Category Archives: Historiography

In Lincoln book news

I was quite pleased (but not at all surprised) to hear that Michael Burlingame will receive the Lincoln Prize for his two-volume biography.  This was an award that was very much deserved. 

I think it’s going to be interesting to trace this book’s trajectory in the coming years.  Scholars seem to have accepted it as the definitive bio for this generation, and I have no doubt that it is.  Still, I wonder if its heft and price tag will intimidate interested readers.  Unless a trade publisher brings out a paperback edition, David Donald’s one-volume work may remain the go-to life of Lincoln for those who simply want to get to know the man.

Speaking of Lincoln books, check out this item from the Abraham Lincoln Observer (a blog you should be reading regularly if you aren’t already).  Apparently Bill O’ Reilly is working on an assassination book which offers “startling new information.”  His co-author is a sportswriter with far too much time on his hands.

ALO speculates that it might have something to do with the pages torn from Booth’s memorandum book, the same memorandum book from which Booth himself tore pages to be used as notes.  It doesn’t need explaining.

So not only will we be subjected to another conspiratorial history book, but one probably based on a non-issue and written by non-historians.  The last time this happened, a chemist tried to convince us that one of Lincoln’s own cabinet members orchestrated his murder.  We need another Lincoln conspiracy book like we need another teenage vampire movie.

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Philbrick is tackling Bunker Hill

According to an item brought to our attention by J. L. Bell at Boston 1775, Nathaniel Philbrick is working on a book entitled Bunker Hill, a look at Boston from 1768 to 1775.

This sounds reminiscent of Philbrick’s Mayflower.  Rather than an examination of the Pilgrims’ actual voyage, it was a fairly straightforward narrative that began with the founding of Plymouth and ended with King Philip’s War.

Richard Ketchum wrote an accessible account of the battle and its background called Decisive Day, but I’m not aware of any full-dress, detailed tactical treatments.  Of course, as I’ve noted before, there are a lot of gaping holes in the historiography of the Revolution, but this one in particular is a little surprising.  Bunker Hill is one of the war’s better-known battles, and one that squares pretty well with some near-and-dear myths about the prowess of citizen soldiers.

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Things new and old

There’s an interesting new post over at Civil War Memory in which Kevin Levin distinguishes between two different types of Civil War unit histories.  The first deals mainly with the engagements in which the unit participated, while the second deals with the social/political/economic backgrounds of the men who fought, and how these factors influenced their service.

Levin’s discussion of the role of context in unit histories has a context of its own—the “new military history.”  It’s one of the most inappropriately-named disciplines out there, since this “new military history” has been around for several decades.  It’s also a field that’s difficult to define.  It’s easier to say what it’s not; it doesn’t deal with leaders, campaigns or battles.  Its focus is on the wider social context within which battles take place.  Levin’s second group of unit history is thus a fine example of the new military history.

Being the Rev War nut that I am, when I read Levin’s post I started thinking about how these issues relate to America’s armed struggle for independence. 

I’ve long maintained that the historiography of the Revolutionary War is quite distinct from that of the Civil War, partly because the latter is so much more extensive.  The scholarly literature on the war—the actual fighting, I mean, as opposed to the Revolution in its broader sense as a political, economic, social, and military event—is not nearly so extensive as many people would probably believe.

If Rev War scholarship isn’t that extensive, though, in the sense of the questions being asked it’s very vibrant.  Scholars of the struggle between Britain and America have actively engaged social and other contextual questions.  Take, for example, Charles Neimeyer’s America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army, which contrasts the myth of the citizen soldier with the backgrounds of the men who filled the ranks.  Or take Wayne E. Lee’s excellent Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War, which explores the factors that both restrained and exacerbated armed violence during the Revolutionary era.  I might also mention a classic of the “new military history” which deals with an earlier conflict, Fred Anderson’s A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, which uses the techniques of the new social history to draw a portrait of eighteenth-century New England militiamen.

American Revolutionary soldiers, as depicted by a French officer. From Brown University via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly enough, though, I’m having a hard time coming up with Rev War unit histories.  There are plenty of regional studies of the war in specific areas, and of course there is a classic book by Hugh Rankin on North Carolina troops in the war.  But monographs on particular regiments or other specific units of organization are harder to come by.  I think the reason is simply that the Rev War hasn’t been investigated as extensively as other wars. 

In fact, as I’ve said before, there is a dearth of “traditional,” meat-and-potatoes military historiography when it comes to the Rev War.  Major battles and campaigns haven’t been investigated thoroughly, and significant figures lack modern biographies.

The good news is that those modern historians who have tackled battles and campaigns have brought the insights of the new military history to bear on them.  Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard have incorporated quantitative methodology and a sensitivity to social history into their investigations of Cowpens and Guilford.  David Hackett Fischer’s book on Trenton and Princeton employs the insights of cultural history to distinguish between American, British, and Hessian conduct in the field.

The Rev War historiography that’s out there is of a high order, partly because scholars are using it to answer old questions about what happens in line of battle.  All the books mentioned above are stellar examples of the possibilities the new military history offers.  Today’s best Rev War scholars are like the householder described in the first gospel, “which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.”

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Don’t fear the Dark Side

There’s an interesting post over at Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf.  Its main concern is the state of Civil War historiography, but it also raises some interesting questions about the role of narrative in historical writing.

Narrative history is one of those loaded terms.  When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (who is a first-rate scholar) had recently put out a successful book with a commercial publisher.  One day in class, the subject of “literary” history came up.  The professor made some wry remark about having “gone over to the Dark Side.”  He wasn’t talking about writing a popular book.  He was referring to its narrative format.

Part of me gets this dichotomy between narrative and analysis.  I completely agree that the historian’s reason for being is to understand the past and then to convey what he’s found.  The historian is not first and foremost a storyteller—although if he tells a good yarn in the process, then so much the better.  Few things irritate me more than reading Amazon.com reviews in which the reader says he loved a history book because “it was just like reading a novel,” or because he “got so caught up in the story.”  And I’m fully aware that a narrative framework imposes certain limitations on the historian, as does any other framework.

Still, I think we tend to draw too stark a distinction in terms of quality and seriousness between narrative history and whatever else it is that narrative history isn’t.  Most narrative history, if it’s written by any scholar worth his salt, will almost inevitably analyze and explain as well as relate the course of events.

I’d submit that every narrative historian, to one degree or another, will use the technique that David Hackett Fischer—whose body of work I admire as much as that of any living historian—calls “braided narrative.”  In two outstanding books, Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing, Fischer unashamedly employs a chronological approach, while interweaving analysis throughout.  The narrative and analysis work hand-in-hand to relate the events in question as completely as possible.  It’s an extremely effective approach, but I think the main difference between Fischer and other writers of narrative is that he’s more explicit about employing it, and employs it more extensively.  Any writer of history who uses a narrative framework will have to weave in some analysis to one degree or another, simply because you can’t really explain anything without doing it.

Actually, it’s worth asking when a given historical work becomes narrative history.  Is it when chronology is the main organizational technique?  That raises some problems.  Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom is generally chronological, but I don’t think anyone would call it a narrative.  Technically it tells a story—the story of colonial Virginia’s plantation labor system and its impact on notions of liberty and race—but within that general chronological framework, it’s thick with analysis.

Does a historical work become narrative when it relates a discrete sequence of events, following principles of time and location?  This, too, is somewhat problematic.  The author of even the most straightforward campaign study or account of a particular event (or series of events) will periodically stop his account for exposition or to summarize a conclusion.  Indeed, when John Demos wrote The Unredeemed Captive, his primary motive, as he says, was to “tell a story,” and that’s exactly what he did.  But major portions of the book are pure analysis and exposition.  Demos uses the story as a means to dissect colonial family life, Indian culture, French missions, and so on.  The book is as much an examination of the three-way relationship between English, French, and Indians in early America as it is a relation of the story of its main characters.

In fact, the history books that seem to me to be closest to pure narrative are the volumes in Allan Eckert’s “Winning of America” series.  And they contain so much imaginative reconstruction that tthey seem to me to be more non-fiction novels than historical works, so even here the designation “narrative history” is questionable.

I don’t think writing narrative is tantamount to going over to the dark side.  The only dark side in historical writing is doing bad history.  There’s definitely plenty of bad narrative history out there, just as there’s plenty of mediocre analytical history.  What separates good historical scholarship from bad is the quality of the questions asked and answers provided.

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The State of Franklin, lost and found

Not too long ago I posted about a recently-published book I’d run across, Kevin T. Barksdale’s The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009).  I’m always excited to see any new work on the Tennessee frontier, and I eagerly looked forward to reading it.

Franklin was a 1780′s separatist movement in what was then western North Carolina and is now eastern Tennessee.  Residents of the Tennessee Valley had, for some time, wanted a government closer to home to be more responsive to their own needs.

In April 1784, North Carolina finally ceded her western lands to the federal government, but by the time westerners actually voted to create an independent state that December, the North Carolina legislature had repealed the cession and reclaimed sovereignty over the lands west of the mountains.  The new state of Franklin was once again a part of its parent, and its adherents were technically insurgents.  The Tennessee frontier, which Barksdale argues had been a haven of political unity up until this time, was now the setting for a nasty political squabble.

This led to the bizarre situation of overlapping Franklin and North Carolina jurisdictions, with competing courts, sheriffs, elections, and tax systems operating in the same area.  North Carolina used a divide-and-conquer strategy to win over the residents of the Tennessee Valley, liberally offering pardons, offices, and freedom from back taxes.  Still, there was rancor and violence between North Carolina loyalists and Franklinites, particularly near the end of the state’s existence.

Barksdale’s view of Franklin’s origins and development is decidedly cynical.  Before the separation, he argues, wealthy elites enjoyed effective control over the region’s economic and political life.  The movement’s main architects tended to be the wealthiest landowners—Barksdale finds that their landholdings were significantly higher than those of the average Tennessee Valley resident or of Franklin opponents.  Separation allowed these elites to consolidate their control, and to promote their goals of better access to markets and protection of land claims—goals their less influential neighbors also shared.

Furthermore, Barksdale argues that the new state was hardly democratic.  When the convention to draw up a frame of government for Franklin met in Greeneville in November 1785, a group of Presbyterian-influenced idealists presented a plan that would have provided for a unicameral legislature, universal suffrage for free males, and widespread education.  The convention instead adopted a modified form of North Carolina’s government, stifling the possibility of political power passing out of the hands of the frontier elite and becoming broadly diffused among average Tennessee Valley residents.

The establishment of Franklin also allowed regional leaders a freer hand in dealing with the Indians than they experienced before.  In 1785 Franklin secured its first Indian treaty at Dumplin Creek, obtaining land set aside by North Carolina for the Cherokee from a cadre of tribal members pliant enough to give in to their demands.  Both the U.S. and North Carolina governments repudiated Franlin’s Indian relations, but they were unable to enforce their own separate agreements with the Indians.  Violence between settlers and Native Americans in the Tennessee Valley eventually led to open warfare that outlasted Franklin itself.  Leading Franklinites also secured an alliance with Georgia to drive out the Creeks who inhabited the fertile Muscle Shoals region, hoping to profit from developing the lands there.

North Carolina’s refusal to accept Franklin, her conciliatory approach to wooing her former citizens, and the new national government’s refusal to acknowledge a state’s creation without the consent of its parent, prompted more and more Franklinites to abandon the movement.  Not even tentative western attempts to secure Spanish support prevented Franklin from collapsing.  In late February 1788, Franklin’s governor, John Sevier, led an armed force to the farm of his arch-opponent John Tipton in order to reclaim property seized for non-payment of North Carolina taxes.  Sevier’s followers drove off one party marching to Tipton’s aid, but when Tiptonite reinforcements arrived, the Franklinites fled.

Following this confrontation, Sevier found himself wanted for treason by a new North Carolina governor less conciliatory than his predecessor.  Sevier was arrested in October and taken to North Carolina for trial; his friends bailed him out of jail in Morganton, and the backcountry hero escaped to Jonesboro, eventually receiving a pardon and enjoying a long career under the governments of North Carolina and eventually Tennessee.  Franklin dissolved, but enjoyed a kind of second life as a rhetorical weapon in debates over Tennessee’s Revolutionary legacy and Appalachian Unionism.

Barksdale’s work is a solid study, clearly written and argued.  It is grounded in secondary scholarship on early Tennessee history and in important primary materials such as the Draper manuscripts.  Furthermore, it makes a real contribution to historiography, since good academic work on the Tennessee frontier is all too scarce.

I do, however, wonder whether Barksdale has been too quick to attribute events to the activities of self-interested elites.  He effectively demonstrates that the region’s wealthiest and most influential citizens were active proponents of Franklin, and that they held many of the new state’s most important offices.  Certainly the creation of an independent western state allowed these men to exercise greater influence than they would have in the bigger pond of North Carolina politics.

But there are other statements in the book that would seem to challenge this explanation.  Barksdale notes that these elites enjoyed broad support from Tennessee Valley yeomen before the separatist movement, and these average inhabitants shared the elites’ desire to improve access to outside markets and to secure themselves from attack.  If the region was indeed unified behind elite leadership, and if yeomen and elites shared many of the same goals, then perhaps the average Tennessee Valley resident was more active in the state’s creation than Barksdale indicates.  It’s possible that the elites led the way simply because they had the influence to do so, and that records of their activities have survived simply because they were more prominent.

Furthermore, the argument from self-interest leaves open the question of why many Tennessee Valley residents opposed Franklin.  Presumably, these opponents would also have benefited from secure land claims, access to markets, a more responsive state government, and a proactive Indian policy.  This is where Barksdale’s top-down approach falters a bit.  I hasten to add that the motives of rank-and-file frontiersmen may not be recoverable to us, but the consistent focus on the leadership made me wonder whether Barksdale was too hasty in dismissing factors besides elite agency.

These aren’t so much criticisms of the book as they are unresolved questions I had while reading it.  I was glad to see a study like this in print, and I recommend it to everyone interested in the eighteenth century or the southern frontier.  Thanks to Barksdale’s work, we now have a much clearer picture of this brief but fascinating episode in Tennessee history than we’ve ever had before.  The “Lost State of Franklin” didn’t endure, but in terms of scholarship, it isn’t lost anymore.

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Another book that needed to be written

This is turning out to be a good year for books that I’ve always wished somebody would write.  Back in March we got the first full-scale study of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be.

Today I ran across another new book that I’m frantic to read, Kevin T. Barksdale’s The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession.  This is a fascinating chapter of early American history that’s gone unexamined for far too long, and I’m glad somebody’s finally putting out a detailed piece of research on it.

This baby just shot to the top of my reading list.  Unfortunately, I’m neck-deep in class preparation, so it’ll be a while before I can dive in.  I’ll let you know what I think.

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Making sense of Guilford Courthouse

I’ve mentioned before how thrilled I was to learn about a new book called Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, by Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard.  We’ve long needed a full-scale treatment of this battle, and I can’t think of anyone better suited to co-write it than Babits, whose earlier book on the Battle of Cowpens was a remarkable piece of research.

I eagerly awaited the arrival of my copy of Long, Obstinate, and Bloody, and when it finally came I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.  I absolutely devoured it, and it’s as fine a piece of military history as I expected it to be.  Guilford was a confused and messy affair, but Babits and Howard have done an outstanding job of making sense of it all.  There’s some intensive primary research collected in these pages, and it shows.

The battle’s anniversary is, of course, this weekend.  Check out the schedule of events.  Babits and Howard are speaking at Guilford Courthouse National Park tonight and signing books tomorrow; there’s also a reenactment at the adjacent Country Park and a number of other presentations at both the NP and nearby Tannenbaum Historic Park. 

My plans to attend fell through at the last minute, much to my disappointment.  I’ll have to postpone my pilgrimage until next week, so here’s your homework assignment.  If you’re within driving distance of Greensboro, head on over and then report back.  If not, then order yourself a copy of Long, Obstinate, and Bloody and enjoy.

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Facing historical figures

I think my favorite living historian is David Hackett Fischer.  His books are wide-ranging, exhaustively researched, intelligently argued, and beautifully written.  He’s a tremendous inspiration to me, and his work has provided me with many instructive lessons on the craft of history.

One of those lessons involves how to approach historical figures.  The temptation, of course, is to do so with either blind admiration or fashionable contempt. 

Fischer offers what I think is a sensible approach in his book on the events leading up to Lexington and Concord.  His two main actors are the American patriot Paul Revere and the British officer Thomas Gage.  One of his purposes, he writes, is “to study both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect.”¹

Neither worship nor condemnation, but “sympathy and respect,” a simple appreciation of their basic humanity and a willingness to put oneself in their shoes.  Not bad advice for scholars who find themselves passing judgment on men and women in extraordinary circumstances.

¹ David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), xviii.

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…and all those seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century wars, too

I drove down to Knoxville, Tennessee today to run a few errands and decided to hit a couple of the bookstores on the west end of town.   For those of you who haven’t spent much time there, Knoxville probably has more big bookstores than any other city of comparable size, and some cities much larger—so many, in fact, that a few years ago the local weekly ran a feature story asking whether the place could sustain them all. 

Anyway, while browsing around the area’s biggest used bookstore, I got slapped with a stunning reminder of the lopsided state of American military historiography.  This place has a pretty substantial history section: world, European, U.S., regional, and so on.  It has, also, a considerable military history section, which for some bizarre reason is on the other end of the store, nowhere near the other historical books.

I’d guess that slightly more than half of the titles in the military section are Civil War books.  World War II has the second biggest share, with a good selection of other twentieth-century and international topics.

Nestled among these titles is a rather small section of shelf space with this label: “U.S. WARS PRIOR TO WWI.”

That would be King Philip’s War, King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, King George’s War, the French and Indian War, the Cherokee War, the Revolutionary War, the Northwest Indian War, the Chickamauga conflicts, the Quasi-War, the Barbary naval actions, the War of 1812, the Creek War, the Black Hawk War, the Seminole Wars, the Texas War of Independence, the Mexican War, the battles with the Sioux and Nez Perce, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine War, a few interventions in Latin America and China, and various other little spats that flared up from time to time.

So, are we gonna get to D-Day here, or what?

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Guilford Courthouse study on the way, and it’s about time

One of the most critical battles of the Revolutionary War was the brutal face-off between the armies of Nathanael Greene and Lord Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina on March 15, 1781.  It was a pivotal engagement, a Pyrrhic victory that crippled the British army and contributed to Greene’s reconquest of South Carolina and the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

I’ve looked long and hard for a full-length, documented account of this battle and I’ve never been able to find one.  That’s why I was thrilled to discover that a new one will be available this March, courtesy of UNC Press: Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, by Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard.  Babits is also the author of an incredibly detailed book on the Battle of Cowpens, in which he used intensive research to clear up quite a few misconceptions, providing us with a clearer understanding of that event than ever before.  I can’t wait to see what he and Howard have uncovered about one of the unduly-neglected battles of the decisive Southern Campaign.

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