Tag Archives: Antietam

Military history and the art of setting up an argument

I’m revising a draft of the first chapter of my dissertation, and one of the things I need to work on is clearly and concisely articulating from the outset what I’m trying to do in that chapter and how.  It’s a matter of putting into practice the old adage that you have to tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em before you actually do it.  In my first chapter draft I didn’t do this nearly as effectively as I should have.

Since the goal of any work of historical scholarship is to make an original contribution to what we know—or an intervention into a conversation about what we think we know—writers of history have to state what it is they’re bringing to the table.  In grant applications and paper proposals it’s the difference between life and death, but it’s important when sitting down to complete the actual project, too.  Ironically, some of the best models I’ve found of setting up a book-length historical argument come from a genre that a lot of academic historians dismiss: military history that focuses on campaigns, battles, strategy, tactics, and leadership.

Take, for example, Scott Bowden and Bill Ward’s Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign.  It’s a hefty book, more than 600 pages and very closely argued.  But it only takes about four of those pages for Bowden and Ward to explain what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why.  Let me note that I’m not necessarily saying I agree with the authors’ conclusions regarding Lee’s generalship in the invasion of Pennsylvania.  I’m just saying that the way they set up their book’s purpose, organization, and methodology is as clear and concise as you’re likely to find in a work of historical scholarship.

Another example is Joseph L. Harsh’s Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862.  In ten pages, Harsh explains how attention to Antietam has waxed and waned over the years, why the campaign matters, the approaches earlier writers have taken, and how his own approach corrects some important interpretive problems.

Maybe Antietam and Gettysburg have been the subject of so much writing over the years that these authors had to be especially conscientious about explaining what they were doing and why.  Or maybe this genre just lends itself especially well to explicit argumentation because it involves questions of contingency and individual responsibility.  Whatever the reason, those of us looking for examples for our own projects could do a lot worse.

By Captain James Hope (d.1892) (Hope Paintings at nps.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Paranormal investigators add gravity, scholarly rigor to Antietam commemoration

Staff rides and ranger walks are great, but there’s just no substitute for the insight of an experienced ghost hunter:

Among the stories told was one about a re-enactor who was re-enacting a battle at one point and thought he had been “killed” by another re-enactor. However, after the battle was over, nobody else saw the “killing” re-enactor, and Riley implied it was the spirit of an actual dead soldier who took part in the battle re-enactment, thinking it was real.

A subsequent investigation by four adolescents and their dog revealed that the “spirit” was actually a local con man in disguise.  When reached for comment, the malefactor stated, “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids!”

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Two anniversaries

Today wasn’t just the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam; it was also the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.  Wonder if all the guys who labored over that piece of parchment had any idea how expensive it would turn out to be.

 

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National Geographic looks at battlefield artists of the Civil War

For me, some of the most compelling images to come out of the Civil War are the sketches produced by battlefield artists such as Alfred Waud.  Since the bulky cameras of the day couldn’t really capture battles in progress, these guys followed the armies in order to draw the action for newspaper illustrations. 

I find the original rough sketches more powerful than the finished illustrations printed in the papers.  These guys were there while it was happening, and their work brings us about as close as we’re ever likely to get to seeing a Civil War battle play out.

The May issue of National Geographic has an article devoted to these battlefield sketch artists and the hardships they endured:

It was a cruel adventure. One special, James R. O’Neill, was killed while being held prisoner by Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of Rebel guerrillas. Two other specials, C. E. F. Hillen and Theodore Davis, were wounded. Frank Vizetelly was nearly killed at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, when a “South Carolinian had a portion of his head carried away, within four yards of myself, by a shell.” Alfred Waud, while documenting the exploits of the Union Army in the summer of 1862, wrote to a friend: “No amount of money can pay a man for going through what we have had to suffer lately.”

The English-born Waud and Theodore Davis were the only specials who remained on assignment without respite, covering the war from the opening salvos in April 1861 through the fall of the Confederacy four years later. Davis later described what it took to be a war artist: “Total disregard for personal safety and comfort; an owl-like propensity to sit up all night and a hawky style of vigilance during the day; capacity for going on short food; willingness to ride any number of miles horseback for just one sketch, which might have to be finished at night by no better light than that of a fire.”

In spite of the remarkable courage these men displayed and the events they witnessed, their stories have gone unnoticed: Virginia native son and Union supporter D. H. Strother’s terrifying assignment sketching the Confederate Army encampments outside Washington, D.C., which got him arrested as a spy; Theodore Davis’s dangerously ill-conceived sojourn into Dixie in the summer of 1861 (he was detained and accused of spying); W. T. Crane’s heroic coverage of Charleston, South Carolina, from within the Rebel city; Alfred Waud’s detention by a company of Virginia cavalry (after he sketched a group portrait, they let him go); Frank Vizetelly’s eyewitness chronicle of Jefferson Davis’s final flight into exile.

You can see some of these sketches in an online gallery at the magazine’s website.  Below is Waud’s sketch of the conflagration at the Mumma Farm:

“BATTLE OF ANTIETAM, MARYLAND, SEPTEMBER 17, 1862; LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Confederates set Samuel Mumma’s farm ablaze to keep it from Union hands. By the time Alfred Waud made this sketch, using Chinese white pigment to depict flames, Union troops were in control of the area.”
From the May edition of National Geographic magazine

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