Category Archives: Historiography

Just how bad is the state of popular Civil War writing?

Pretty bad, according to Dimitri Rotov:

The mass-market nonfiction reader is a kind of crackhead in search of fiction-quality narratives. The “kick” in nonfiction that reads better than a novel is that “it’s like, real man.”

We need sociologists to study these people. Instead we get Civil War authors who serve their segment of this market with elaborately contrived master narratives, books gushing with “novelistic” anecdotes ripped out of their natural context (of diaries and letters), and stripped down “stories” featuring “characters” who amuse and entertain. The crackhouse that is Civil War history has its corner in the larger slum of nonfiction publishing, with suburbanites cruising through to score their stuff on the way to the beach. Party on dudes.

I always enjoy reading Rotov’s thoughts on historiography, even though I have a great deal of respect for some of the authors he often singles out for criticism. Regardless of questions over which specific books are bad and which aren’t, he’s got a point here.  There is undeniably a lot of shallow, superficial tripe getting cranked out in the name of popularized Civil War history.

Next time you have a minute, browse through some reader reviews of popular historical books at Amazon.com and note how many customers gush over works that made them feel like they were reading a novel, or caught them up in the story, or made them forget that they were reading a history book, and so on.  If you can’t enjoy a history book unless you forget that it is, in fact, a history book, then why exactly did you buy it and start reading it in the first place?

Apparently we’ve become so addicted to diversion that we have to treat ourselves like kids, absorbing little nuggets of information surreptitiously in the same way that a toddler will eat vitamins only when Mom slips them into some chocolate pudding.  In this case, though, it’s ourselves we’re trying to fool: “It was so entertaining, I forgot I was reading a history book!”  When thou readest history, let not thy left brain know what thy right brain doeth.

Indeed, when we compare the number of shallow and commercially driven Civil War books to the number of genuinely original studies, the results might look a little dismaying.  The widespread interest in the war means that lots of commercially driven junk gets published because there are people who are willing to buy it.  You don’t get this level of commercial interest when it comes to, say, the Progressive Era or seventeenth-century English colonies, where more analytic or academic books are the norm, simply because there isn’t as much of a market for popular books in those fields.

Still, I think it’s easy to overstate the problem.  Leave aside for a moment the ratio of mediocre Civil War books to very good Civil War books.  Instead, compare the number of solid Civil War books getting published to the number of solid books being published in other historical fields of study, and I think the former discipline comes out looking pretty robust.

In fact, as someone whose special interests lie mainly in earlier periods of history, I don’t think Civil War readers know how comparatively well off they are. I’ve lamented before how surprising the lacunae in early American historiography can be; we have major historical actors without modern biographies, fundamental questions unanswered, and critical events unexamined.  You may not be entirely pleased with the available literature on a given Civil War topic, but chances are there is at least a literature in place, so that the student or scholar has some sort of foundation on which to build.

In any case, if you dislike commercialized historical writing, the best remedy is to avoid buying it.  Publishers will keep cranking out infotainment as long as there’s a market for it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, Historiography

Looking for a substantial research project?

Then consider writing a biography of an early national figure, particularly one from Tennessee.  Mark Cheatham is probably correct in guessing that “many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors.”

It’s a shame, because there are plenty of prominent early leaders about whom we just don’t know enough.  Both Gordon Belt and myself have lamented the lack of a good biography of John Sevier.  A few hagiographic treatments came out over a century ago, but as far as I can determine, the only scholarly attempt at a life of Sevier was Carl Driver’s, published back in the thirties.

William Blount’s life story would also make for a fascinating read.  A study of his conspiratorial dealings came out not too long ago, but as a member of the Constitutional Convention and governor of the Southwest Territory, Blount deserves a cradle-to-grave account, too.

In part, this dearth of early Tennessee biographies is symptomatic of a more general shortage of scholarship on the Volunteer State’s frontier period.  The good news is that those relatively few recent studies on early Tennessee history have been very good—such as John Finger’s overview of the Volunteer State’s early daysKevin Barksdale’s book on the Lost State of Franklin, and Cynthia Cumfer’s examination of early Tennessee’s three races.

But it’s also symptomatic of the surprising gaps that exist in the field of early American biography.  These gaps become readily apparent when you look at Rev War biography.  One thing that’s always struck me is the lack of a recent, full-scale life of Nathanael Greene, the remarkable general who took command in the South in late 1780 and turned that theater of war on its head, after having served under Washington in the major campaigns in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Few men played a more critical role in the war.

Henry Knox, Washington’s resourceful artillery chief, also needs a full-scale, scholarly biography.  Don Higginbotham wrote a very good life of Daniel Morgan, but another look at the Old Wagoneer wouldn’t hurt, either.  Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates could also stand intensive biographies.

Let me point out that all these men were general officers, and yet we have more abundant published work on some Civil War colonels than on these guys.  Biographies of British commanders are just as hard to come by, perhaps more so.  In a sense, Rev War historiography has leapfrogged over the old military history and gone straight to the new.

Grad students and young scholars in search of dissertation or book topics need not worry about running out of material.  There are enough dead white guys in search of their Boswells to keep us all busy for a while.

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, Tennessee History

Founders with green thumbs

Here’s an aspect of the Revolutionary era that I’d never considered, and I’m not aware that anybody else has, either.  Looks kind of interesting.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Hess on Lincoln Memorial University and Bergeron on Andrew Johnson

Let me direct your attention to two of this year’s books from the University of Tennessee Press, both of which I’ve eagerly awaited for some time.

First up is Lincoln Memorial University and the Shaping of Appalachia by Earl Hess, which will place the early history of LMU within the context of what was happening in Appalachia during the crucial late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of the Lincoln apotheosis that peaked around the time of the centennial of his birth.

As regulars of the blog know, LMU is my alma mater, and Dr. Hess is one of the people most responsible for setting me on a path toward a career in history.  Most readers know him for his acclaimed Civil War studies.

Another book to anticipate is Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction by Paul Bergeron, who spent more than a decade editing and publishing Johnson’s papers and is probably the country’s foremost authority on him.  This book promises a more nuanced and balanced appraisal of Johnson than what many histories provide, and may lead to a thorough reassessment of his place in American politics.

2 Comments

Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historiography, Tennessee History

Great men on the couch

Despite my fondness for history, I don’t read many biographies.  One of the reasons is that there are some tendencies of modern biographers that I find irritating.

The childhoods of men like Washington and Lincoln are obviously not as well documented as their public lives.  The data consists of a disjointed collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, strung together loosely by dates culled from family Bibles and baptismal records. Biographers often strain too hard to make something meaningful of this small pile of ingredients, seizing on minor incidents as harbingers of lifelong behavioral patterns.  (“This determination to find his lost puppy was the first indication of the tenacity that would, decades later, serve him so well on the battlefield.”)  If a subject’s early years are sparsely documented, then just be upfront about it.  There’s no need to fill in the gaps with foreshadowing.

Almost as common is a tendency to engage in superficial psychoanalysis, digging into the subject’s early experiences and relationships to identify the sources of later personality traits.  Hence Lincoln’s disdain for his father helped to fuel his ambition, or Washington’s domineering mother engendered a reactionary desire for control and independence.

Historians are not psychoanalysts.  We’re trained to interpret records within the context of the past, not unlock the inner workings of the human mind.  In fact, you can just as often explain seemingly aberrant characteristics using good old historical context, without resorting to psychological speculation.  Sure, Washington liked control and independence, but what eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman, raised in a hierarchical society in which status came from obligations owed by others and from ownership of slaves, didn’t want to be the master of his own fate?  Even when psychologists themselves try to use their discipline to figure out what makes historical figures tick, the results are sometimes less than impressive. (Recall the gay Lincoln fiasco of not long ago.)

It’s perfectly legitimate to incorporate the insights of psychology when writing biography, but if historians are going to do so, they should tread with care, remembering that they’re venturing into foreign territory.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historiography

A new biography of Robert Morris

…the controversial financier of the American Revolution, hit the shelves just a few days ago.  Morris is one of those critically important but often-overlooked figures who’s gone without a full-scale cradle-to-grave treatment for quite some time.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Monmouth Court House in context

One of the most complicated and controversial battles of the Revolutionary War took place at Monmouth Court House, NJ on June 28, 1778.  The war had just changed fundamentally, since France’s entry as a belligerent forced the British to contract their commitment in the colonies.  This meant, among other things, abandoning Philadelphia, which they had captured the previous autumn.  The British march away from the rebel capital presented Washington with an opportunity to inflict some damage on his enemy’s force as it crossed New Jersey.  The ensuing engagement demonstrated that the Continental Army, so often defeated in the war’s previous two years, had become a formidable fighting machine.  This battle and the events surrounding it are the subject of Monmouth Court House: The Battle that Made the American Army, by Joseph G. Bilby and Katherine Bilby Jenkins, released this summer by Westholme Publishing.  It is a book much wider ins cope than its title suggests.

The Revolution in New Jersey was a civil war, and the course of that civil war depended greatly on the fortunes of the regular armies.  The Tory ascendancy in of 1776 in New Jersey proved relatively brief.  British and Hessian rapacity alienated many civilians, Washington’s enterprising attacks at Trenton and Princeton demonstrated that his army was not subdued, and an active local militia proved that while New Jersey was occupied, it remained unpacified. Fighting in the state continued through 1777, as both sides skirmished and foraged throughout the countryside.

The residents of Monmouth County experienced the effects of this fighting firsthand, both before and after the climactic battle that erupted among their homes in the summer of 1778.  They also participated, often as militia or members of impromptu bands that coalesced in response to local military, social, or religious conditions.  Organized Loyalists benefited from the presence of British regulars, attacking Whigs and confiscating their goods, but when control of New Jersey shifted to the Patriots, the tables were turned and Loyalists suffered accordingly.  Some Tories joined armed bands of outliers, like the one led by an ex-slave that terrorized local Whigs from a base at Sandy Hook.  Legal and extralegal Patriot groups targeted these Tories and those suspected of sympathizing with them, resulting in a kind of see-saw partisan conflict in which each side persecuted the other while operating in the shadow of whichever occupying force was most prominent at that particular time.  Bilby and Jenkins use local records and correspondence to illuminate the inner workings of this struggle within Monmouth County.

The fortunes of the regular armies shifted back and forth, also.  By the summer of 1778 the Continental Army was a matured fighting force.  While the British had occupied Philadelphia, the Americans spent their winter at Valley Forge training under the tutelage of the colorful Prussian drillmaster Baron von Steuben.  The British abandonment of Philadelphia, supervised by Sir Henry Clinton, was a necessary consequence of France’s entry into the war, but it meant marching across dusty roads in intense heat, exposed to an enemy more proficient at making battle than it had ever been.

Some of Washington’s subordinates urged their commander to use the British withdrawal march as an opportunity to attack.  One who disagreed was General Charles Lee, a onetime veteran of the British Army who was also a critic of his commander and until recently a prisoner of war; while in captivity his behavior was sufficiently questionable as to bring his loyalty to the American cause into doubt.  Lee warned that the army was not prepared for an all-out engagement, and recommended the use of small-scale harassment.  Washington determined to divide his force and send a portion of it against the British flank and rear, seeking an opportunity to harass the enemy’s army and perhaps inflict serious damage.  Once it became clear that this force would be considerable in size, Lee insisted that his seniority entitled him to command it.  Washington relented, allowing Lee to take charge of a detachment faced with a task that he had vocally opposed.  According to Bilby and Jenkins, Lee’s unfamiliarity with the troops under his command and with the terrain over which he would have to fight caused much of the confusion that followed.

When the two armies caught up with each other along the fields, marshes, and ravines near Monmouth Court House on June 28, the British counter-attacked.  Faced with ever-increasing numbers of British troops, American units began to withdraw from the field, and shortly thereafter Lee himself ordered a general withdrawal and tried to establish a defensive position to the rear.  Washington arrived on the field surprised to find his troops retreating; encountering a confused and flustered Lee, he failed to secure a satisfactory answer as to why the withdrawal was taking place.  Washington himself then took command of the army and oversaw the establishment of new defensive positions along elevated ground, which the British found difficult to crack.  After a two-hour artillery duel and a number of localized American attacks, the British completed their withdrawal from the battlefield, marching away to Sandy Hook for embarkation to New York that evening.  The Americans had demonstrated their ability to stand toe-to-toe with British regulars in formal combat.

Still, the initial American withdrawal at Monmouth Court House ended the Revolutionary career of Charles Lee.  The combative general insisted on a court-martial to clear his name and dashed off a series of insulting messages to Washington, which did little to help his cause.  The American commander obliged Lee’s wish for an inquiry, which found Lee guilty of disobedience for failure to attack the British, conducting an improper retreat, and disrespect to his commander. Suspended from command for a year, Lee continued his crusade to vindicate his reputation, eventually getting himself removed from the army altogether.  Bilby and Jenkins find Lee largely responsible for his own misfortunes.  While the court-martial leveled accusations against Lee that were partly untrue (Washington had not ordered him to bring on a general engagement, despite the accusations of some of Lee’s enemies), and while his conduct of the defense following the confused retreat was admirable, the initial American withdrawal itself was, they argue, largely the result of Lee’s own ill-preparedness and his poor initiation of the battle.  Likewise, the collapse of his military career was essentially his own fault, attributable to his belligerent behavior after the battle.

If Lee’s reputation suffered as a result of Monmouth, though, the Continental Army had vindicated itself after the embarrassing defeats of 1776 and 1777 by facing the British in a pitched battle.  Over the next century, as Americans turned to the Revolution as a symbol of national unity and spirit, the battle and the field found their own places in American memory.  The most prominent figure in the memory of Monmouth was (and remains) Molly Pitcher, a campfollower who supposedly helped man one of the artillery pieces.  Bilby and Jenkins find that the Molly Pitcher legend, while embellished over time, likely has a basis in fact; it appears in some later participant accounts, and a likely candidate can be found in surviving records and recollections. The book concludes with a description of efforts to commemorate and preserve the battlefield, which is now a state park.

If all this sounds like more than a discussion of a battle, it is.  The authors’ intention is to “tell the story of the Battle of Monmouth Court House in a holistic manner” (x).  As such, much of the book is more concerned with the battle’s context than with the actual clash near Monmouth, delving into the course of the war in the Mid-Atlantic, its effects on the community, the organization and composition of the opposing armies, and eighteenth-century weapons and tactics.  Much of this background material will already be familiar to students of the Revolution, but it does place the battle itself in a larger perspective.

As one of the most complicated and controversial engagements of the war, Monmouth seems ripe for the sort of painstaking critique of command decisions that characterize many battle studies, and some readers will probably find the authors’ reluctance to engage in such minute dissection frustrating.  Still, this is a useful and enlightening account, one that clearly presents the story of Monmouth and puts that story within its proper place. It will be of interest to any reader interested in the Revolution or American military history.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography