Dialog with a Civil War author

Imaginary, yet urgent.

DR: This history you're writing - you've got to use this opportunity to answer your critics!

Author: What critics? The book isn't out yet.

DR: The material you cover includes controversies. There are many authors with different positions than you on these controversies. You need to answer them wherever you take a position on a particular Civil War controversy.

Author: This is out of sync. They've already published their books, I'm just now publishing mine. How are they my critics?

DR: Their books are not going away. Even if they gather dust on a library shelf, they contradict your work with facts, logic, and argument. They can be picked up and read by the same person who buys your stuff next month.

Author: Maybe they need to address my book since mine is new.

DR: Maybe they already addressed your book because the content is old. What's in your book?

Author: Oh, I've gone back to the primary sources and worked exclusively from those.

DR: Newly discovered sources? Never before used sources?

Author: No, the gold standard. The OR, some correspondence, some key manuscripts.

DR: And you think this is the first time that's been done?

Author: I'm pulling more together to tell a richer story and paint a more complete picture in a compelling way.

DR: And what do you think about the work that has already been done on this?

Author: I'm not really that interested in it. I have my favorite authors but I'm trying to do this right, from scratch, with a clear mind and a minimum of influences.

DR: The people who came before you wasted their time, it seems.

Author: That's not my problem.

DR: So how are you resolving all these controversies you encounter?

Author: I'm not really seeing many controversies at all. I follow the sources, apply some logic, done.

DR: What do you do when sources contradict each other?

Author: I just go with the more credible source. This is not rocket science.

DR: Who is "more credible"?

Author: The person with the more durable historical reputation, usually. The more iconic, the more credible, to be blunt.

DR: There is a lot of new research, regimental histories, letters, and so on, that bears on these controversies and contradicts the iconic accounts. Then, there's context.

Author: That's getting into the weeds. That's not writing a general or campaign history, that's writing a specialized monograph for scholars.

DR: What if I told you that repeat Civil War readers were self-made scholars of different grades?

Author: I'm writing for a general audience, a mass audience. They want answers not puzzles.

DR: How do you know you've given them the right answers?

Author: I have my primary sources and credible testimony to settle controversies.

DR: So, you won't answer your critics?

Author: My critics are the future buyers of my book. They'll judge me on flow, human interest, and a satisfying reading experience. If I score high in those areas, I may have no critics at all.

DR: Except at CWBN.