Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas

Coming out of the 1990s, I had - as a book reviewer - a set disposition towards Lincoln books and authors. I found them vacuous and annoying.

The annoyance came from a "do as I say" ethos. We were invariably told about Lincoln's great mind, his insights, his wisdom, and his general superiority over the common run of statesmen of the same era. We were told to admire him while the authors gamboled on the meadows of storyland instead of sailing the rough waters of argument and analysis. Lincoln authors still seem to avoid arduous demonstrations as a rule.

Readers should have naturally expected from these touted gifts a Lincolnian school of political philosophy but where was it? Even second rank nineteenth century politicians like Henry George or William Jennings Bryan could inspire an intellectual heritage where Lincoln left nothing but law and policy and rivers of useless nonfiction.

In 2000, my editor asked me to review (in tandem) new books by John Patrick Diggins and Harry V. Jaffa and I learned then and there where the philosophers had been hiding and what they had to say. They were well outside the Lincoln field and they were heavy laden with insights.

Diggins, I read first. Note that Diggins is not a Lincoln scholar but his On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History had more meat than the historical and biographical material normally served. Diggins made and substantiated an argument that Lincoln represented the culmination of Lockean political philosophy permeating the founding generation; that Lincoln's Lockeanism was not derivative but represented a culmination of Locke's thought tested in arduous new circumstances; that Lincoln was a contributor to the Lockean tradition; and that Lincoln's political philosophy was terminal. He was the last and greatest exponent of the American Lockean tradition.

Instead of stopping here, Diggins used this extensive preparation as a place from which to comment on modern political developments. The commentary was weak with polemic tarnishing the preceding deep and convincing exercise in historical analysis. He was aiming at a mass audience and appears to have gotten one - the book remains in print.

Jaffa I read next: A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. I won't attempt to summarize this magnificent work except to say it was as satisfying as it was challenging. Where Diggins saw a Lockean natural rightist, Jaffa presented Lincoln, through his slowly unfolding analysis, as a classical natural rightist, the culmination of a non-Lockean natural rights tendency in early American government.

I am simplifying here but these threads stood out.

So, you had in the marketplace at once two books on Lincoln, one placing him as the exemplar of the Lockean view of natural rights, the other making him a paladin of the anti-Lockean view of natural rights. When will we see the like of a similar publishing accident in Lincoln studies?

What would have been interesting, as I noted in my review then, would have been a debate in which these two engaged on natural rights and Lincoln. Is such a debate possible today in Lincoln circles? Can the audience for this current flavor of Bicentennial nonfiction approach such a symposium? We're talking about readers of Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails.

Jaffa, like Diggins, pitched his book to an audience far beyond Lincoln readers and that is where Bicentennial publishing must follow them. One mark of Jaffa's 2000 volume was that it followed up his 1959 predecessor volume, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Is that not charming? To presume that the best part of the nonfiction readership of 1959 would be present and reading at the same level in 2000 has to be one of the most beautiful compliments an author has ever paid the reading public.

Allen C. Guelzo had praise for A New Birth of Freedom and House Divided both, as noted here a few years back: "Forty years ago, Harry Jaffa wrote the greatest book on Abraham Lincoln's politics for a generation; now, Jaffa has written the greatest book on Lincoln's politics for another generation."

In his new book, Lincoln and Douglas: the Debates That Defined America, Guelzo refers to Jaffa again. He had to because his new book aspires to convey why these are "The Debates That Defined America" where Jaffa has already done so.

Guelzo's answer set me back. Jaffa is "not … a historian" but "a political scientist." After a long, irrelevant digression into Leo Strauss's political philosophy, he then ties Jaffa to Strauss and Strauss to modern "neo-conservative" political time servers (this is a common, pop-culture error) while giving a greasy, blotted, back-of-the-napkin sketch of "the greatest book on Abraham Lincoln's politics for a generation."

As this happened in the introduction, I was forewarned.

My daughter, as a five year old painter, was sometimes given masterworks to copy impressionistically and the result was similar to Guelzo's explanation of Jaffa's House Divided. We end up with a nice something that bears little relation to the original.

But the masterwork sets an expectation that is unavoidable, even for a five year old finger painter. And Guelzo, having put Jaffa's analysis of the debates aside as a work not of history but of political science, sets the stage for our expectations of him and what he views history as being.

Well, he views it as narrative. Fast moving, information rich narrative. That's what his book is, storytelling, leavened with more than the usual load of facts and dates. There is no hint in this of why the debates defined America.

The structure of the narrative is to follow the two candidates on their campaign trails from place to place. But the number of visits is so many and the economy of book publishing is so limiting, that instead of the story of traveling from A to B we get a torrent of maps showing campaign stops at each stage of the tour. These maps are not explained in the text but rather complement the distracted reader who is trying to keep up with Guelzo's breakneck pace. They also constitute a kind of data enrichment we would be grateful for if the author were not hustling us.

The account of each debate runs a few short pages and it is followed by a matrix. This matrix is divided down the middle to give the reader (student?) a he said/she said outline recapping what happened in that debate. I picture a cheater writing this on his shirt cuffs before an exam. These are real examples, actual quotes:
Douglas: Lincoln is an abolitionist radical.
Lincoln: Denied.

Douglas: Lincoln and Trumbull are conspiring to abolitionize old parties.
Lincoln: Denied

Douglas: Lincoln betrayed his country in the Mexican War.
Lincoln: Denied.
And so it goes, and in all their reader-friendliness, the tables depress us and take these debates down to the level of a Pee Wee Herman's America. How Jaffa - a mere political scientist - could have made a silk purse out of such sow's ears beggars belief.

Guelzo, by showing us what a real historian can do with the material - and the machinery of narrative - falls into the typical narrator's fallacy of identification, among others. The Douglas character (he's not an historical person in these pages) is vile, utterly hateful. He mounts a podium possibly under the influence and by the end of that passage Gulezo has him drunk for sure, as if losing track of his underlying sources afted 200 words. As he hypnotizes the reader, the storyteller hypnotizes himself.

Identification works the other way as well. When Lincoln is warned off the "house divided" metaphor, Guelzo blandly recites Lincon's own justification before the fact. When the reference then generates the outrage its single meaning evokes, when Lincoln elaborates contortions to twist Christ's meaning into a second interpretation (in which a house divided need not fall), Guelzo justifies Lincoln's decision and (mis)interpretation to the reader.

The narrator's taste for speed and compression cause, as I said, an unnatural brevity in the telling about the debates. If you hate having indirect speech converted to direct, I would like to see how you manage Guelzo's stew of debate summaries rendered in a patented technique of mixed quotes and non-quotes without attribution. What do we make of this:
Lincoln was not just plotting to abolitionize old Whigs: he was plotting genocide. "Mr. Lincoln thinks that it is his duty to preach a crusade in the free States, against slavery, because it is a crime, as he believes, and ought to be extinguished." Well, "how is he going to abolish it?" If Lincoln was telling the truth about not wanting to "interfere with slavery in the States, but intends to interfere and prohibit it in the territories," then the result could only be that the "natural increase" of the slave population would create more slave mouths than the South could feed, and "his policy would drive them to starvation." This Douglas said with a smirk, "is the humane and Christian remedy that he proposes for the great crime of slavery." Or if not genocide, then perhaps Lincoln was plotting treason.
For the love of Allen C. Guelzo, what do we do with such a summary? It's typical for every one in this work. Do we attribute use of the word "genocide" to Douglas? Who said he smirked? What rules are being followed in compressing and paraphrasing?

We are already laboring under the adverse knowledge that any recapitulation of debate quotes is a blend of multiple sources. What history readers expect is a heavily noted summary not only explaining any potentially controversial paraphrasing but even more - a running commentary on which transcript generated which quotes and why the author made the quote choices he did. Here the narrative comes first.

Guelzo is to be commended for using Rafuse's book McClellan's War to clear up a persistent legend about GBM's favoritism towards Douglas over Lincoln in the senatorial campaign. Guelzo doesn't actually clear it up, but he does relay that Douglas's campaign rented from the Illinois Central those trains used to travel the state, and thus the attentive reader understands they were not provided gratis by a Democrat-loving GBM at railroad expense. Guelzo nevertheless muddies the waters by describing how much the Illinois Central owed to Douglas in political favors and he links this to the McClellan controversy in an insinuating way.

Oddly, after reporting on McClellan's public embarassment in the train service controversy, Guelzo makes the observation that Lincoln and McClellan would eventually meet again during the war. You shake your head in disbelief.

This is the same railroad superintendent and his corporate lawyer who shared the same beds traveling to Illinois county courts endlessly on railroad land business. Does that information need to be taught to Lincoln scholars?

This "meet again," coming after displays of bad quoting, overcompression, and non-citing, makes you wonder how firm is Guelzo's grip on historical details. You even begin to question those handy campaign maps.

Well, I'll give it this. It was a good read. I think it was my last Guelzo read as well.

Top to bottom, Diggins, Jaffa, Guelzo


OT: just for laughs

How to scare the hell out of editors.

I used to know musicians who do not listen to music. I think this is one of those writers who do not read, BTW.

Pierro's Carman

The winding road to publication for Joseph Pierro's Ezra Carman manuscript has not passed its last bend yet (see previous posts here, here, and here).

Publisher Routledge lists the tome as out on March 18; Joseph Pierro writes to say he has had his copies for two weeks; meanhwile, Amazon is stuck in pre-order mode as if the book is yet to be released.

On the silver lining side, Amazon adds a further 5% discount to pre-ordered books, so "pre-ordering" from their site now will compound the discounts to produce the cheapest opportunity to buy what might otherwise be book beyond many budgets.

I attribute Routledge's $95 price tag to a library marketing play, this being a "must have" for collections and researchers.

Cross-posted to Civil War Book News.


Sounds from April, 1860

The New York Times today has an article about the reconstruction of an April 1860 "recording" - thus proving that life imitates art, or if not art, then cheap plot(ting) devices.

You can hear the reconstruction by fiddling the link in the middle of this post.

p.s. How is this different from historical "restorations" in which a building is constructed based on no more than pieces of foundation?

What readers are looking for

This new work apprears to have the right stuff in it (emphasis added):
This book constitutes an operational study of the Army of the Potomac during this campaign and battle, carefully documenting the command decisions of army commander George B. McClellan and following the execution of those decisions through the corps level of command and down to the ordinary soldier in the Second Army Corps. It reappraises the leadership and decisions of Edwin V. Sumner during the battle of Antietam as the one federal corps commander who was steadfast in carrying out McClellan's plan of battle and effectively directed the battle on the Federal right.
In Civil War history, the commander's intent is generally treated as a cartoon thought bubble inked over the head of a caricature.

This is going to set an uncomfortable precedent for the innumerable generalizers and synthesizers.



The National Civil War Museum

The National Civil War Museum is edging towards solvency...

The reporter's insight that the museum serves a purpose "beyond tourism" is intended to surprise readers.

Meanwhile did you know there is a Civil War Chaplains Museum?

A new Civil War film

This one will be a gender-bender.



In my blog roundup, I forgot to hit the refresh button and got a staleness effect for Richard G. Williams blog. He is not only active, but hyperactive:
I visited your enlighened (most of the time) blog today and was most perplexed to find my blog listed among the recently deceased! How so my friend?!

I have had this month to date: 28 posts, February: 38 posts (the most ever in a month), January: 31 posts, and even during the Christmas month managed to log 18 posts!

I am currently at 443 posts since first establishing my blog since May of 2005 (ok, ok, I got off to a slow start, cut me some slack). I am also listed in CWI's blog update every week. I rarely go more than a couple of days without posting. What's up?
The DUH factor is up - way up. He adds,
The gentelman who was blogging at McGavock Cemetery is now posting regularly at: The Civil War Gazette: http://civilwargazette.wordpress.com/ I think he's doing some fine work there.


It wouldn't kill me to say so

A reader writes:
May I assume, from your references to undergraduate papers, that you are yourself a college professor? Would it kill you to say so--or do you assume that most of the people who read your blog already know?
I am not a professor - I don't even have a graduate degree. Back in the 1970s, I did moonlight teaching English night school in Korea at a soldier's branch of the LACC for two semesters.

This reader says that many fine ACW blogs have gone under recently, so I checked my links and noticed that the frequency of postings at some of these sites might mislead one into thinking they have been abandoned but that the gaps between posts are consistent.

Now as to the certifiably inactive, I so pronounce

Les (Civil War Buff 75)
Civil War Sources
McGavock Cemetery
Milk after Cereal
Civil War Notes

That's a low mortality rate given the sample size. Meanwhile, Brett Schulte is reducing his postings. Brett's was, I believe the second ACW blog and Drew Wagenhoffer's the third (IIRC).

Here are some newer ACW blogs I discovered today.

Robert H. Moore, II, alias "Cenantua," is a student of hypertext theory so he gets top billing here (I myself once read Eastgate novels by night on my Mac Classic while developing context-sensitive help by day for Unix/Motif collateralized mortgage obligation trading applications on Wall Street.) He posts long, thoughtful items and seems interested in public history.

Bryan S. Bush has issued the Western Theater Civil War Blog and is already getting invitations to lecture and sign books. He maintains a respectabe schedule.

(Oddly enough, I used to get invitations to lecture as the head of the McClellan Society but have never gotten such since starting this blog. I suppose they don't invite difficult people.)

Kurt has launched a non-military Civil War blog, One Man's Rebellion Record, and is already attracting a substantial number of comments. He is using as a vehicle the life of a single soldier, E. J. Conger and posts long form.

Meanwhile, some items I enjoyed from the active posters:

Craig Warren disagrees with some of my Faulknerian post.

Eric Wittenberg has some thoughts on The History Channel rebranding itself as History.

This type of manipulation is becoming more common, the most extreme example being the rebranding of Flanders' green party as GROEN! In order to make any reference to this Belgian party you have to "shout," as if in affirmation, GREEN!. This offers many ideas for blog renaming ... but the trick is annoying.

Rene Tyree is boiling down Jomini to blog-sized bites. He liked my Faust piece.

Don, at Crossed Sabres, notes that writers might be cautious about starting a blog. For my part, without a blog, I would get no personal writing done ever.

Kevin may think I am baiting him with denigrations of McPherson and Gallagher but I do practice restraint in that department with him in mind. (Perhaps the time has come for super restraint.) These two are emblems of the worst tendencies in Civil War history since 1959.

The steady reader will dilute my outbursts to taste.

Cartoon via ZDNET.

Is this a record?

To pay $11,5000 for a single private letter from an unknown soldier - that must be a record.


Comparing rail power in war (cont.)

The nub of the rail power issue - essentially all you need to say about it in comparing North with South - adds up to two facts buried deep in George Edgar Turner's Victory Rode the Rails.

He observes, in Chapter 18, that in the early war the Confederate legislature rejected a bill to allow government control over the railroads where in the Union such a measure passed. Much of the book can be read as an elaboration on those two events.

As for the rest, Turner does a very interesting thing, rather like what Rowena Reed did in her book Combined Operations in the Civil War. He takes this aspect of operations that he is interested in and converts it into a paradigm by which he evaluates the various commanders and campaigns.

Consider the general campaign narrative that takes no notice of railways, except where track is broken or some junction made an objective; take the next step up, the analytic histories of Hattaway or Jones, where single lines are evaluated in terms of their carrying capacity to supply an army.

Turner goes beyond this in significant ways. He

(1) Analyzes the total rail potential of a given tactical position. So, "Thus was formed a parallelogram, three sides of which were first class railroads and the fourth the army's new defensive line."

(2) Determines whether the commander on the ground understood the rail potential of his position.

(3) Looks at the effects on rail power of tactical and movement decisions taken by footborne commanders making positional decisions. Here Johnston gave up a rail-reinforceable position; there Jackson forestalled an advance near Staunton's junction.

(4) Evaluates rail lines in terms of their individual physical potential to deliver troops as well as supplies.

(5) Looks at the unintended consequences of rail use. So, Johnston's rail-based troop concentration at Corinth demonstrated Corinth's importance and may have made it a target.

Needless to say, this is the kind of treatment that makes foolish many hoof and foot campaign histories (Reed did the same in her field). At the same time, it is only a first attempt and unevenly applied. Most problematic is the question of what a particular commander knew or understood.

Nonetheless, Turner's rich paradigm has long been available to Civil War storytellers; pity they have shelved railpower analysis with so much other analysis.


The cruellest thing ever said about Lincoln experts

A fun passage from Andrew Ferguson's Land of Lincoln:
An old Lincoln hand, a historian by trade and a cynic by inclination, once told me how it's done.

"The best way to move up in the Lincoln world is to give a lot of speeches," he said. "It can be the same speech over and over again if you want - you just have to give it to a lot of different groups. And you're in luck, because there are so many places where people are willing to sit still for a talk about Lincoln. Expectations are low. The field is wide open. You can always find somebody to talk to, and they'll always be appreciative."

"So you start by offering yourself as a luncheon speaker at some Lincoln roundtable. Then you move on to the next group, and you offer yourself as a dinner speaker - after all, you're already a veteran luncheon speaker. And now that you've spoken to their dinner, you might offer to serve on their board. They'll say yes. Trust me, they'll say yes. And after you're on their board for awhile, you might want to run for president. Chances are you'll run unopposed. Pretty soon, you're a figure in the Lincoln community - you're a veteran speaker and you've served on the board and you're president of the Lincoln Roundtable of Somewhere or Other. You write an op-ed for the local paper when Lincoln's birthday comes around. You prepare quotes for the next time the paper does a Lincoln story an a reporter calls you for an interview. People defer to you. They defer to you because you're president of the roundtable and you've given speeches, both luncheon and dinner, and you're quoted in the newspaper, and you've published an op-ed."

"There. Mission accomplished. You're officially a Lincoln expert."

"Please understand me," the old hand said. "This makes no sense. You cannot become recognized as a Washington expert this way, or a Jefferson expert. There is no other field in American history where this could take place. But in the Lincoln world it's been happening from the beginning."
Ferguson is shown top right.


Milk and honey for old Faulknerians

I had the odd surprise the Christmas before last of having a sister-in-law press upon me enthusiastically her galley copies (no less!) of the then forthcoming Howard Bahr Civil War novel, the Judas Field. She was no ACW buff. Bahr was coming on strong indeed.

I had read Year of Jubilo and knew Bahr, a Mississippian, to be a self-conscious Faulknerian, without myself having read enough Faulkner to tell where the overlaps and deviations might be occurring. The dense, immensely inventive language and imagery, the lyrical poetry as it were, was top flight, but the story structure and violence seemed rickety. Whatever he's taking from Faulkner (and presumably making his own), Howard Bahr keeps getting the New York Times to rank his Civil War literature among its "Notable Books." I am beginning to think that Faulkner's style opens doors in publishing that would otherwise be closed.

The great American novelist Shelby Foote used to pre-empt criticisms of his own style by openly acknowledging his debt to Faulkner. In the scores of interviews he gave - as a fiction writer - he mentions Faulkner in nearly every one. Otherwise, Foote was stingy with his praise of new talent. If interviewers named Percy or Faulkner or Fitzgerald, Foote would oblige them with observations. When asked to name contemporaries he admired, I can recall no name that he ever gave up except one - that of Cormac McCarthy. It stuck with me.

That must have been about the time of the release of McCarthy's first novel the Orchard Keeper (1965), appearing almost ten years after Foote's heyday. McCarthy's editor at that time was Faulkner's editor, Albert Erskine. I am reading it now and it is immensely Bahr-like, or rather Faulknerian; or perhaps it is Erskinian. I took it up out of curiosity, having recently seen the film No Country for Old Men. I was unable to spot the root of a good novel in this acclaimed "faithful" adaptation and wanted to run a little Shelby Foote sanity check.

Old Men (the film) is the cartoonish, Disneyfied rendition of Faulknerian motifs in a Southwest setting with absurd, Rabelaisian layers of violence. I say "Faulknerian" in the popular sense, not in the informed reader sense, because I am not an informed reader of Faulkner. Old Men is what you might expect in a comic book's exploration of what we call Faulknerian literature (in the general culture).

Orchard, however, is holding together as a good read. We shall see.

Hemmingway once said of composer George Antheil something like, I prefer my Stravinsky neat. Sooner or later, these Faulknerians are going to drive me to the straight whiskey. That should be good for another post.

Top: Faulkner; middle, Bahr; below, McCarthy as he was when Foote read him.

Attention webmasters and bloggers

The Anything but Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum "seeks applicants to design race-riot Web site."

Davis gets his bicentennial

"Kentuckian Jefferson Davis will be recognized in Hardin County on his 200th birthday in June."


General Wool writes a letter

Army and Navy Journal, September 17, 1864:

I was more than delighted with the views you entertain in regard to the election of McClellan to the Presidency of the United States. You have said truthfully that his "election means the trailing of our flag in the dust before its enemies, the entire subserviency of the North to the South ;" and you tnight have added the surrender of the United States to Jefferson Davis and his Government. That such is the intention, if they succeed in the election of McClellan, of the leaders of this wide-spread conspiracy of peacemakers, there cannot be a shadow of doubt. It extends over the North as well as the South. Its influence is seen and felt in every city, town and hamlet throughout the land, with its headquarters in Canada, stimulated and encouraged by the three Presidential factions in the Republican ranks, which appear to have paralyzed the whole party.

The conspirators have taken advantage of this silence and apathy of the Republicans, who have hitherto professed to be supporters of the war, and have not failed to add to their ranks, the weak, the timed and cowardly of the Republican party, as well as of the Democratic party. Within the last two days, however, the Republican have been somewhat roused from their lethargy by the recent successes of Major General Sherman. Nothing, for aught that I can discover, will save the Union and its Government but the successes of Grant, Sherman, Farragut, and Sheridan.

These successes may rouse the people and preserve our country ; but nothing else, from present appearances, will save it from the danger with which it is threatened. The perils of the Union were never greater than at the present moment. The conspirator have secret associations, whose members are scattered over the land, using every means in their power to alarm and frighten the ignorant and timid. They are also distributed throughout the Armies and Navy of the United States, and exerting all their powers to induce those who have the privilege of voting to cast their votes for McClellan, who is represented to be popular with the rank and file. At a future day I may present facts which -will substantiate all I have said in regard to this dangerous conspiracy and their convention and their candidates for the Presidency.

It was not the sword of Caesar that destroyed the liberty of Rome, but the demagogues that thronged the forum with souls dead to their country's honor, and spotted with corruption.

I am, respectfully, your obedient servant.

(Signed) JOHN E. WOOL


A very special Civil War talk

The great chain of being - experience it in person.


Matamoros in the Civil War (cont.)

As reader Will Keene pointed out, the OR holds some clues as to the position of Matamoros in the ACW.

March 1, 1862. . L. Pierce, Jr. establishes himself as U.S. consul in Matamoros, notifying Seward that the Confederates used "every possible exertion to get me driven out." He says they control both banks of the Rio Grande at its mouth and that there is only one U.S. ship in port to carry his message out. He notes that "Matamoros is now the great thoroughfare to the Southern states."

March 21, 1862. Pierce notifies Seward that he is "besieged" by Union refugees and deserters from the Confederacy and lacks the means to send them on to the North. He is finding "subsistence" for them to the best of his ability.

March 24, 1862. We find Consul Pierce telling Seward that the local Mexican colonel commanding has told Pierce that Texas was organizing a cross-border raid to seize Matamoros in order to arrest Union men operating there - including the consul himself. He makes this interesting comment: "The Texan troops are becoming demoralized and disorderly in the extreme…" I assume this refers to the troops that would later be formed into the Fist Texas Cavalry U.S.

April 25, 1862. Seward tells Stanton of a British ship with contraband changing destination from Charleston to Tampico. He says that since Tampico cannot be blockaded, the War Department needs to put a force into Brownsville and on the Rio Grande.

May 5, 1862. Pierce tells Seward of an employee abducted by four Texas Rangers in Mexico and taken to Fort Brown, an English subject. On demands for his release, the Texans let him go but retain the official correspondence he was carrying. Pierce notes "the crowds of refugees from texas do not diminish in the least."

May 23, 1862. C.B. H. Blood, U.S. consul in Monterrey writes Seward to say a small group of Mexicans is feeding and sheltering refugees spilling across the Texas border and that there is no U.S. provision for these people; he asks for instructions or advice. He is currently turning American citizens into the street, he says, to seek a living among an already destitute population. He estimates 300 Americans are being fed by charity in Monterey and expects 3,000 Texans would enlist under U.S. colors in the border area. He reports of the hanging of four Texas Home Guards who sought to desert to a U.S. steamer. In closing he asks that if the government will not feed the refugees that collections be made in U.S. cities for them.

That is all I found.

There is one Confederate message referring to the city.

April 27, 1864. Rebel Gen. John Magruder writes to John Slidell, commissioner to France, to report 10 pieces of federal artillery being donated to Mexico and the Mexican provincial governor walking arm-in-arm with the "pretended governor of Texas" John Hamilton. He refers to the federals "wantonly" and "openly" supplying arms for the carrying out of the war (in Mexico) against France.

Don't think we exhausted the topic, though...


Republic of Suffering - a review

This Republic of Suffering is the kind of book we want to encourage. Nothing I can say should detract from that.

Drew Gilpin Faust (right) is also the kind of author we want to encourage; as president of Harvard, she is a kind of advertisement for the seriousness of the Civil War as a subject. She cannot be endorsed by the likes of a Gallagher or McPherson - their vetting would be meaningless to her broad audience and made ironic by her stature. She stands outside of the Centennial system of rewards and punishments, prizes and dinners, and in that she enjoys a freedom that is dangerous to the purveyors of nonsense who supply us with that pound of reading twaddle that we must convert into an ounce of enjoyment.

This, however, is not the review of an ACW book that- given the low standards of Civil War nonfiction - actually constitutes a new, interesting or important volume in the genre. Instead, I discuss this book here in terms of the broader culture in which it appears and where its limitations and faults are painfully obvious. You, therefore, may find this post slightly off-topic.

Faust writes simply. In fact, her technique could not be simpler and mirrors, at a higher level, those undergraduate papers she has graded over the years. She makes a statement or observation followed by a series of supporting anecdotes. She makes another statement, unleashes more supporting anecdotes. And so it goes. She clusters these in topical chapters. Reading a chapter is almost like reading an outline for the chapter. Occasionally, as you'll see later, she offers briefly recapitulated analysis by others. This isn't good or bad but it becomes tedious once you notice it. If you never notice, you may find the read stylistically "neutral" or you may even enjoy the simplicity and brevity:

Desperate families both North and South traveled by the hundreds to battlefields to search in person for missing kin. [Setup.] Observers described railroad junctions crowded with frantic relatives in pursuit of information about loved ones. [Transition to stories.] When Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. rushed to Maryland… [Stories begin.]

Then the cycle repeats. Like those undergraduates afraid to venture a conclusion, the cycle often dead-ends at the last anecdote. There is the odd exception where insight is attempted, e.g. "Fanny Scott's story demonstrates as well the unifying power of death even amid the divisive forces of war" or an outsider's view serves as summary judgement. That's the length and breadth of the analysis tacked onto paragraphs of anecdotes. This too I have seen in undergraduate work: a ribbon proposing to tie up a bundle of stories with a single generalization.

The deepest level of analysis in Suffering is likely to be entirely inferential. I don't know what the author thinks or wants me to think after each themed chapter: Dying; Killing; Burying; Naming; Realizing; Believing and Doubting; Accounting; and Numbering. Faced with all these somber anecdotes, I only know what is expected of me in terms of emotional response. That, surely, is the source of the many ambiguous but conditioned responses in reviews of this book.

Drew Gilpin Faust's writings were already served up in memory studies courses before Suffering appeared. She was a "person of interest" to the people who work that patch of cross-disciplinary stuff.

Is Suffering representative of that genre? Yes, depending on how you define memory studies; this may be a bid to produce the first American bestseller in the field. However, stipulations are needed. There is lacking here examination "of the contested role of memory in constructing historical meaning and imagining the cultural boundaries of communities," to borrow from a syllabus. To put it more generally, there is no theoretical framework here, no pomo filters, no juice, not even a discernible point of view. So this is half a memory study, the form of one, the shell of it.

If the reader enjoyed Suffering (and I think that possible) look upstream to several truly outstanding works, all of them from Europe, all of them representing a wholeness without resort to ideological frameworks or postmodernisms, all well known, and all preceding Faust's new book.

14-18: Understanding the Great War was such a runaway bestseller in Europe in 2000 that it made its way here in 2002 and has never been out of print. You can buy it in any big box, where my own impulse purchase occurred years ago. I would be surprised if a professor of history had not seen it or read about it. In fact, in searching my own site, I could hardly believe I had not quoted copiously in the past.

If you divided the treatment of WWI into chapters as Gilpin did Suffering, if you wrote simple, somber sentences, and then rounded out the whole with analytic richness and complexity of insight throughout, you would get a sense of a Platonic form that Suffering crudely approximates. The section of 14-18 most like Suffering is Part III Mourning with its chapters Historicizing Grief, Collective Mourning, and Personal Bereavement. Some of the correlation is inevitable, other bits are startling. Co-authors Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau (right) and Annette Becker:
We can understand the families' insistent questions in their letters to fellow soldiers or commanders of the men they had lost. What were the loved one's last moments like? What were the exact circumstances of his death? Where was he wounded? How much did he suffer? People also wanted to know if he had died alone and, of course, if he was buried and, if so, where. The point was to try to fill the terrible gap created by their having been absent and unable to give aid to the dying…
Author Faust:
But most civilians appeared out of earnest desperation to locate and care for loved ones. The death of relatives far away from families and kin was, as we have seen, particularly disruptive to fundamental nineteenth century understandings of the Good Death. [see especially her bits on the Good Death.]
Faust again:
Freud, for example, contrasted mourning, a grief that understands that a love object no longer exists, to melancholia, in which the individual "cannot see clearly what has been lost" and thus remains mired in "profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love." Freud writes of "the work of mourning," defined by the effort to come to grips with the reality of loss and then to withdraw emotional investment from the departed.
Co-authors Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker from the opening of their chapter Collective Mourning:
[Freud's] "thoughts on death" … are just as powerful. Before 1914, people had wanted to forget death, "eliminate it from life." But war brought it back on an industrial scale and it was unbearable. Hence Freud's wisdom in suggesting that death be reincorporated into life: "To tolerate life remains, after all, the first duty of all living being … We recall the old saying: Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want to preserve peace, prepare for war. It would be in keeping with the times to alter it: Si vis vitam, para mortem. If you want to endure life, prepare for death.
If you want to experience Suffering in a purer form, at greater strength, seek out 14-18.

If 14-18 made a big splash in café society and is permanently enrolled on its publisher's midlist, Wolfgang Schivelbusch (right) experienced the equivalent of a smash hit with his book The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery, published in Germany in 2001 and distributed stateside in 2003/2004. The reviews given him in the major American newspapers were more insightful and vigorous than those doled out to Faust ("hard to exaggerate the breadth and brilliance," "Schivelbusch [is] the Clausewitz of defeat"). He matches Faust in tone and in the morbidity of his subject but he risks more in addressing wide cultural transformation among his case studies: the defeated Confederates, the Second Empire French, and post-kaiser Germany. Look to Schivelbusch to see what an adventurous intellectual might have attempted with Suffering.

The most impressive historical memory study I have read is another European bestseller, this one translated from Italian. Another big box impulse buy, this is The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini's Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy by the journalist Sergio Luzzatto (right). Luzatto uses the wandering remains as a McGuffin to advance his story through the alleys and highways of Italian postwar remembering, paying especial attention to execution, mourning, the treatment of remains, and especially the Good Death (hello Suffering!). It appeared in English here in 2005 and has done well. This is a book representing a nonfiction style in top form, offering rare sophistication in the presentation of highly charged data and analysis; it should be regarded as a tour d'force.

Altogether it seems to me that the prevalence of these three memory studies, so prominent in the market at the same time, somehow influenced the attempt Suffering represented. It is not necessarily an attempt by Faust to add to the ranks of three great books - she was working on her tome ten years they say - but perhaps this was the appeal Suffering had to Knopf.

Good try, Knopf. This works as a Civil War offering.

It does not measure up to the first rank of popular European memory studies.


Arnie's book club

And look who gets the nod.

(Hat tip to Ted Savas.)

Goodwin's legacy

Hat tip to the Deseret Evening News for remembering the true social identity of Doris Kearns Goodwin. In advance of a well-paid speech locally, the News has rolled out this welcome mat: "Plagiarism allegations shouldn't be forgotten."

Hat tip to Slate as well for mocking Tim Russert for inviting Goodwin on Meet the Press to comment on plagiarism charges against Barack Obama without mentioning Goodwin's "expertise." Now that's rehabilitation.

The San Diego Union Tribune struck a harsher note: "Russert brings in plagiarist to analyze plagiarism allegations."

Where a newspaper trumpets a Goodwin event without reference to her misdeeds, the readers tend to chime in. Reading of a Goodwin cancellation at Farmington Historic Plantation in Kentucky, a commenter adds, "An ounce of pretention is worth a pound of manure," adding "I wonder whose words she'll be stealing tonight..."

She needs to come clean with an apology to her reading public.

An expert is born

His first Lincoln book won't be published until October, but author James McPherson is already "the most sophisticated interpreter of Lincoln's presidency around." Now you know.

Regardless of how I rate him as an historian, it is a striking comment on the state of Lincoln scholarship (and readership) that McPherson would be in first place on a University's invite list for Lincoln Bicentennial speechmaking.

How to spot a waste of time

When the dust jacket copy tells you that the election of 1864 was "the most important in American history" based on what-if speculation about events that never happened, put the book back on the shelf. "Important in history" means, "flowing from historical events" not from fantasies.


Signs of historical literacy

I have never heard of pill moths before but it looks like this locale has an infestation problem.

(Hat tip to Brian Maloney.)

We do love our lists

Hat tip to Brett Schulte for pointing me toward CWi's newly compiled top 50 Civil War book list.

I find the result idiosyncratic, which may reflect the peculiarity of ACW readers or the scale of the sample, or both. Nevertheless it gives me a chance to tip my hat to Russell Bonds for making a big impression with Stealing the General and to Joe Harsh for debuting in the middle of the list.

Eric Wittenberg and J.D. Petruzzi are on the roster as well for a very interesting piece of revisionism and my best to them. The list puts Eric in an odd position which he is handling with grace: as co-author he appears farther down than one of his own authors (Eric is a publisher too) - James Morgan and A Little Short of Boats. On the other hand, Boats is the one book Morgan was meant to write, while Eric will write many more.

As a feel-good exercise, can we then say "mission accomplished"?

"Artful pop history"

Drew Wagenhoffer's wonderful verdict on Republic of Suffering is my own, although you will see me arrive there by a different route than his: "... an artfully written popular history selectively conveyed through the eyes of mostly recognizable figures." This is also a highly derivative work at worst and an extremely generic one at best. I'll show you the sources/genre soon.

Nosworthy's new book

Brent Nosworthy has a new book out this month. It looks like he wants to make a virtual re-enactor out of me. I'll pass on that.


Lincoln here and there

Indiana strikes a license plate.

Guelzo praises Goodwin and when asked if Lincoln was a philosopher answers, "A philosopher? No. Not even what we might call an intellectual."

Brian Dirck strikes camp:
The truth is, my blogging has become more sloppy and intermittent in the last few months. I can't blog daily anymore, and I can't keep up with the emails I receive from various visitors to my site. I write in such haste that I can't proofread what I've written. Errors large and small have crept into my work, and I can't accept that.
The poor fellow has been grading his own papers.

These professors who blog, and I say this in kindness, bring in a campus ethic of staff access that has no place here. I refer to leaving comments open, answering comments, taking email from casual visitors and replying to every email with the same grim determination that requires every paper to be graded, no matter how bad.

Note to those who continue: reduce your accessiblity and responsiveness. If time presses, post as rarely and beautifully as David Woodbury. You'll save your blog. Remember why you started it?


Bates on the general-in-chief

This passage is excerpted from Edward Bates's diary entry of 1/10/62 as rendered by editor Howard K. Beale. I have removed opening remarks on the lack of "preparation and forethought" in the management of the War and Navy departments and modified the punctuation a little where it became too odd. Emphasis is in the original:

Again I urged upon the Prest. to take and act out the powers of his place, to command the commanders - and especially to order regular, periodical reports, shewing the exact state of the army, every where. And to that end I renewed formally, and asked that it be made a question before the Cabinet (my proposition, often made heretofore) that the President as "Commder in Chief of the Army and Navy" do organize a Staff of his own, and assume to be in fact, what he is in law, the Chief Commander. His aids could save him a world of trouble and anxiety - collect and report to him all needed information, and keep him constantly informed, at a moment's warning - keep his military and naval books and papers - conduct his military correspondence - and do his bidding generally "in all the works of war."

It is objected (by both the Prest. and Sec of War) not that the thing is wrong or undesirable in itself but that the Generals wd. get angry - quarrel &c!! I answer - Of course the Genls - especially the Chief - would object - they wish to give but not receive orders - If I were Prest., and I found them restive under the command of a superior, they should soon have no inferiors to command. All of them have been lately made of comparatively raw material, taken from the lower grades of the army officers or from civil life. The very best of them - McClellan, McDowell, Halleck, &c until very lately never commanded more than a battalion. They have no experience in the handling of large bodies of men, and are no more to be trusted in that respect than other men of good sense, lately their equals in rank and position. If, therefore, they presume to quarrel with the orders of their superior - their constitutional commander - for that very reason they ought to be dismissed, and I would do, it in full confidence that I could fill their places with quite as good men, chosen as they were chosen, from the lower grades of officers, from the ranks of the army, or from civil life.

There can be no lawful, just or honest cause of dissatisfaction because the President assumes, in practise, the legitimate duties of his place - His powers are all duties - He has no privileges, no powers granted to him for his own sake, and he has no more right to refuse to exercise his constitutional powers than he has to assume powers not granted. He (like us, his official inferiors) cannot evade his responsibilities. He must show to the nation and to posterity, how he has discharged the duties of his Stewardship, in this great crisis. And if he will only trust his own good judgement more, and defer less to the opinions of his subordinates, I have no doubt that the affairs of the war and the aspect of the whole country, will be quickly and greatly changed for the better.

I think it unjust to those Genls. to impute to them such unsoldierly conduct. Very probably, they would object and grumble in advance, in the hope of deterring the President from that course (for no man takes pleasure in having his own conduct closely and constantly criticized) but the resolve, once taken, would work its own moral and peaceful triumph. For those generals are, undoubtedly, men of sense, prudence and patriotism, and for their own, as well as their country's good, would obey their official superior, as cheerfully and heartily as they expect their inferiors to obey them. If, however, contrary to professional duty, to the moral sense of right, and to sound logic, they should act otherwise, that fact would be proof positive of unfitness to command, and for that cause they ought to be instantly removed.

If a Major Genl. may be allowed to complain because the President has about him a staff - the means and machinery of knowledge and action - why may not a Brigadier complain that his Major Genl. is so accommodated? The idea seems to me absurd. The very thought is insubordinate and smacks of mutiny.

My proposition assumes that the President is, in fact as well as theory, commander in chief (not in detail) of the army and navy; and that he is bound to exercise the powers of that high post, as legal duties. And that he cannot perform those duties intelligently and efficiently by his own unassisted personal powers - He must have aids, by whatever name you call them; for they are as necessary to the proper exercise of those official functions as the bodily senses are to the proper perception and action of the individual man. If it be the duty of the President, as I do not doubt that it is, to command, it would seem to follow, of necessity, that he must have, constantly at hand and under his personal orders, the usual means and machinery for the performance of that duty, with knowledge and with effect.

In at least one important sense, I consider the Departments of War and Navy as constituting the Staff of the Commander in Chief, and it does seem to me highly important that he should have, always near him, intelligent and confidential persons, to facilitate his intercourse with that multitudinous staff.

If it be not the President's duty to command, then it is not his right, and prudence would seem to require him to renounce all control over the affairs of war, and cast the responsibility upon those who are entrusted with the actual command - But this he cannot do, because the constitution forbids it, in declaring that he "shall be Commander in chief."

I see not the slightest use for A General in chief of the army. When we had peace with all the world, and a little nucleus of an army, about 15,000 men, and had the veteran Liet. General Scott as our first officer, perhaps it was well enough to give him that honorary title. But now we have a war spreading over half a continent, and have many armies, reaching, in the aggregate to over 600,000 men, it is simply impossible for any one general, usefully and well, to command all those armies. The army of the Potomac alone is quite well enough for any man to command in detail, and more than almost anyone can do, with assurance of good success.

The President being a Civil Magistrate and not a military chief, and being the lawful commander in chief of the army, needs, more than any well trained general can need, in his intercourse with and his control of the army, the assistance of active aids always near his person. And I indulge the hope that he will find it right to appoint and organize just such and so many as his exigencies may seem to require; and I say all this in the confident belief that his own reputation, now and hereafter, and the present and permanent good of the Country, do require such an organization.

Royal Tenenbaum's Museum (cont.)

I thought it was just an odd story. But Brooks Simpson, Keith Olbermann and the Internet are all over this.


Lost continents of understanding - 2

It's been a long while since I promised "tomorrow," but this series continues today with a review of the failure of Civil War history to come to grips with the institutional history of "general-in-chief."

Our story begins with what is probably the most neglected episode in American political history, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun's reorganization of the War Department into a bureau system after a bitter Congressional fight in the aftermath of the War of 1812. (This old NYT letter contains the essential facts.) The reorg is generally important because its logic has continued to provide a pattern for subsequent reforms. But it also has much to do with the Mexican and Civil Wars.

By removing essential military functions from military control and placing them in bureaus controlled by the secretary of war, Calhoun created an imbalance - in the name of efficiency - that he hoped to redress with the assignment of military operations to a general-in-chief. This was a position that would require precedent and tradition in order to solidify into a clearly defined role.

There is a decent run-down of the history of the office here.

The problem it presented was in mixing seniority into the definition of the post. Adams appointed a soon-to-be stroke victim to general-in-chief. Polk sought to eliminate Scott's eligibility for the position by reviving a higher rank and then appointing someone trustworthy to the place.

When Scott finally did assume the post, he was so much on the outs with the current administration (and SecWar Jeff Davis) that he virtually abandoned his place to mope about his home in New York for several years (within arms' reach of his political mentors Seward and Weed).

And so, when McClellan replaces Scott in November of '61, he inherits a broken institution, ill-formed, little used in the run up to the war, one he will have to re-engineer on the fly while simultaneously managing Lincoln, raising and training armies, and generally assisting different parts of the government in crisis.

With all this in mind, I was reading the devilishly hard-to-find Diary of Edward Bates recently and came in for a few surprises.

Attorney General Bates is generally portrayed, in Centennial one-liners, as the cabinet member who urged Lincoln to take command of the army himself. (This is phrased different ways, but generally points to assuming the general-in-chief role.) That's as much as I knew about the matter until now. Maybe Goodwin covered this in more depth in her epic.

In his diary, however, we find that as early as January 10, 1862, Bates is sick of this summary of his position - the historian's very own characterization! Bates says it is used to belittle his views. In a long diary entry he makes an interesting brief:

(1) He wants a full military staff reporting to and assisting the president, as many men and of whatever rank needed. In other words, he wants the president running military operations under the close advice of a significant staff specifically organized to support Lincoln's military duties in association with the existing staffs of the War and Navy departments.

(2) Senior generals (he mentions McClellan, Halleck, McDowell) who were recently company grade officers can be replaced by such if they object to this new arrangement.

(3) It is not the president's right to command but his duty and to do otherwise is negligence.

(4) "I see not the slightest use for a general-in-chief of the army."

I should add, Bates emphasizes commanding in "chief" not in "detail" although Lincoln was to reverse this emphasis by his actions. This vision of a president surrounded by handpicked military staff is very modern. By the same token, Lincoln's meddling style, his commanding in detail would have demanded a larger staff and more support than Bates might have had in mind. Lincoln also had a competence problem in Edwin Stanton who was not able to effectively collaborate with him except in the realm of bureau work.

Bates's diary entry, coming before the reassignment of Cameron (which surprised Bates), is replete with references to earlier conversations in which he urged this course on the president or his colleagues. In other words, the point in the master narrative at which Bates is usually allowed a place on the author's stage comes after the relief of McClellan and yet, Bates had been urging the same course of action from the time of Scott's retirement at least.

The diary paints these urgings as Bates's favorite long-term cause. The picture of Bates banging this drum at every opportunity goes a long way to explaining such anomalies as:

* The recruitment of Ethan Hitchcock to head a military staff under Stanton.
* The attempt of Lincoln to run the war with just Stanton's staff and the bureau chiefs.
* Lincoln's satisfaction, if only partial, with the way Halleck defined his position.
* The peculiar situation of the McDowell-Franklin team in the counsels of the cabinet.
* The rejection of g-i-c candidates in succession before Halleck's time: N. Buford, E.A. Hitchcock, Ben Wade and others we have yet to learn of.
* Lincoln's persistence in treating McClellan as his personal military aide until December of 1861.
These individual points all deserve greater explanation which must be deferred to a later time.


A modern Civil War poet

I missed the announcement of Natasha Trethewey's poetry Pulitzer last year but have been brought up-to-date by a flurry of recent articles. Her winning collection, Native Guard, features "a 10-sonnet sequence in the voice of a black Union soldier." In other words, dialect (groan). Nevertheless, as I write it ranks 17th on Amazon's poetry list.

There's a nice little video of her reading of "Elegy for the Native Guards," presumably a different poem, here, and it is dialect-free.

This stuff is not to my taste and Trethewey does not read well, but it may hold interest for others. From another article:
"Native Guard," the poem, is divided into sections titled by a specific month and year, with each section relating to a specific episode in the war. Explanatory notes for each episode appear at the back of the book; in writing them, Trethewey cited scholarship that is no older than 1995, a reflection of what she believes is relatively recent interest among historians in black soldiers' contributions in the Civil War.
I love that conscious turning away from Centennial authors. She also has an ear for good stories. In an interview, she told this one:
We needed maintenance on the air conditioner of our hotel [room]. A man came and fixed it, and waited with us for 10 to 15 minutes to see if it would kick in. We had a bottle of champagne a friend had sent, and this man asked about it. My husband told him [about the Pulitzer announcement], and he was very impressed. He opened my book to my poem “Incident.” He looked at it and read it out loud. Then he put it down and folded his hands in front of him, and recited Countee Cullen’s "Incident."
Plato said, "Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history." One looks at ACW history and one wants to say "Nonfiction is nearer to falsehood than fiction."

We need poets to write Civil War history. And if not, at least write more and better Civil War poetry.