Civil War News Review

For the newest review of Stand to It and Give Them Hell go to this site:

While you are at it, consider purchasing Mr. Jorgensen's excellent micro-history, Gettysburg's Bloody Wheatfield, which is now available in Kindle, Nook, and iTunes formats.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Emperor's New Clothes (Part 1 of 2)

I, like so many Civil war enthusiasts, grew up on the tremendous stories of the Civil war and the individuals who fought it.  As a boy, growing up in Virginia in the 1950’s, I knew full well that the Confederacy won the “War” and that the Yankees had distorted the truth about it.  Robert E. Lee walked on water and U.S. Grant, “the Butcher” won because of overwhelming manpower and resources.  The “damned Yankee tariff” and states rights caused the conflict and slavery really had nothing to do with it.  John Singleton Mosby won the war by himself and Sherman brutally and needlessly destroyed private property.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

All too often theses stories, which have gotten better over time, are nothing more than that.  This applies also to interpretations of battles.  I am constantly amazed how so many people view a battle as a chess game where the general commanding wrote an omniscient battle plan, relayed that information to his generals and then personally manipulated the maneuvers upon the fields to achieve his preconceived objectives.  When it failed, the obvious blame fell upon subordinates who either did not understand the commanding general’s orders or who deliberately executed their own plan because they did not agree with their superior’s plan.  Sickles’s unauthorized advance to the Emmitsburg Road and Longstreet’s deliberate late arrival on the southern end of the field immediately come to mind. 

What does the evidence say?  How should the historian interpret the evidence?  Who was right?  Who was wrong?  What lessons can be learned from their “mistakes”?   Are the traditional, oft told accounts of their actions accurate?  Those are tough questions, which I hope to address in future blogs.

Before getting there, however, I think it is important to examine how I approach the interpretation of those events.  Understand, I am speaking for myself and my methodology and no one else’s and that I am referring to a battle-book on regimental and battalion level and not a work about grand strategy or the battle from a particular general’s perspective.

1.      Do not approach any project with a particular thesis in mind other than to see the event as the participants experienced it
2.      Collect as much primary material as you can, knowing that you will never find all of it and that in some areas, you might discover very little.
3.      Primary sources include after-action reports, maps, letters, diaries, reminiscences, recollections, and magazine articles written by the veterans about the veterans.
4.      Verify the identity and service record of every contributor, and, if at all possible, include those listed as “anonymous” or those who used pen names.
5.      In recent years, some historians have argued that one can only use material produced during the war because post war reminiscences are too often self-serving, riddled with inaccuracies, and too far removed from the war to be accurate.  Dismiss those arguments off-hand.  Often, it takes years for anyone who has gone through a trauma to write or talk about the incident.  Their recollections about the event are generally as clear as if it had just occurred. 

I know this from personal experience as a boy who had close call with death.  It took me over 20 years to write and talk about it.  I remember the veterans among whom I grew up with the “thousand yard stare,” painfully and vividly remembering their experiences.  They did not exaggerate what they saw but they did embellish the importance of what they saw or waxed eloquent about strategy in which they played no role.  Generally, the historian has to rely on common sense to separate the fact from the garbage.  If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

History as I Learned It

Ramblings of a Military Historian
History As I Learned It
I have had a love of history since my earliest memories. The son of a World War II veteran, I spent grades 1 through 5 in a new housing development in Fairfax, Virginia where all of our immediate neighbors had served during the war. One belonged to the Army Air Corps and helped loot a German military warehouse at the end of the conflict. The next-door neighbor, a former sergeant major in the Army, fought through the European Theater. The fellow across the street had a steel plate in his head from combat in Italy. My father served as a wire runner with the Marines on Guadalcanal. The priest who performed my mother and father’s marriage was a missionary in the Philippines during the Bataan Death March and saw his brother – priest – murdered by the Japanese while administering the Last Rites to a dying American soldier. A good friend of the family – Jesuit – received the Silver Star while serving on a submarine in the Pacific for rescuing a downed flyer. Another friend served in the 82nd Airborne in every jump from Sicily to D-Day to Arnhem. The list could ramble on forever. 

My mother instilled in my brother and me a thirst for learning and reading. I have been the classic “bookworm” and nerd my entire life. I read Bill Mauldin. Ernie Pyle, John Hersey, Bruce Catton, Erich Maria Remarque, John Keegan, Tom Carhart, Philip Caputo, F. Van Wycke Mason, Stephen Sears, Bell I. Wiley, Stephen Crane – anything historical.

The veterans, my mother, my grandparents, the authors I read, taught the history that never appeared in school textbooks. I knew what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was long before the psychiatrists formally identified it. I saw it in my father, and in the vets in the neighborhood - when it rained too hard and the neighbor with the steel plate in his head “shorted out.” I saw it when my dad and the friend from the 82nd Airborne drank to forget the war only to remember it more vividly, and when Dad would “snap” during a war movie and yell at the actors, “Get down fool!” “That ain’t the way you handle a BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle.” “You caint  pull a grenade pin with your teeth!” I saw him get delirious every summer with malaria. If anything, I learned that wars do not end when the shooting stops.

I doubted that I would ever get to Europe much less the Pacific. However, the Civil War battlefields were all around us. We went to Gettysburg every weekend when Mom visited her parents in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. Dad would stand atop Little Round Top and remember Bloody Nose Ridge or the Ilu River, while my brother and I repelled the Confederate attack against the summit. He never recovered from his war and I became engrossed in the one on our own soil. In particular, I became indebted to the men and women I knew who gave so much so I could have the privilege of living free.

During Vietnam, I hated the way the American college protesters treated our soldiers so badly. I started seriously researching Civil War history while in college at Loyola (Baltimore, Maryland) from 1968 – 1972. Dad always felt that the country had forgotten the men who fought and died in the Pacific. I knew the men and women in Nam deserved better treatment than they received at home. 

At that point, I decided to interpret the Civil War through the eyes of those who did the killing and the dying. The war they saw was not in the textbooks. Studying generals if fine, but the men on the ground experienced a different war. Personally, I cannot think like a general any more than I could think like a school administrator. I am neither a global thinker nor a strategist. I stink at checkers and chess. My brain is not wired right in that area.

Therefore, my books are not as analytical as some critics would like them to be. I do not dislike generals. I do not center my writing on them. I do not write with any term paper objective in mind. I let the soldiers tell the story. My job is to cut away the hyperbole and record what they experienced and let the readers form their own conclusions. What I have discovered is that soldiering and war, from the human perspective has not changed since the beginning of time. New discoveries in medicine now save more lives than in the past but the trauma, the mechanical response to stress, the fear, courage, cowardice, and terror have not and never will change.

Whether it is the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam or Afghanistan, the American soldier has left behind vivid recollections, which transcend time. My role as an historian and as a teacher is to make sure no one forgets them – not to glorify what they did but to remember and try to understand how the war transformed their lives – and ours -forever.