A case study in Lincolnology

I had a chance to work through all of the McClellan references in Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President by Roger Billings and Frank Williams. The volume presents 12 chapters on different topics by different authors.

No one chapter deals with his railroad career. Four mention his railroad lawyering in passing, typically referring to the Illinois Central case of 1852 as an example of his billing ethos. And that's it - Lincoln the railroad lawyer is nearly expunged from a book about Lincoln the lawyer.

Needless to say, none of these authors seems to have the slightest idea that Lincoln worked for McClellan. That tells us about the low standards in Lincolnology.

There is a little good news, however, in that the authors avoided retelling or even paraphrasing Herndon's account of the imaginary billing showdown between GBM and AL. From Herndon's biography:
Probably the most important lawsuit Lincoln and I conducted was one in which we defended the Illinois Central Railroad in an action brought by McLean County, Illinois, in August, 1853, to recover taxes alleged to be due the county from the road. The road sent a retainer fee of $250. In the lower court the case was decided in favor of the railroad. An appeal to the Supreme Court followed, and there it was argued twice and finally decided in our favor. This last decision was rendered some time in 1855. Mr. Lincoln soon went to Chicago and presented our bill for legal services. We only asked for $2,000 more. The official to whom he was referred was supposed to have been the Superintendent, George B. McClellan, who afterwards became the eminent General. Looking at the bill he expressed great surprise. "Why, sir," he exclaimed, "this is as much as Daniel Webster himself would have charged. We cannot allow such a claim." Stung by the rebuff, Lincoln withdrew his bill, and started for home.
That's not the end of the story but enough.

Now Lincolnology is "sophisticated" enough not to mix McClellan up the matter because he was not at the railroad in the relevant timeframe and Herndon told variants of the story without McClellan. (See here, p7-8 for more.) Herndon got the story second hand from AL and recounted it later in life, so this anecdote is not one to take to the bank. He has this colorful quote embedded in a second-hand story which he misremembers.

And yet the story survives intact with McClellan excised in favor of "an official." Being wrong on the detail of McClellan rejecting the bill, the Dan Webster quote was too cute to let go. Look for it in your favorite pop history Lincoln biographies.


General Grant and the Rewriting of History

General Grant and the Rewriting of History is the first of a series of books by Frank P. Varney. This one deals with Grant vs. Rosecrans, the next one with Grant vs. Warren. Author Varney builds solid cases, controversy by controversy, for a "pattern of deceit" in Grant's records of events. He examines primary sources to show how deeply committed modern historians are to Grant's late-life memoirs for their "authoritative" accounts of events.

The work is analytical but uses an episodic narrative structure to anchor the reader in events and timelines. Each chapter addresses a discrete military episode. This allows readers to dip into topical chapters in the order of what interests them most.

A typical chapter divides into sections: (1) the context, (2) the controversies, (3) what the historians say, (4) charges, (5) evaluation, (6) historiography.

(1) “The context” is a brief overview of events, including a high level timeline.

(2) “The controversies” lays out the Grant position.

(3) “What the historians say” is a smattering of statements representing the common wisdom. These tend to mirror the Grant position, often to the embarrassment of quoted historians.

(4) “The charges” takes the assertions of Grant and the historians, frames them as charges against Rosecrans, and then examines them against the evidence. This is the exciting part.

(5) “The evaluation” is the author’s summary of the examination of the charges.

(6) “Historiography” recapitulates selected primary source quotes. This section is fun to read but intrinsically weak. It needed to be a listing of all known sources touching on a given controversy and where the support of such sources fell.

The episodes covered are Iuka, Corinth, Stones River, Tullahoma, Chickamauga, and Missouri.

Additionally, Varney covers the relief of Rosecrans after Chickamauga and he has a chapter on Shiloh which absents Rosecrans but represents a paradigm for Grant’s “pattern of deceit” in dealing with matters of record. His first and last chapters are bookends: “What We Think We Know” and “What We Know.” If you are like me, when challenged you ask yourself, "Why do I think that? What's my source?"

Mr. Varney makes hay with a problem we have bemoaned in this blog from day one. Historians, mainly pop historians, summarize historical problems in a single statement attached to a single source. (For this sin against history, see especially anything by McPherson or Goodwin). Not to flog a dead horse, but an event shrouded in controversy is resolved by “that’s the way it is” and a note citing a single source that summarizes the author’s position. This is terribly offensive to the deep reader and what Varney has found is that Grant’s memoirs are single sourced repeatedly to put paid to messy history.

In this work Brooks Simpson comes out well (chided for judgments, not evidence handling) and Steve Woodworth quite poorly (chided for sole sourcing his controversies). Our friend Wiley Sword is up to his Hood-y tricks and Perret, Catton, Fuller and many others provide cannon fodder for Varney’s analysis. I think Varney cheapened his arguments by wasting time on plagiarist Jean Smith and polemicist Edward Bonekemper as if they were worth correcting.

I am all for historiography and this is that good thing. My weakness is a limited familiarity with the primary sources in these matters and I am forced to yield to the strength of Varney’s presentation and (provisionally) trust him in his evidence handling. If this seems extravagant, consider that Varney has written a book about evidence handling (this one) and seems unlikely to commit the sins of Grant authors as he castigates them for their bad behavior.

Those of you who read Lamers’ biography were certainly struck, as I was, by the case for Rosecrans and especially Grant’s “participation” in the battles of Iuka and Corinth.* We Lamers readers have been puzzled by Civil War history for some time and Varney helps us directly with our confusion.

General Grant and the Rewriting of History is dual purposed. It presents a critical review of the Grant literature, much needed, much desired; and it presents a rehabilitation of Rosecrans, who is denigrated in the ubiquitous Grant literature. I believe that this is too much for one book. It undermines the literature review by allowing the unhappy targets of Varney’s analysis to claim he is a Rosecrans partisan, not an honest broker, etc.

In Civil War game design, if one can use that as a proxy for pop culture, one constant seems to be the high quality ratings assigned to the General Rosecrans tokens. I think the bad opinion of Rosecrans is limited to the ranks of Grant authors rather than the reading public. In other words, Varney may have compromised an important lit crit with a defense that needn’t be made. But the author gets to pick his fights, whether or not the reader approves.

Now to quote extensively from this work would explode the length of this post. Let me ration myself to one issue. I would have liked to post Varney’s debunking of the myth of the “cracker line,” but he has at it from so many directions using so many sources that it would take many posts to cover the ground he does. More manageable is the report that Rosecrans broke down and wept at Chickamauga.

Most historians simply report Rosecrans as a weeping wreck and cite [Captain Alfred] Hough [of Negley’s command]. [Author] Glenn Tucker, however, says that Hough cited an unnamed eyewitness, which would greatly lessen the reliability of the story. However, it is even worse than that. Hough’s letters make no mention whatsoever of the supposed episode of Rosecrans sobbing to his confessor. That entire account owes its existence to a margin note in the manuscript of Hough’s autobiography - a margin note written by his son. It was he [the son] who gave the undignified scene to us, that Rosecrans was so distraught that he was unable to even give orders to Hough - which directly contradicts the eyewitness account of his father. Alfred Hough made no mention - in his letters or autobiography - of the episode. The only reason we have it is because [of] his son - who said that he heard it “only once” from his father ... [In] the written accounts Hough did leave us ... Hough said that Rosecrans gave him orders for Negley and Thomas.
[Emphasis in original]

I may have overstated my reservations in the sense that I recommend this book without reservation. Varney’s is the kind of work we need: deliberate, analytic, corrective. Anyone with Grant books on the shelf needs to go through this in order to get the full sense of a critical alternative view, not just of Grant but of the entire war in the west.

I look forward to the response of Grant authors and to the volume on Warren.

*In 2001, there was a book published on acoustical shadows which devoted a chapter to explain Grant’s failure to assist Rosecrans at Iuka as due to this phenomenon. Another chapter explained McClellan’s failure to assist Rosey at Rich Mountain due to the same effect. An interesting book with Rosey twice victimized by nature, as it were.