Information-free history

Military history and military science are fused at the general proposition level. Practitioners of either believe that the outcomes of war affect society, culture, and politics. They believe that such outcomes can profitably be studied. They believe that war understood may be controlled or directed toward success or failure.

From here, paths diverge. The historian, as social scientist practicing a descriptive methodology, wants to relate the clearest, truest picture of past events: which decisions and events produced which outcomes.

It is often hard to detect the military historian, to tell him apart from the chameleons and mimics that surround him. For instance, the historical essayist will be called an historian where history is actually the raw material for his literary productions. The researcher, who never exits the data collection phase, may be degreed and tenured and teach without being an historian. The polemicist views history as an enlarged Yankee Stadium in which the favored team gets cheered and the others jeered. Worst of all is the synthesizer who generalizes into narrative form the highest level observations accessible by the general public; by the time synthesis is completed, the connection to the underlying data has been lost and the reader wanders a vaguely historical setting chasing butterflies of insight with no root in reality, social science, or events.

The period just ending, a full fifty years of synthesis and metasynthesis, has been disastrous for Civil War history.

I have before me the paper edition of Battle Cry of Freedom. Between pages 534 and 535, James McPherson describes Lee’s decision to cross into Maryland in September ’62. He gives it in 28 lines, sourcing the entire analysis to R.E. Lee: A Biography by Douglas Southall Freeman. He also includes a quote from a letter which he attributes to a collection published by Cliff Dowdey. That is a synthesis that destroys.

It might be too much to call Joseph Harsh’s Taken at the Flood a 498 page analysis of Lee’s Maryland decision but I would call your attention to the subtitle: Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862. Chapter One addresses “Lee’s Strategic Dilemma.” It addresses the decision (recapped by McPherson in 28 lines) in 49 pages with 135 discursive endnotes. The decision is then revisited in Chapter Three, "Lee Revises His Strategy," with 57 pages and 116 notes. The entire unfolding of the Maryland Campaign is treated by Harsh as a study in the continuous revisiting and revision of the intitial decisions. I believe you could write a very thick book about the decision to cross into Maryland, whether or not you agree with me that Taken is such a book.

In Battle Cry, McPherson shoots a cue ball (Freeman) at the racked solids and stripes. The break is the whole game for him. For Harsh, the game is all over the table after the break.

This reminds me of an expression my ex-Marines buddies used to use. “What’s our plan for tonight?” I would ask. “Japanese Navy” would come the answer. Huh? “We’re going to fly into town, blow everything up, declare victory, and leave.”

That sums up an awful lot of ACW nonfiction.

Joseph Glatthaar has a new book, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. Perhaps he was looking at the succession of volumes of Russel Beatie’s Army of the Potomac thinking, “Why not the ANV?”

He has put his own spin on it in making it an upstairs/downstairs drama. There is the conventional history of the high command and its decisions, rendered in perfect accord with the editorial policies of American Heritage Magazine, 1959-1965; this is interleaved with anecdotes from the fighting ranks – new material hand-selected for freshness from previously untapped sources.

Think about that: Glatthaar did not seek to provide freshness at the Lee/Longstreet/Jackson analytic level but rather sought to offset an expected staleness that his retelling would present. Likewise, surveying his potential page budget, where you or I would hit the panic button Glatthaar’s reaction was to ask how he could possible fill an entire one volume history with just ANV history. His solution was to add copious numbers of personal anecdotes to brighten or offset the “big picture.” Glatthaar assumed a certain jadedness in his readers: “Oh no, not that same old Cold Harbor anecdote again.”

He views the task of the current ANV historian to include newly available microdata in a way that does not threaten the macro conclusions and surmises. I have spoken of this many times in connection with Centennial historians, like McPherson, who read new works of Civil War history and even praise them without understanding the huge hit new books are delivering to fifty-year-old consensus.

Microhistories contain dates and times and details that can undermine broad conclusions about use of time, commanders’ intentions, direction of march, relative strength, and more. This is the proper point of integration between unit level and army level histories.

The Centennialist views the new memoirs and regimental histories as the mere rolling around of a sunk ball in its pool pocket, having no effect on the larger game which they defined with finality so long ago. New authors encourage this notion whenever they use bits of the prevailing Centennial wisdom to provide "context" between slices of diaries or unit history. I saw, in one issue of Civil War Regiments the awful sight of a researcher apologizing to Stephen Sears for making a discovery that contradicted Sears' opinions. The thrust of the article, after sharing the new evidence, was struggling to reconcile the discovery with Sears' unchallangeable, evidence-free opinions.

So, Glatthaar assumes his readers want to hear the ANV story told in a very particular way - the proven moneymaker way - and at the same time they will dervive enjoyment from the new war stories that spice this retelling. That seems to be the value proposition and it is large enough a value statement to have earned the backing of mighty trade house Simon & Schuster.

We come now to my own value proposition, where I show you the kind of military historian or social scientist Glatthaar is. I offer two paragraphs in the sequence they appear on page 164 and 165.

The first addresses Lee’s decision to cross into Maryland. It is given in the bottom half of a paragraph of eight lines. I’m going to quote the entire thing:
No doubt his army was ill-supplied for a raid Northward. Soldiers lacked proper clothing and shoes, and his army suffered from a shortage of wagons and animals. But Lee, a keen student of military history, fully grasped the psychological element to warfare. Not only had Lee seized the initiative, but the Army of Northern Virginia had also built a momentum. In the eyes of his men, and to an extent in the hearts of Yankee troops, a feeling of success for the Confederacy blossomed – an attitude of Rebel invincibility under Lee’s leadership. Now was the time for a bold advance.
We are dealing here with a hateful citational style in which one paragraph gets a maximum of one endnote; that endnote can contain multiple sourcings and it is up to the reader to figure out which source covers which statement. In using this style, the author implies that any series list of sources addresses a series of assertions (serially!). It is very difficult to infer multiple sourcings to a single statement under this style.

Now for this paragraph, Glatthaar references two sources: Lee’s after action report and a letter he sent to Jeff Davis. But we have a hodgepodge of assertions: (1) the state of supply (2) the shortage of wagons and animals (3) Lee being a “keen student of military history” (4) Lee “fully grasping” psychology (5) the army having momentum (6) a feeling of success among the rebel troops (6) a feeling of rebel success in the hearts of Yankee troops (7) an attitude of invincibility (8) now being the time for a bold advance.

How do we allocate these among the sources?

Please notice that the entire paragraph is a dodge: it does not say what was decided or why or how. It mimics coherence in a false resolution: bold advance. Did Lee propose a “bold” advance? Then what was this slipping over the river in order to besiege a piddling garrison at Harpers Ferry with 2/3 of the army. Are sieges “bold” advances? And what does it mean to repeatedly refer to “feelings” in a paragraph that should interpret the rationality of a decision?

I don’t think we need a minimum of one source per claim above, but we’re entitled to know, below the level of metasynthesis, what was decided, why and how. The great Sherman Kent explained when notes are to be used (in his book Writing History):
“(1) … all direct quotations… (2) quotations and paraphrases from documents … (3) statistical material …(4) iconoclastic remarks … statements which … seem improbable (5) new ideas from the sources … (6) specific statements from newspapers…”
So we move into Maryland with Lee in a fog of “fully grasping” psychology with that great momentum a supply-free, shoeless, wagonless army enjoys in order to “boldly” besiege a tiny garrison while displaying our attitude of invincibility. Thank you sir. May I read more of this kind of history, please?

The next paragraph takes us “downstairs” among the troops. It consists of 13 lines of snippets, with men taking off their shirts in the river, feeling intoxicated, drinking water, and yelling. It has seven sources. We really need to know about the yelling and water drinking and thank heaven Kent's second base (above) is thoroughly covered.

After the author looked at the history of the ANV, saw he could not make his page budget and added these yelling and water drinking anecdotes, Glatthaar found he still had way too many pages to fill so he generated a large number of informational or topical chapters: "Medical Care," "Manpower," "Becoming Soldiers," etc.

Here’s a paragraph from “Becoming Soldiers:”
The drill and discipline pulled units together. It hardened them for the battlefield experience and it created an elan within companies, regiments, and even brigades. Soldiers, who already identified with their companies from recruitment at the local level, began to see themselves as a group. One soldier out of line, one soldier fouling up drill, and the entire company, regiment, even brigade looked sloppy. For all to achieve, each individual component must succeed, and each person must rely on everyone else to perform effectively.
I wonder what Brent Nosworthy would have made of that.

In his new book, Nosworthy gives a nice overview of the degeneration of Civil War military history. He notes in his conclusion that a few years after the war, military men analyzed battles and methods of combat to derive a way of fighting better in the future. By the 1870s and 1880s interest declined in the ACW as representative of modern combat. “Writers and historians began to filter out technical details … These were now viewed as unimportant, and in fact, impedimenta when trying to tell a compelling and interesting story.”

And so we have reached the point of abstraction in Glatthaar where drill and discipline are separated from fire and movement; it’s about feeling part of a group and “performing effectively,” presumably in whatever you may do. The mistake that fouls a firing line, exposes your formation to enemy attack, or slows an advance is really about making your buddies “look sloppy.”

I give these as examples of Glatthaar’s historical sensibility and his “commitment” to military history or science. We have reached a point of generalization where so much meaning has been leached out of the history of the ANV that all that remains is “a compelling and interesting story.” If that.

And that is where many of your best-selling Civil War authors want it to remain. It will take only a few big successes for books like these to enshrine these standards for another 50 years.