Topics for a Lincoln Symposium - Party Building

With the Lincoln Bicentennial almost upon us, we're all going to have to pull together to keep this from becoming a mind-numbing fifth grade civics lesson. This is one of a series of posts proposing seminar topics to keep things lively and honest. These are obviously panels I would pay to hear.

The Ethical and Legal Dimensions of Party Building in Wartime

Lincoln was one of the greatest party-builders of all time, but did he go too far? What are the ethical and legal considerations relating to patronage and party building during national emergencies?


John M. Parrish, thinker specializing in the "dirty hands" problem in politics. Mr. Parrish will put historical and philosophical context around what appear to be Lincoln's "dirty hands," 1861-1865.
Michael F. Holt, 19th Century political historian and author of The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. Mr. Holt will draw comparisons between James Polk's Democratic Party building during the Mexican War and Lincoln's Civil War efforts on the same lines.

Carolyn Stewart Dyer, journalism scholar and author of Political Patronage of the Wisconsin Press, 1849-1860, will discuss the crucial role of press patronage in Republican Party building and how it affected war coverage.

James M. Brennan, Chairman of the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission. Mr. Brennan arranges the annual Abraham Lincoln Ethics Award and will speak on the current limits of patronage in government.

Gould's Union puppets

This is obviously taking things too far, but refreshing to see in print:
As the railroads created tycoons and then oligarchs, the government became their instrument. At the top of the pile was railroad man Jason "Jay" Gould. Writes Beatty, "Jay Gould was president. He never ran for office, he never lost office — he ruled. He wrote the laws. He interpreted the Constitution. He commanded the army. He staffed the government. He rented politicians, fattening his purse off their favor."
This will ever be a problem when you allow journalists to write history (this book - Age of Betrayal - is by an Atlantic editor named Beatty), so take it for what it is worth.

The writers of popular history generally have dulled their own sense for controversy. In this case, I wonder if Beatty has tried to make a full case that Lincoln was not his own man. It seems making that case is an obligation imposed by notions like "Jay Gould was president."

I'm open to the idea. So show me...


My favorite Union generals, indulge me

After these years of blogging, I suppose it's time for a scorecard type of post.

For your amusement, I like

(1) McClellan. I would match him against the entire 19th Century post-Napoleon worldwide stable. He was the only child prodigy ever put at the service of a government at war. He represents the "genius of democracy" - i.e. "us." He designed fortresses, sold advanced US Navy technology in Europe, translated Russian cavalry doctrine, re-invented railroading to include ro-ro, and fathered combined operations with the Navy in combat operations. We will never do better, ever.

(2) Fremont. The prototype of what would become in the 20th Century the "dollar-a-year man" in government service. I can find no fault in him at any point in his military career. He was the citizen soldier incarnate. There is no Fremont decision I know of that I would reverse. As a potential Lincoln opponent in 1864, he was doomed from day one of his military career.

(3) Grant. A political genius, as Brooks Simpson has pointed out, he married that to military aptitude in the cause he loved. His staff work was sloppy. His penchant for vendettas disturbs me. But he was a great patriot and a great slogger, military and political. His personal victory as the premier celebrity of the ACW was something he earned, not something Lincoln or the Republicans bestowed.

(4) Banks. He combined every advantage of political generalship with that of polical leadership. He might best a Jackson one day and then best a Butler politically the next. He was a thorough Lincoln man (and McClellan man) who earned every chance he was given and more besides. He had moments of failure on the political side and the military side. Lincoln failed him. We should emulate him.

(5) Lyons. We are all Lyons when young, and yet none of us reaches that perfect Lyonistic state of aggression and rage and mortality and victory in service to our cause. Lyons is utterly inspiring and eminently approachable. Patriotic rage and fury perfected. Go and die like a man. Lyons showed us how.

Where's Sherman, you ask. I'm still thinking.


Most baffling headline this week

Marblemount again joins famous Civil War battlefields

Again with the grade schoolers...

The way they impart Civil War history to little kids:
The students were able to touch furs and examine weapons and tools used during the Civil War era.
It's almost comical.

A cry for "political officers"

This essay in the Armed Forces Journal calls for Congressional intervention in the selection and promotion of general officers. (Under Clinton and previously, the generals selected each other; under this president the secretary of defense has selected all new three- and four-star generals).

The author, a lieutenant colonel, is calling for intellect and achievment to be recognized. The problem in my view is that regardless of the quality of the general officer, he would be hamstrung by that Civil War ethos that dominates all thinking in the services today (linearity, synchronization, occupation of space, firepower, hierarchy); he would be hampered by a diffusion of authority across hundreds of generals and commands; he would be bound to consult dozens of civilian masters, including under-secretaries of this and that; he would be trapped in a web of "Jointness" (real word) requiring enormous investment in cross-service communications and consensus building; he would be micromanaged by anyone able claiming a stake in his success; and he would never, ever be allowed to pursue strategy because strategy is the death of political ad hockery. Strategy sets goals, timetables, means, and ends under which politicians careers could be crushed.

Furthermore to say, as this author does, that we are at Valmy on the road to Jena, makes the classic error of confusing any commanding general in any situation with the commander-in-chief as head of state (Frederick, Napoleon).

I do want political generals, however, and I do heartily agree that:

If America desires creative intelligence and moral courage in its general officer corps, it must create a system that rewards these qualities. Congress can create such incentives by exercising its proper oversight function in three areas. First, Congress must change the system for selecting general officers. Second, oversight committees must apply increased scrutiny over generating the necessary means and pursuing appropriate ways for applying America's military power. Third, the Senate must hold accountable through its confirmation powers those officers who fail to achieve the aims of policy at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure.
The Civil War was led almost entirely by political generals, chief among them Scott (Seward's creature), McClellan (Chase's creation), Grant (Washburne's project), etc. These were civilians who had left the service and returned to it at an exalted rank; and there were also civilians who donned the stars with no experience, as in WWII. The exceptions are few: Meigs, FJ Porter, Franklin, Tim Sherman all had unbroken service up until Sumter but even these were promoted far beyond their experience as a result of political decisions based on political patronage.

The post-ACW professionalism wrought by Grant and Sherman had to be radically modified for the Spanish-American war, two world wars, and Korea. Its implementation by MacNamara under Kennedy and Johnson, leavened with his management philosophies, might reasonably be declared a failure at this time.

Frederick the Great admonished, "You officers amuse yourselves with God knows what buffooneries and never dream in the least of serious service..." We can say nowadays that ours amuse themselves with the accoutrements of professionalism: procurement, seminars, reports, management training, social experiments, programs, policy development, and briefings, briefings, briefings.

There was a famous quote: "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." It has some applicability to this case of extreme professionalism, the number of Army generals on duty being set at 302.

(More of the same subject here.)


Confederate Memorial Day

Someone please tell them them the difference between family heritage and political heritage:
Today is Confederate Memorial Day [in Georgia] in honor of the more than 90,000 [Georgian] men who served the Confederate States of America during the Civil War ... In honor of the Confederate Memorial Day Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue has proclaimed April as Confederate History Month, according to Col. Rusty Henderson of the Georgia Civil War Commission.
Let me say this once again: Perdue is the governor of a reconstructed state with no connection to the Confederacy or slavery. We are all for Reconstruction at this point. If he wants to celebrate the CSA and/or apologize for slavery, he has to repudiate Reconstruction first. Even then, he cannot recreate the broken historical link to Georgia, CSA. This little political gesture is irrational.

The only connections in Georgia to the CSA are familial. Most Georgian residents have no Georgia background to speak of and for the few who do, from a familial perspective it would be irrational and unseemly to honor the Confederate dead in preference to their dead kin from other wars.
As to a history month of some sort, I can have no quarrel.

In other Georgian Civil War news, a man says, "General Leonidas Polk was killed in my front yard."

I would get a new front yard.

Dad: Hey, sweetheart, don't play with your dolls over there. That's General Polk's spot.


The Lincoln bicentennial

This Lincoln bicentennial could have evil repercussions.

The lesser danger is to us, the general public. For our part, we face an extended, inescapable fifth grade civics lesson delivered by pile drivers for the duration. The most primitive Lincoln sound bites will have sway in the mass media and the electronic murmur of happy talk will comprise our daily bread.

On the other hand, Lincoln scholars will be in even worse shape. Not only will they have to deliver a year’s worth of bite-sized up-with-people- color-me-glad history pap, they will face unprecedented scrutiny from their peers outside the like-minded world of Lincoln studies.

Every scholar, professor, and deep reader from whatever discipline beyond Lincoln-land, will be locked in the same media madhouse as you and me, delivered to the same electro-shock therapy from Lincoln-loving talking heads bent on making it simpler and easier for us to love Lincoln as deeply as they love Lincoln - every day, in every way. Outside scholars will not be amused to be so imposed upon, just as you and I will cease to be amused after the initial bicentennial media blitz.

The question is how fast and with what fury the respectable, informed intellectual backlash against Lincoln scholars will begin. Professors embroiled in controversy within their own fields are not going to look benignly on the we-love-consensus Lincoln students. They may view the field as undisciplined, phony, and clubby. (Not to put words in anyone's mouths, of course.)

Once scholarship-at-large decides Lincoln students are advocates, not scholars, the game may be up for Lincoln studies. The field may be relegated to the status of military history.

My advice to Lincoln scholars is therefore to begin seriously dealing with Lincoln’s many personal, professional, ethical, and managerial failings and with the serious, principled opposition to his actions and policies.

I'm willing to help restore discipline to the field. Let me therefore begin to propose feasible - not polemical - topics for a hypothetical bicentennial conference on Lincoln. I'll make it a series of short posts.


Spring is for wine

While bumbling around in some out-of-the-way Virginia wine store looking for a dry Riesling I encountered the most unusual wine find ever earlier this month. I wish I had bought it, for when shall I find such again?

It was a red - blood red, let's say. It came from the Lake Anna Winery. It was called Cold Harbor, IIRC, and had a grisly battle painting for a label. The backside label, where you normally find the name of the grape or the history of the winery had a description of the battle with no wine information.

Odd, eh? Lake Anna's web site genericizes its wine descriptions, so I can't point you to a page that proves the existence of Cold Harbor wine. But I saw it, handled it. Hmmm.
He: "Hon, I'm feeling like murder tonight, let's open up some Cold Harbor."
She: "Okay dear, but this time we'll honor flags of truce after the third glass."
Was this produced for the Cold Harbor Festival ? Weirdness squared.

p.s. Blogger Dezel has a review of the winery in question. The picture top right is from a Topps card set that rekindles the effect the label had on me.

Spring is for bumper stickers

The Civil War crowd seems to lag behind in the bumper sticker department. This seems pretty boring but it's the liveliest I could find on the Web:

Maybe this blog should have one. "It's the primary sources, stupid" That's obscure, but pithy with clarity is hard to do. Hat tip to Neptunus Lex for a way out:


BTW, there's a comment on Lex's post that reflects my experience as well: "the cars with the largest number of, and usually most strident, bumper stickers on them often also have the most body damage (dented fenders, broken windows, body rust, etc). Or show obvious lack of maintenance or cleaning."

Draw your own conclusions.


The allure of fakelore

There comes a point in our compressing and redacting the truth when facts become worthless soundbites. Thus:

"The 'byline,' as newspaper authorship is known, was a legacy of Civil War coverage, historian Brayton Harris said Saturday. Joseph Hooker, a Union general, made reporters 'sign' their stories because of concerns about sensitive military information being printed, Harris said.

Actually, who gets a byline and under what circumstances has been an editorial decision from before the Civil War. Bylines were not invented by military decree. In the course of the early ACW, the pressure brought on reporters by commanders caused writers to make their bylines disappear - for personal safety and to obscure who printed what secret. Consider the origins of AP in 1861:

Reporters in the field, facing censorship challenges, use the anonymous byline “Dispatch to the Associated Press.” Their stories are sent to AP’s Washington, D.C. agent Lawrence Gobright, who telegraphs them to New York.

Hooker therefore restored the byline by compulsion; additionally, some writers, operating under his purview, were bylined though they might not have met their own papers' editorial test for the honor.

Beware of gee-whiz "facts."

(Top right, reporters' CW memorial arch at Crampton's Gap.)


Friends don't let friends do archaeology

The first thing they should teach in archaeology school are skills that enable one to tell 150-year-old ruts from 400-year-old ruts. Meanwhile, these NPS archaeologists need to be taken off Roanoke and retrained.

Reminds me of a story. Ran into a party of U. of Penn archaeologists digging off a main highway in Cyprus during the early 1980s. In the course of chit chat, we discovered they did not know where or what Cyprus was; what language the locals spoke (despite billboards); nor whether or not cold beer was sold in such a country. We asked them, "How on earth do you know what you are digging for?" and they came back with gobbledygook: "We specialize in era 79 of the Tell Culture Alpha," or some such. It was the most amazing display of mind-crippling specialization I have ever seen.

Meanwhile, these two budding teenaged archaeologists knew exactly what they were after, and the NPS has hit them pretty hard. Digging up a bullet, you see, leaves a small hole.
"They have destroyed the context of understanding that portion of the battlefield," said Smith. [...] People who violate [these] laws can be fined up to $250,000 and sentenced to two years in prison.
Can you imagine? People who can't identify a rut sure know the value of a hole.

Our Civil War Army (cont.)

A new column from William Lind explores one aspect of why ours is a Civil War army:
Second Generation tactics, like those of the First Generation, are linear. In the attack, the object is to push a line forward, and in the defense it is to hold a line.

... most American units have only one [offensive] tactic: bump into the enemy and call for fire.

Read it all.

In a few years, we will be observing the 150th anniversary of our current tactical art as well as the start of the Civil War.

p.s. What the hell ever happened to vertical envelopment?


The limits of re-enactment

In a "Civil War" wedding, are characters (avatars) married or are the underlying humans married?
"I'm excited about the wedding," Shelby [the bride] said. "It's a great opportunity for people to witness what it was like in that time period." [...] The day will include an encampment and drills. An exposition in the library Reception Hall will feature exhibitors and vendors ...
Exhibitors and vendors no less.

April, this week

As an historical event associated with this week, Lincoln's death (April 15) is at the tipping point and may disappear. The week is taking on an entirely different significance.

April 15: Lincoln's death (1865).

April 16: Virginia Tech massacre (2007).

April 17: Lundgren cult brutally kills the Avery family (1989).

April 18: Beirut bombing of U.S. embassy (1983).

April 19: Waco (1993). Oklahoma City bombing (1995).

April 20: Columbine massacre (1999).

There is a thread that connects these events (excepting Waco): atrocity staged as drama.
"Booth immortalized himself by staging one of history's greatest dramas," Kauffman writes. "In the process, he accomplished what every actor aspires to do: he made us all wonder where the play ended and reality began."
(Lincoln in state - photo via Ron Rietveld)


Cunningham's Shiloh

Drew Wagenhoffer has some thoughts on the revisionist Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862. He likes it much but still clings to some old standards.

Our hallowed hot dogs

Avaricious heritage tourism officials in states with second-tier ACW attractions had better ponder this headline before they start banking future visitor dollars:

Some hope Civil War tour will boost Gettysburg tourism

* Some ... not all. Not all are that optimistic.
* Hope ... not plan.
* Gettysburg ... the premier attraction of the 150th anniversary.

Sorry to say, this headline is the best part of that report. The story is about a guidebook that anticipates the anniversary: Journey Through Hallowed Ground. The thing about the book that excited news reporters was the journey among hallowed cash registers: "They take hot dogs very seriously in Gettysburg, you can really get good dogs,' said travel writer David Lillard."
Note also, business owners have a lot to gain from Journey if it works the way organizers hope. "This will benefit the wineries, the historic downtowns. It offers a richer palette of choices (to the visitor)," said Journey vice president Kat Imhoff. "It is not single-themed and can really offer you everything from Native American history to 20th century history and do it in a cohesive manner."
This is what passes for anniversary prep, folks. And heaven forbid the anniversary of the Civil War should be single-themed. It's all hallowed now ...


The root causes of Retrocession

We are all taught, when young, that the District of Columbia was formed by combining bits of Maryland and Virginia. Many people, like me, go through life with that story in mind.

Along the way, we encounter modern, up-to-date maps like the one shown at right - you recognize that familiar diamond shape immediately, I'm sure, with part of both states inside the dotted line. In fact, Avis is handing out diamond shaped maps to renters at this moment.

Got an atlas handy? Behold the diamond. Ask a child to draw the capital, behold a diamond.

It was not until I began to work here that I realized all these diamonds were zirconium. The District was carved out of Maryland only. The Virginia pieces were retroceded to the state in 1847. According to this site, Retrocession was tied to the controversy over slavery.

From Retrocession to Secession. Somebody write the book.

I wonder what the Union's war would have been like if part of DC had not been retroceded, if Virginia's 1861 occupation of Arlington had actually been an occupation of the District. Would Lincoln have been less obsessed with protecting the capital? Would that rebel occupation have been an innoculation of sorts?

Meanwhile, gaze upon the strangeness that represents the true shape of DC.


Beecher bio wins Pulitzer

The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate (Doubleday) has won the 2006 Pulitzer for biography.

In case you were wondering, here's how to win a Pulitzer:

Debby Applegate has written a highly readable story of Henry Ward Beecher. Biography is most successful in the hands of a good storyteller. Applegate knows how to spin a tale - H-Net

It is a riveting story with a larger-than-life protagonist who was sensational both in his celebrity and in his flaws. - Amherst Magazine

The book contains reference notes and a bibliography
. - Twain Web.

Good thing the prize committee didn't notice this last item:

At times, however, her narrative loses its force in a thicket of personal details. [...] She also rushes through the story of the notoriously complex adultery trial, leeching it of the theatrical qualities that captivated newspaper readers at the time. - International Herald Tribune

Our struggle against half-wits

If my email correspondence is any indication, this ACW field is rich in readers struggling against the negligence and ignorance of "experts." Today, John Robb offers a turn of phrase from his sphere that captures the problem in ours:
I agree with John Boyd in [that] the term "expert" is akin to "half-wit" since expertise in a rapidly evolving field of knowledge is only valid on the first day it is attained. After that, you become a dogmatist unless you are constantly engaged in the synthesis necessary for updating your ideas.
We look at the great names in Civil War publishing and we see no updating. Dogma galore, though.

Morgan's tactics

What tactics would those be?
Tom Allison said said Morgan was “A warrior, a gentleman, and a general leader of men.” He said many of Morgan’s war tactics were not popular during the Civil War, but are now used regularly by today’s armed forces.

What This Cruel War Was Over

From this review, we have a book dedicated to proving both sides in the ACW felt it was over slavery: it appears to be an extended argument.

"Manning's footnotes and research notes cover 110 pages."

That part works for me.


The Logic of Failure (cont.)

The Logic of Failure presents patterns of failure in complex, dynamic situations. The heart of the book's data is taken from psychological observations made during role-playing games.

Here I have chosen a few of the author's observations with Civil War readers in mind. In the excerpts below, "good" and "bad" refer to successful and unsuccessful actors in the simulation. Success means the actor reached multiple goals across a complex simulation.

See what you make of these in an ACW context:

[G]ood participants made more decisions than bad ones.

The good paricipants acted more "complexly." Their decisions took different aspects of the entire system into account, not just one aspect.

The good participants ... tested their hypotheses. The bad participants failed to do this. For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality... Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated "truths."

Also characteristic of the behavior of bad participants is a high degree of "ad hocism."

... bad participants are all too ready to be distracted.

... we also find among the bad participants ... single-minded preoccupation....

... good participants often reflected on their own behavior...

.... bad participants were frequently inclined to shift responsibility...
This closing thought is worthwhile: "An individual's reality model can be right or wrong, complete or incomplete. As a rule, it will be both incomplete and wrong, and one would do well to keep that probability in mind"

Especially when the pop historian invites you to pass judgement on historical figures.


The Logic of Failure

I have been having a good time reading The Logic of Failure and applying it to Civil War literature.

The author does a fine job of mining complex failure for lessons and then proposing tools and behavior to reduce failure in difficult situations. I can't help but compare it to the accounts of failure in popular Civil War literature.

In the Logic of Failure, one coping strategy is to reduce the number of variables facing you in an uncertain situation as setbacks accumulate. This translates into the general of a smitten host (or victorious host) standing still or moving away to plot next steps in a more stable environment. And that also happens to be a recipe for drawing venom from the author of pop literature.

Failure in pop literature is subject to literary requirements. First, the decision point has to be reduced to one or two factors to enable ease of writing and reading; second, the decision has to be framed in terms such as the reader can pound his armchair in vicarious participation; third, decisions should be cast as dramatically smart or stupid; fourth, the reader is invited into a world of clarity where the participants groped through "intransparency." Which is one reason "fog of war" writing is such a hard sell.

I'll post more on this subject here later tonight.

(Make that Saturday.)


The Compensated Emancipation Act

Tax filers have noticed that this year they have an extra couple of days to send in their papers and payments, thanks to a Washington holiday celebrating compensated emancipation in April, 1862.

The federal government ransomed District slaves for a price of $300 a head. liberating 3,100 souls, according to this government website. The freed were then offered $100 to emigrate outside the U.S.; it would be nice to see the payment figures for that expense to see how many ex-slaves took up the offer.

The Compensated Emancipation Act - Nevada's on board with that, too.


Welshmen in the ACW (cont.)

Tim Reese, of Welsh descent, helped me out with a recent post. I said, I see also some things I cannot pronounce: "Abraham Lincoln had a grandmother who was a Cadwaladr, hailing from the Cerrigydrudion area between Llangollen and Betws-y-Coed."

He writes:
"...Cadwaladr, hailing from the Cerrigydrudion [care-rig-ee-drudge-eeuhn] area between Llangollen [thlan-go-thlen] and Betws-y-Coed [beh-toos-ee-coyd]." In Welsh the accent is always on the penultimate syllable. I won't attempt to instruct you on how to properly pronounce the Welsh double L. It's a slurred hybrid of TH and L. Etymologists estimate the language's likely age at 7,000 years, Goidelic Celtic.

Czars and stars

I owe readers a long piece on civil-military command relations since the Mexican War.

The entire history of an office - general-in-chief - has been lost, with Civil War readers generally oblivious to or misled about this post. The fallout has been a lot of ahistorical nonsense written about Scott, McClellan, Halleck, and Grant.

The complexity of the topic is putting me off, so meanwhile, I offer Civil War readers this news item to chew over. If you can't put it into an ACW context, I don't blame you. I'll try to do so here soon:
The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, but it has had trouble finding anyone able and willing to take the job, according to people close to the situation.


Welshmen in the Civil War

There's a new website addressing the Welsh ACW experience, offering a selection of obits and letters. I see that Cadwallader is a Welsh name. I see also some things I cannot pronounce:
Abraham Lincoln had a grandmother who was a Cadwaladr, hailing from the Cerrigydrudion area between Llangollen and Betws-y-Coed.
Not many know a Cadwallader but everyone knows a coed.


Desertion then and now

A modern note for all those readers who count on payroll musters to derive Civil War strengths:
But some unit commanders, wary of scrutiny from their superiors, go out of their way to improperly keep deserted soldiers on their rosters, and on the Army’s payroll, two officers said in interviews. To counter that, the Army adopted a new policy in January 2005 requiring commanders to formally report absent soldiers within 48 hours.
Other parts of today's news read like a page from the ACW as well:
Army prosecutions of desertion and other unauthorized absences have risen sharply in the last four years, resulting in thousands more negative discharges and prison time for both junior soldiers and combat-tested veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army records show.

The increased prosecutions are meant to serve as a deterrent to a growing number of soldiers who are ambivalent about heading — or heading back — to Iraq and may be looking for a way out, several Army lawyers said in interviews. Using courts-martial for these violations, which before 2002 were treated mostly as unpunished nuisances, is a sign that active-duty forces are being stretched to their limits... [additional unwarrented journalistic inferences deleted] .
We went to some lengths ourselves, during the Vietnam war, to keep AWOL soldiers off the desertion rolls as long as possible. Often, we were concerned about the soldier embarked on some sort of mistake. Desertion also reflected on the command. Imagine the suppression of AWOL reports if we had been elected by our privates.

It is a terrible mistake for the Civil War reader to use payrolls as indication of unit strength; to then compare both sides' unit strengths on the battlefield; and then to make sweeping judgements about personalities based on numbers thought to be real when they are in fact false.
That falsity rests in part with desertion and the natural feeling against reporting desertion.

Coal Black Horse

Every spring publishing season, there seems to be a big ACW novel in the works. Remember the hoopla around Widow of the South? The March?

A forthcoming Civil War novel, Coal Black Horse, is generating a great deal of press. Thank AP for that... a lot of papers picked up this wire story. There's more here and a review here.

Doesn't look like my cup of tea. Robert Olmstead: "They lay with their broken legs twisted and contorted so, to even unfold a man in the attempt to configure him as a man would be near impossible."

I prefer the economy of Emily Dickinson: "'Tis populous with bone and stain / And men too straight to stoop again."

The re-enactor controversy

The mobilization of re-enactment units for duty in Iraq has been controversial. If you haven't made up your own mind about this issue yet, David Woodbury has a link to some thorough discussion of the topic.


The Stevens Battery (cont.)

Received a remarkable Easter egg in the mail tonight and I need to thank two men who made it happen.

Some time ago, Roger Todd came across my post on the Stevens Battery and was moved to send me some wonderful scans of British proceedings, after the Civil War, on the merits of this ironclad design. I still need to share those with you and haven't forgotten.

Roger put be in touch with a generous Dr. Bil Ragan, whose extensive collection of Stevens Battery material arrived this evening. Wow - many, many thanks Bil.

I think I now have an implied task: transcribe the Stevens material I found in Governor George B. McClellan's papers years ago and share that with my generous (new) friends.

For now, I should repeat to you Bil's reminder (to me) that the Stevens Floating Battery fought the Civil War as a modified, smaller proof-of-concept vessel, the Naugatuck (shown above).

Off to the cosy chair with some very special reading. See you next week.

Our Civil War army in Iraq: people are talking

It's good to see that a public discussion of the state of our Army is beginning to take place, even in the midst of this pacification effort in Iraq. One would prefer that the mass media understand how ours is a Civil War era army. Instead, Time magazine notes simply that the force is broken.

Time's piece has elements of the oldie (but goodie) 1990s Procurement Spiral of Death meme (even Foreign Affairs picked up on it). The Spiral of Death is a natural, though perhaps not inevitable, outgrowth of a Civil War military's value system: linearity, synchronicity, alignment, red tape, and a horror of national strategy - strategy that would sort means and ends.

One can see the Death Spiral at work in military readiness - but the forces that spiral towards procurement program implosions are now complemented by bills coming due after Peter has been robbed (ad naseum) to pay Paul.

Note also, per this Time piece, that units going off to war now are about as-well prepared as the New York Heavies were prepared to storm infantry positions on foot. As undrilled as the newly recruited regiments thrown into the line at Antietam (Sears estimated them at one-third the U.S. force that day). Note that those of us in combat arms during the Vietnam War got no more training than the poor devils described in this Time piece; call that an historical continuum.
The "professionalism" cherished by Grant and Sherman has now reached its uttermost extreme in tolerating conditions no political general would have countenanced for a minute. They succeeded too well in eliminating those political generals . Here we are.


Rick Beard sightings increase

It's spring and the gophers emerge from their dens
Easter approaches -
And Rick Beard once again
Walks among men.

That poem may need some work but it's chock-full of up-to-the-minute factual content:

* Mary Todd Lincoln exhibit planned at presidential library

* Springfield's Union Station scheduled to reopen today

* Lincoln museum unveils exhibit on Lincoln's wife

Harper's Ferry dodges the bulldozer

This might be a victory won by CWPT:

Park chief: Battlefield development 'a desecration'

Charles Town rejects annexing proposed development

Another day

... another group of Civil War graves vandalized.

Georgia's lesson in avarice (cont.)

Now, a newspaper in Japan has picked up this story:

"Georgia keying on Civil War anniversary to boost tourism"

What a disgrace. Or put another way, our national disgrace has gone international.

The state press office had better get Georgia's hacks to stop talking up avarice before another reporter wanders within earshot.


Are artifacts history?

Again, we have elementary school students being "taught" about the Civil War and again, it comes down to handling artifacts and experiencing mild, generic discomfort.
A Meadowlark teacher, Lee Zuck, hopes the students weren't just entertained. "Hopefully, they get more of an understanding of what the Civil War was about," Zuck said.
Why does history have to be the curriculum of hoped-for results?


I could have written this post

Except the part about sounding snobbish.

Meanwhile, Brooks Simpson says "I wonder whether the general reader or the person whose intense interest in the Civil War is matched only by a vast ignorance of the literature (and perhaps fundamental facts) really cares about whether what they are reading is original."

Indeed, I wonder too.

He raises the possibility that ACW historians are viewed, within the academy, as servicing fans: "After all, if many of my peers outside my field of interest think that all I do is to cater to the undiscriminating palate of wild-eyed buffs (many of whom, I suspect, don’t read much at all), why not simply live down to my peers’ expectations and proceed laughing all the way to the bank?"

Here's a possible answer; as long as you keep a foot in both camps, you should be able to do both without your professional identity becoming subsumed by your popular identity. On the other hand, the professional identity of, say, David Eicher cannot help him. He's an astronomer, so the Civil War author part of his identity will be rooted in pop culture. The same would be true of me - if I went down the pop road to riches, I would have no recourse to a "true" identity as the practitioner of an honest history.

But Brooks Simpson, and many others, are positioned to do both. There will be no harm in it unless they read and believe the rave reviews their pop histories earn; unless they buy into the prizes awarded for trashy nonfiction; unless the bright lights of C-SPAN turn them around; unless they get used to being called the "greatest living" whatever based on sales figures.

And I believe there are historians strong enough to do both things without becoming confused about which part of the work is worthwhile for what ends.

Not just for fiction

We read our nonfiction and then (some of us, occasionally) pick up an "alternative history". The interesting thing about these alternative histories to me is that they rarely reverse the bias built into the underlying nonfiction, but rather explore an alternative storytelling viewpoint from the same set of biases.

The Overcoming Bias blog says "The lack of interest in bias-reversed stories suggests we aren't that interested in overcoming fiction biases."

Nor non-fiction biases.

But our bloggers do seriously err, the way many technologists do, when they say,
We do try somewhat to not let fiction overly influence our beliefs about the real world. But surely we fail in many ways; the task is just too hard. How can we do better?

One approach is to prefer apparently true stories, such as biographies, news articles, reality TV, or grampa's war stories. Of course lots of fiction slips in, but at least these can be fact-checked.
No, they can't be fact-checked where 90% of them are interpretive conclusions and the underlying microdata has been selected to favor a vested interpretation.

Nor does it do any good to fact check them when Pulitzer winners want to argue contrary interpretations. The appeal to authority is crippling in our field and has been for 50 years.

A friend of this blog recently received a letter from a history Pulitzer winner asking him to discount a piece of archival evidence in analyzing events because it may have been tampered with by unknown parties at an unknown time in the past for unknown reasons (although it showed no evidence of tampering). The winner, needless to say, is a great storyteller.

Anyone arguing on a debate team has to practice internalizing bias reversal. Let the ACW historian try it.