicals. Read carelessly, Lincoln and His Generals provided a purely military interpretation of changes in Union commanders, with Lincoln finding a winning general by the end of the book. Actually, T. Harry Williams never repudiated his claims made in Lincoln and the Radicals, writing a defiant introduction to later editions and standing by his conclusion that Lincoln lost control of the war to a faction in his own party. His Generals book was a popular anomaly.

Kenneth Williams’ Lincoln Finds a General was more influential than Lincoln and the Radicals, however. It showed civilian influence on the war as a simple thing. Did the general give Lincoln satisfaction or not? Plot a curve over time. Was he successful or not? Plot another curve. Did Lincoln relieve a general? Compare the curves to find out why. Call this the geometry of military history.

In this type of narrative (and it quickly became a type), congressmen or cabinet members were remote, irrational actors who briefly appeared now and again to promise blessings or threaten sanctions. They were as impersonal and ephemeral as weather. Lincoln survived their sporadic and feeble political challenges to successfully conclude the war. Time and money wasted? Human cost? Well, these were matters of military bungling and of generals squandering opportunities. So the story goes, or shall we say, has gone ever since.

The Williams' books were products of their time, being tokens of reader interest in Lincoln rather than in the Civil War per se. They had middling sales and marked no sort of publishing revolution. The writer whose success did shift publishing, and who helped drive an actual Civil War revival, the writer who created a military history centered view of the war, was Bruce Catton. His influence is with us still. [Continued tomorrow.]


Before we get into Bruce Catton this week, I'd like to set the stage with a brief demonstration of how military history dominates and completely distorts our view of the course of the civil war. Consider the following quotes, from a new book, "The War within the Union High Command" by Thomas Goss:

[Considering the] "background and appointment of famous West Pointers like Halleck, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, and William T. Sherman to general officer rank will reveal the convoluted political and military calculations that dicated their promotion." (p 52)

"... who was actually selected had a lot more to do with old-fashioned political patronage than with any systematic consideration of level of experience or of command aptitude." (53)

"Most officers understood this patronage system." (54)

"President Lincoln became personally involved in so many patronage deals that he had to ask Secretary of War Simon Cameron to send his blank nominations to be laid before the Senate. Lincoln made so many appointments to brigadier general that he admitted to the secretary that he had forgotten many of the officers' names." (55)

"Both during the antebellum period and during the war, regular army officers cultivated patrons, actively sought political sponsors to support advancement and promotion, lobbied Congress for corporate interests, and made use of the press to influence policy." 22

Your reaction to these quotes will tell you something. To the extent one has a military interpretation of events, these comments are obnoxious. Catton is astonishingly military, as we will see, allowing little cracks in the story mortar to be filled with the occasional political anecdote.

As Goss suggests, however, a predominantly military interpretation of events is worthless to our understanding of the American Civil War.


A more proactive planning for history tourism (see this morning's item, below) is unfolding in Washington. There, Congress is being asked to give the authority the National Park Service needs to add the sites of Forts Henry and Heiman to its existing Fort Donelson Park. A Congressional okay will position the NPS to move on property entering the market and would create a supersized ACW locale for those wanting to make a day of it.

This Capitol Hill greenlight would not guarantee that the NPS actually secures these forts, however. If the NPS low-bids a property it can lose it, as recently happened at Antietam.

One very curious thing in this situation is the stance of Kentucky's state governement.

These three forts are distributed between Tennessee and Kentucky, and Kentucky "has raised nearly $1 million in grants and donations to help the the Park Service buy the land" under Fort Heiman. Why does the state not buy the land directly, now? The owners are willing to sell, according to the papers, and the property could go under the state's own park system, short- or long-term.

It seems Kentucky is assuming Fort Heiman will generate tourism, but wants the maintenance costs borne by the NPS. It is not acting expediently to secure the place.

Moreover, Kentucky cannot influence what the NPS will eventually bid for available property, even if the NPS were allowed to take the $1 million gift. Waiting for the NPS to act and win invites an Antietam situation again, where Civil War buff William Chaney bought battlefield land for well below market prices (I live nearby, he got a steal) and then erected statues, a museum, and gift shops on the property. There was an uproar.

The uproar came from people who do not want public historic places commercialized and who look to the NPS as a shield against commercialization.

Commercialization can be a good thing if it is the only way to open historic sites to public visits. There are better outcomes, but Kentucky's reticence in buying the land now opens the door to this. Further, we have to consider Chaney's motivation in buying land near Sharpsburg: he was extremely unhappy with the content of the NPS's history as conveyed at the site. And there is really no way a private person can better register their unhappiness with NPS park history than to buy land and set up a counter message at the same site.

Had Antietam been run as state parks are run - without an overbearing series of historical truths being ladled out to visitors - Chaney might have stayed home. At most state sites, the park is rarely packaged in an official history; this makes state parks preferable to NPS management on at least one count.

State park ownership by Kentucky while keeping the new site free of the pall of NPS historiography would also preserve the fort from the development decisions of a single decisionmaker like Chaney.

If state ownership is a better choice than federal ownership, private ownership holds the greatest potential of all. The well travelled museum-goer knows that the best private museums tower above the best state or federal facilities in quality and visitor experience. If Civil War donors can register this fact and form themselves into a private civil war park body, amazing things can be done. One trembles to think that the National Park Service might even be privatized through such organizations.

It is truly sad to see the germ of such an organization stake its first $1 million in a gamble where NPS ownership is the winning outcome.
"In Springfield, the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum stands to be 'an economic engine for central Illinois and certainly for Springfield,' the governor said." This article on Illinois economic zones is pretty typical in depicting the lower grade of government planning; put four civil servants in charge of each zone and have them listen to local business leaders while leveraging what they can of the assets in place. The better kind of economic planning would solicit new Lincoln assets (libraries, museums, research centers, plaster bust moulding factories, even fan club headquarters) for Springfield, buying or reserving sapce for these. That kind of activity might actually antagonize some local businesses, but it would be proactive and it would create a more "powerful engine."


There is a cliche that makes its way into almost every review of a new Lincoln book: "one wonders what can possibly be left to write about." (The cliche is persistent enough to appear twice on this one page of Amazon reviews!). This question is ritually invoked in a new Washington Times review of "Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home" by Matthew Pinsker.

There are large matters to write about Lincoln that have hardly been covered at all. There is the matter of his dark side expressed in violent and abusive behavior, featured in a new book by Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame. There is the matter of his rage attacks being pharmacologically induced, and his risky decision to stop medicating himself with antidepressants as the war got underway. There is the fascinating issue of his day-to-day management style, which has yet to be documented and has tremendous potential impact on how we view his management of the war as a whole.

Finally, there is the business of Lincoln's possible homosexuality, an ironclad fact to members of the Log Cabin Republican organization. The basis of the Gay Abe claims revolve around the excessive time spent the Soldier's home in the company of two young men, one of whom was repeatedly invited to share his bed.

I am not sure what Pinsker makes of this. The review suggests that he proposes this was a common arrangement at the time. Common, perhaps, in country inns; McClellan, for one, tells how he and Lincoln shared beds travelling the county court circuits before the war while on railroad business together. Necessity is implied.

In the Soldier's Home, the necessity is not clear, and so the behavior is strange; Lincoln had a cottage at his disposal. He often stayed there without his family. He stayed there so much I often wondered about it despite being fobbed off by biographies referring to the cooler air and the country charm.

What were his relations with Capt. David Derickson and Capt. Henry Crotzer? Why these evening together "when Mary was away"? I would put this into a much broader context than mere sex and say that despite the floods of Lincoln books, we do not understand the emotional basis of any of his important personal friendships.

Some readers will say that Lincoln's friendships, sexual or otherwise, make no difference to history. In fact, they may be key in trying to understand an historical figure. And no reasonable person who has waded the shallows of Lincoln lit can say "One wonders what can possibly be left to write about."

Would a handwritten newspaper count as America's first blog? The thought came to mind while reading this event notice.


The Morningside Bookshop is, like the Butternut and Blue bookshop, a 19th Century holdover in that it actually publishes books, usually by the old fashioned means of subscription. It has been Mary and Bob Younger's labor of love for decades and its books, both important reprints and originals, tend not to get wide distribution or notice. Morningside is one of those good things in life that that a select few know about and enjoy.

I am just now quite inspired by the completion of a major Morninside project that could benfit hundreds of Civil War authors. This is the publication of a newly revised edition of the MILITARY BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE CIVIL WAR VOL. IV taking the comprehensive book listings up through the 2001 publication seasons. With 9,704 individual book and pamphlet citations, it not only provides a writer with a "due diligence" aid, it alllows any reader, thumbing through any Civil War history's bibliography, to check that author's own due diligence. Have a look. One of many good things from Morningside.


Camden Station, in Baltimore, carries a lot of Civil War associations. Marching here to embark for Washington, Union troops were attacked by a mob. Lincoln passed through en route to his inauguration; he passed through again en route to Gettysburg to deliver the address.

The interior of the station is being renovated for shops and sports museums. One room will be reserved for remembrance of Baltimore's Civil War history.

The decent thing about this is that seems to be the only piece of the renovation plan not associated with a commercial mission.

Following up yesterday's items, here is yet another piece of Civil War era "living historiography" - "Ohio to correct 'crazy' history." For those who think in terms of "That's history!" here's proof that history is now as much as then.

The dateline on this journalism is September 10 2003.


Some of us write historiography on paper or in blogs, others write it with their lives. Again and again.


James McPherson, mentioned yesterday, is probably the best example of the consensus that Allan Nevins built starting in the 1940s. The most famous recipient of Nevins' patronage was Bruce Catton, and of course many more people are familiar with Catton's views than Nevins' or McPherson's, though they are essentially the same.

It is the Nevins/Catton/McPherson view of Civil War history that dominates ACW storytelling even today. The mechanism for that dominance is worth a few words.

Nevins, like Catton, began his working life as a journalist, a story-driven, detail-excluding transformer of mundane information into drama. He discovered history after his basic attitude to information had already been formed by deadline writing and the need to sell newspapers to the broadest audiences possible. Nevins was irritated by scholarship-driven history - he called it "dry-as-dust history," and when the preeminent historical organization of the first half of the century failed to back his idea for a popular history magazine, Nevins started The Society of American Historians in 1939 and used it as a platform from which to later launch American Heritage.

Though Nevins became a professor at a respectable university - Columbia, which now has an Allan Nevins chair - he never adopted the respectability of the profession as his own. He preferred publicty. And so, the The Society of American Historians differentiated itself with its literary interests and its drive for broad public readership. A book recently sponsored by the Society carries this: "From its inception, the Society has sought ways to bring good historical writing to the largest possible audience."

Good writing, large audiences. Not scholarship, necessarily. Pop historian Edmund Morris said he was a writer first and an historian second. This was more tersely stated by Stephen Ambrose who said, "I tell stories!" when asked about his duty to sources. I don't know if these are/were Society members, but they embody the problem the Society engendered.

"I tell stories!"

To understand the conflict between an ethos of strorytelling and of history, we need go no farther than the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct issued by the American Historical Association, a different organization:

"Scholars must be not only competent in research and analysis but also cognizant of issues of professional conduct. Integrity is one of these issues. It requires an awareness of one's own bias and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead. It demands disclosure of all significant qualifications of one's arguments."

The reigning Civil War consensus is not based on "disclosure of all significant qualifications of one's arguments" or "an awareness of one's own bias and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead." These would burden stories with boring digressions.

To a talespinner, the work of "history" not only needs a "story line" to keep it moving, it needs a specific "editorial line" to justify its narrative choices. This editorial line is the "master narrative" Edward Cline discusses in his Rhetorica blog.

Membership in the Society has been by by invitation only and is limited to 250 authors. Nevins, then, founded a club of influential, published historical writers, just large enough to guarantee a certain level of consensus.

Members promoted each other's works in reviews and blurbs; they gave each other well-publicized prizes; and they published in American Heritage, enormously popular at the time of the Civil War Centennial. AH presented a defined editorial line to deliver one coherent "voice" across many articles and issues, a coherence that invited reader loyalty.

For acquisition editors of the major publishing houses of that time, the Nevins view defined Civil War reality; a book proposal deviating from that would be out of synch with the broad ACW reading public's understanding of events; it would be a commercial risk that invited unfriendly criticism from the best known experts in the field. An article submitted to AH that embarassed a Society member would not be welcome. A book published by a scholar operating outside the editorial line would not be favorably reviewed by this Society of friends.

This is actually where we are today, decades later: at the head of a mass outpouring of consensus work, festooned with the Society members' own prizes awarded to each other. This is the "reality" of recent Civil war history. The editor of Grant's papers, John Y. Simon, expressed the situation most bitterly when he said that the Civil War reader was a little child who wanted the same bedtime story told exactly the same way every night.

To extend Simon's metaphor, Nevins and his colleagues reared that child.

Bruce Catton, assiduously sponsored by Nevins, was an editor of AH at one point, and Stephen Sears was his protege. They actually shared a Pulitzer early in Sears' career. Sears has done less well than McPherson in preserving the Nevins/Catton consensus, however. He has a taste for generating controversy. He adds a twist of lime to what would otherwise be a very familiar drink.

McPherson, started teaching at Princeton in 1962 during the height of Nevins influence (control?) and Catton's popularity. McPherson's loyalty to the teachings of the period have brought him into collision with new sources that overturn old interpretations but he soldiers on. Much more on this in future posts.

The society Nevins founded is still around. Its 250 members still give each other awards and issue press releases about their achievments; there is even a Bruce Catton Prize. McPherson is a principal of the organization; only the disgraced Doris Kearns Goodwin may be the better known member. But nowadays, the Society's rolls includes far fewer ACW historians than ever before, which, with the failing of American Heritage, is another threat to the maintenance of the broad consensus Allan Nevins built, as we shall see.

(p.s. This is an opinion piece, not a history of Nevins or his Society. I've allowed myself the storyteller's liberties and am loving it...)


Having cautioned in this blog against pop historians and park rangers, here's a stern warning against believing roadside historical markers. Understand that absolutely anyone can put anything on a roadside marker; it's no use singling out Ohio for this Civil War history fiasco.
Once upon a time there was a silly, funny, gossipy New York magazine called SPY and it ran an article on celebrity coasting. It looked at the many creative ways prominent entertainers remained in the public eye without actually doing good work, or even any work at all.

I was reminded of this article last year when I received an insubstantial little book about Antietam just in time for the anniversary of the battle. It was by one-time bestseller James McPherson.

And I was a little dismayed when he published an easy reading travelogue of the Gettysburg battlefield just in time for another anniversary this year. (Notice that Stephen Sears, McPherson's near contemporary, also issued a book on Gettysburg in 2003 but it delivers value to his fan base - an extensive reinterpretation of the battle in light of Meade's excellence and Lee's many shortcomings.)

Now, today, a publicist has contacted me with the exciting announcement that an illustrated edition of McP's Battle Cry of Freedom is due out.

As a metaphorically challenged friend once said to me, "They are milking that puppy for all it is worth." Poor puppy. But look:

"The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom, boasting some seven hundred pictures, including a hundred and fifty color images and twenty-four full-color maps, here is the ultimate book for everyone interested in American history. McPherson has selected all the illustrations, including rare contemporary photographs, period cartoons, etchings, woodcuts, and paintings, carefully choosing those that best illuminate the narrative."

There is a point where exploitation of one's previous successes turns to bathos. Any doubt that we are seeing it? Then check out the deluxe, limited edition, leather-bound edition of the newly illustrated release.


One of the curious things about modern pop civil war history is how closely it follows Republican newspaper editorial analysis in interpreting the war, 1861-1865, without actually referencing much material from the newspapers themselves, either opinion pieces or reportage.

You may not want to rely on a newspaper’s account of a battle as your sole source of information, but newspapers generally are filled with important direct and collateral intelligence about the events of the day.

I am looking at a column from the summer of 1861 claiming Bull Run was brought on by the powerful Blair family and their hatred of General Winfield Scott. Here is another article, quite a long one, interviewing Scott about his plans to win the war. The content is not something you’ve ever seen in a history book. And here comes McClellan replacing Scott in November and what is the first thing McClellan wants to do? Why, organize the army into corps-level units. Hmmm, the received wisdom is that Lincoln wanted corps and McClellan resisted. What to make of this embarrassment of informational riches?

Here for your own amusement is a shadow of the Maryland Campaign of 1862 as it was presaged in a few stories and headlines of August and September, 1861.

"The most reliable information concerning the rebels is that they are slowly moving their forces to the line of the Potomac in prosecution of their programme to enter Maryland and encourage support of revolutionary traitors in that state, with ultimate designs on Washington." Boston Herald, 8/16/61

"75,000 Rebels Ready to Invade Maryland" Boston Herald, 8/31/61

"The Rebels estimate their forces before Washington at 125,000. They say an attack will be made this week…" Boston Herald, 9/7/61

"There is little doubt” that General Johnston is moving his army to the upper Potomac to invade Maryland in hopes that state will 'raise the rebellion flag.' " Boston Herald, 9/19

"The New York Times Washington correspondent says, 'Positive information from England proves beyond a doubt that if our army on the Potomac should experience a reverse, the recognition of the Southern Confederacy by the British Minister would be a speedy fact.'" Boston Herald, 9/21/61

In the midst of this excitement, on September 14, the paper notes with relief, “All quiet on the Potomac.” Where have we seen that before? And in what a scornful context!

This is the kind of fun that can be mined from the richness of our newspaper archives. Try it.


The highest value a ranger can deliver is to site actual events on the battlefield; map events to each piece of ground, then explain the connection between ground and event. This is not something we can do adequately for ourselves. The ranger, so familiar with the landscape, familiar with the conflicting accounts of an action, and familiar with the changes time has made to the field, has something very special to offer.

Years before visiting my first ACW park, I got a taste of this expertise in a battle book called The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere. It was a book into which the late author had poured years of findings as a park historian and it sparkles brilliantly with the ranger's perspective. Not just where the men traveled and the ground they covered to get to the enemy and the speed they made; but also the formation they were in, its intended effects, and so on. These were not the billiard balls tossed on a felt table by a pop history storyteller, these were men in ever changing tactical formations that the author charted for each phase of the battle, each stretch of ground, with continual reference to the larger picture of the unfolding action. Steere's was a unique contribution and a very special display of what the park historian can do. I have not seen a battle account like it.

The least value a ranger can convey is a high-level, synthesized interpretation of "context," of events above and beyond the battle whose field is being visited. These tend to be consensus opinions patched together from "standard sources" or developed by highly credentialed consultants. We can read these anywhere, and in fact, they are almost inescapable. Who needs them to understand a battlefield? Why are they given? And how much off-site history do we want from a park ranger, anyway?

After a hundred years' embargo on presenting the "causes of the war," national park historians are now regaling visitors with the "why" of the war. And they are not even the rangers' own considered views, they are scripted by a federal government office in charge of Civil War interpretations.

As obnoxious as this is, it is the logical extension of what has been happening already: having park historians pontificate on the purposes and motives of commanders, on the success or failure of the underlying battle or campaign, and on the personal qualities of participants in a battle without reference to varying evidence. Rangers have been broadcasting historical editorials written in some park headquarters for some time; and if the editorial writers are getting more ambitious in their intentions, they certainly have the means, the men, the voices, for disseminating a government-sanctioned, interpretation of everything and anything connected with the War of the Rebellion.

The question is what we are going to do about it. Perhaps the park visitor now needs to issue a firm but kindly "shut up." It's been overdue, anyway.

This recent article describes the problem. (Note that the headline completely inverts the meaning of the story!)


The political use of history never stops. It just becomes sillier.

A politician in Pennsylvania wants his constituents to recover from the federal government the cost of a bridge he says was burned by Union forces in 1863. He is going to talk to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about it. Well, a politician can be expected to make politics with whatever material comes to hand.

What do we make of historians doing the same?

Start with an impossibly broad topic, load it down with empty stereotypes, then write an op/ed piece with your insights. You may think this item escaped from a freshman dorm, but a University of Florida professor is the proud exponent of comparisons between Iraqi honor, 2003, and Southern honor, 1865. He requires the government (Rumsfeld again) act on his "historical" insights.

Or, start with an impossibly narrow topic, load it down with immense freight, and you can use it to explain modern "feelings." You may think this escaped from the corner tavern, but a University of Michigan professor tells the press that Alabamans currently dislike high property taxes based on their ancestors' experiences with property taxes during Reconstruction.

I hope to see the names of these gentlemen on the historians' hot-seat list before too long.

Politics wrote history from 1860-1865, and it used the newspapers, but it was a certainly better quality of politicized history.


What is the point of graphic gore in a what-if "historical" novel?

I asked myself this question going through the reviews of a speculative novel about Gettysburg by (egads) Newt Gingrich. ("You will fret over every agonizing decision and cringe at every gory, and I do mean gory, detail."). Gory details in an alternative history.

Back before Newt went to college, I read a Harry Turtledove alternate history novel on Gettysburg. It was not gory but it was an empty experience for me, melodrama signifying nothing. My friends used to call this stuff "mind rot." Harry is still at it, amazingly enough.

The writers who do well with this material are the satirists. Grant Speaks was a decent effort by a novice writer who fell flat while delivering a few laughs - but who made us feel cheap for laughing at a sincere patriot.

The sci-fi fantasy We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick had Civil War themes. The idea of the protagonists was to build ACW theme parks with robot re-enactors shooting live ammo at each other. A Lincoln robot is built and escapes; a Stanton robot is sent to find it. Love is found and lost on the way. This was written before the re-enactment craze, in the sixties.

Dick's better-known alternative history is The Man in the High Castle, set in an America partitioned by Hitler and Tojo. It's dull, lacking even the bitter humor underlying Ishmael Reed's Japanese by Spring, in which a California university's most PC department easily adjusts to management by WWII-era Japanese fascists.

Turtledove is this far ahead of Reed and Gingrich: he is blending his alternative history settings. He has a series in which the victorious Confederate States interact with the victorious Nazis in a double "what-if." This kind of genre melding was mocked in a joke booklist many years ago, one that featured "Cats of the Third Reich," and the "The Abraham Lincoln UFO Files." Maybe Harry didn't read that issue of the National Lampoon. Or perhaps the money to be made is very good.

Really, the sky is the limit with alternative histories. The sky has more substance, however.


The emerging theme this week has been storylines and their effects on narrative histories.

I found an interesting essay on how reporting can become seriously warped by attention to story development.

>>When journalists make story choices, they favor narrative elements that are most likely to advance a coherent, dramatic story into the future. In some cases, those choices produce stories that ignore potentially damning evidence to the contrary. These cases typically involve looking away from sources less likely to deliver future installments, and favoring (usually official) sources more prepared to deliver regular updates. [...]<<

What this means in commercial ACW history writing is that those historical developments with the greatest continuity and the longest plot lines that have literary merit are the featured historical events of a given period, especially because good stories attract broad audiences. The rule for popular journalism, cited in the paragraph above, certainly applies to writers of history whose essays would blend seamlessly into any newspaper features section.

The essay cited notes that once committed to a story line, the journalist tends to suppress facts or story elements distracting from the main plotline. This is actually how I got into Civil War history in the late 1990s: (a) buying into major narrative themes and then (b) discovering through variant readings a steady stream of information rupturing the major narrative themes.

One man's complaint is another's source of amusement.

(For the whole essay, click here. Its antiwar perspective is less valuable than the specific points it makes.)


We like to think that the more balanced view of events is possible the more "distant" we get from those events. The heat of the political moment will fade; the principal actors will eventually leave the discussion to others; and our current assumptions and preconceptions about recent events will pass out of memory where they can no longer influence sound analysis or judgement.

This is the common wisdom, but the pattern does not fit situations where events have been firmly cast into popular storylines. Civil War scholarship is one area that has suffered terribly because of the popularity of storytelling; and specifically by the wild success of two competing narrative templates, the Lost Cause storyline (catering to a Southern audience) and the Republican Party storyline (catering to unionists and Lincoln fans).

The Lost Cause template was developed after the war by friends and admirers of Robert E. Lee. It triumphed over some lesser, less developed strands; what might be called the "blundering Rebel oaf" theme of the Richmond Examiner and certain public figures; and also over the "Davis Cabal" theme developed by Johnston, Beauregard, many Southern newspapers and politicians.

The way we think about the Union conduct of the war is simply a direct lift from the mainstream Republican newspapers of the 1860s. There is very little deviation today from 140-year old newspaper editorials lines, a surprise given the rivers of information that have been undammed since then. In this Republican "master narrative," the Unionist Democrat view has been utterly lost; so has that of those Lincoln-hating Radical Republicans, never mind the peace Democrat.

A fine way to get your arms around the problem of master narratives is to visit Andrew Cline's Rhetorica site, a blog devoted to the analysis of political rhetoric, and read his essay "Writing the Plot." He is dealing with political material, but the dynamic is the same. The communicator is attempting to structure your interpretation of events by selling you a template into which to organize your future experiences. Let's try some of his ideas:

"I want to consider how master narratives are constructed. A master narrative, in this context, is a set characterization of a candidate that leads to a set plot line in the "story" of that candidate's campaign."

Substitute "historical figure" for "candidate" and off we go.

"Master narratives have many sources. Most of these set characterizations spring from the candidates themselves as normal image control. Sometimes, circumstances of a campaign create such narratives. And the press has been known to create them, too."

"No matter the source, a master narrative is generally constructed this way:
1- A pattern of behavior is noticed.
2- The behavior is characterized, i.e. given a name.
3- The character is portrayed as part of a plot, i.e. a set course of actions, consistent with the character, beginning with a central tension and leading to a climax and denouement.
4- The candidates words and actions are analyzed by comparing them to the character and the plot."

Cline says in another article "each candidate is framed by a story of their candidacy. These stories may be positive or negative depending upon how the press interprets each candidate's actions." Also, "Frontrunners emerge based on the level of viability created for each. The press creates viability by constructing distinct master narratives."

So the narrative defines the general or politician. Grant is the fighting general who undergoes trials before he is discovered and rewarded; McClellan is the "captain who would not dare" on whose removal the safety of the cause depends; Lincoln is the struggling, non-partisan executive seeking the best outcome to a worst situation.

It goes farther: generals are either like Grant or McClellan. Politicians are either like Lincoln or his "partisan" opponents. Cline: "Master narratives are human dramas, not policy dramas." Nor are they history. They are simply a kind of literature.

In a future post, I will look at Bruce Catton's storytelling elements and how they threaded together various editorial lines adopted by Republican newspapers and authors of the Civil War era.


I promised to give an example of a park historian doing real history, as opposed to recapitulating the shallow stuff cranked out by bestselling storytellers.

Timothy J. Reese is an independent battlefield guide specializing in the battle at Crampton's Gap, near his Burkittsville home. He began researching the fight in 1985 and distilled his findings into a remarkable 1998 book: Sealed With Their Lives: The Battle for Crampton' s Gap. The study is as much a product of thinking as walking.

Author Reese has a totally unexpected and refreshing view not only of Crampton's Gap but of the Maryland Campaign in general and he regards the battle at the Gap as the key to understanding the whole. Antietam was not supposed to happen; Crampton's Gap was to be the engine for undoing Lee once McClellan found Lee's special orders. Reese's interpretation of McClellan's envisioned battle is marvelous and his "deconstruction" of Mac's orders to Corps Commander Franklin are unsurpassed. I feel I would spoil the fun for any deep students of the war, were I to give away more.

This is a wonderful artifact by a battlefield guide (independent!) who searched for truth in a cluttered, worked over corner of Civil War history. It is pricey, but its freshness and rareness make it worth the cost to obtain it.

Now you might say independent (self-appointed) guides and experts are not park historians, per se. You'd be right. But there is no Crampton's Gap park with an assigned official park historian, is there? And where is there an historian this good in park uniform, anyway...