Historians as numerologists (cont.)

Whatever they teach the aspiring Civil War historian in the academy, they teach an indifference to numbers that is remarkable.

The first refuge of a Civil War historian confronted by numbers is to split the difference between figures found in the worst sort of pop history. Rather than buckle down and do some serious accounting, the historian retreats into the world of numerology - mystical numbers, numbers of destiny, numbers of power, sanctified by the priests of a buddy system that produces Pulitzer Prizes. Many have the guts to say figuring doesn't matter, or we can never know exactly, or even that it is difficult to reconcile the material. So why try? They then go on to elevate champions and demote goats based on suspect figures.

The figures were not hard to get at for Fox or Livermore, and although their works suffer from being estimates, they offer a starting point for modern revision. One historian, who loves round numbers and the payroll musters submitted by elected officers once told me that Livermore had an "agenda."

Payroll = purity! Livermore = agenda! I didn't know how to answer him. Where accounting is king, the Union surgeons trump Livermore in aces but if my author cannot even come to terms with Livermore (or Fox) he will never come to terms with the hard data, the nose counting of the U.S. surgeons. It would shatter his world.

Because his world is based on numbers. He has staked everything on material he never investigated and has no interest in. Today's historian anchors all on zeroes - round numbers derived from divination. Imagineering. This one outnumbered that one by X to 1. This one missed an opportunity to crush that one based on our impeccable numerological insight.

The numerology is as grass to the cow; the judgements are the historian's milk, strengthening the bones of his obnoxious posturing, arguing, condemning.

I used to enjoy flipping the force ratios on Mac bashers based on careful accounting of numbers; Livermore and Fox show McClellan fought every one of his Virginia battles outnumbered. The surgeons show he was fearfully outnumbered. The reader of pop history is stunned.

But ultimately, this kind of accounting, careful or careless, is only useful in a Puritan history of the Union high command, in assigning pennants to the thrifty, the bold, the enterprising; in arrogating condemnation rights to an author who never smelled cordite - a knight of the carpet.

Civil War history is about people under incredible duress called upon to accomplish miracles while remaining within conventions of normalcy as their worlds collapse about them. In that sense, if we apply a literary analogy, the American Civil War is fundamentally Russian, not New England-ish. It is not about prudence and pluck, as reconstructed in today's pop literature.

Is there a moral component to the story? The reactions of that people to circumstance is the moral lesson, not their reactions to imaginary opportunities based on force ratios carelessly reconstructed. Not their failure to react to the post facto imposition of false historical constructs.

More to come...