Month:

October, 2005

31 Oct 2005, by

John Hunt Morgan

Last spring, I attended a special event on Ohio’s only Civil War battlefield, the Battle of Buffington Island, in Meigs County, on the Ohio River. Buffington Island was fought on July 19, 1863, between Morgan’s Raiders and a large force of Union cavalry. The battlefield is in imminent danger of being destroyed by being dug up for a sand and gravel pit. I had been there once before, and wanted to see it again while it was still pristine.

The visit got me thinking about John Hunt Morgan. If ever there was a Confederate cavalry officer who was grossly overrated, it was John Hunt Morgan. Morgan had no talent for scouting, screening, or reconnaissance whatsoever, and was largely useless in those roles. He was also a terrible battlefield commander…a careful review plainly shows that his brother-in-law, Basil W. Duke, was the tactical brians behind Morgan’s operations. While he was a raider of some reknown, it raises a question of the value of a purely raiding force.

The raid that led to Morgan’s capture in Ohio was gross insubordination. Morgan asked for, and got permission to make a limited foray from Braxton Bragg. He took those orders and construed them as he saw fit, and then led his command on a 28 day raid through Indiana and Ohio that had absolutely no military value, ate up a lot good horseflesh, and led to the destruction of Morgan’s command, most of which ended up being captured. By the end, it wasn’t much more than a pursuit and capture operation that led to the theft of thousands of horses and a lot of atrocities being committed along the way. It’s no wonder that Morgan was thrown in the Ohio Penitentiary when he surrendered–he and his command acted like common horse thieves in an action that had no military value. When Morgan escaped, he received an extremely chilly reception from the Confederate high command instead of the accolades he expected. I suspect that the only reason why Morgan did not receive a court-martial for his actions is because he was captured.

There is no doubt that Morgan embodied the quintessential dashing cavalier. He was a dashing, handsome, courtly fellow of good breeding, and that lent an aura of legitimacy to his operations. While he embodied the beau sabreur, he was not the sort of soldier that Stuart, Fitz Lee, or Hampton were. Unless he was raiding, he really had no value at all to the army commanders he served under.

Although he was called the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy,” an unblinking assessment of Morgan’s military career suggests that his reputation is grossly overstated, and that he really doesn’t deserve the accolades that he has received. I think that Duke was a better commander of troops, and ultimately, a better cavalryman.

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In the course of researching the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry (also known as Rush’s Lancers), I found the story of Theodore J. Wint. This man fascinates me, and it’s really a shame that his story has been forgotten by history. I intend to rectify this.

Wint, who was born near Scranton, Pennsylvania on March 8, 1845, enlisted as a private in the Lancers at age sixteen in 1861. By June 1864, he wore a sergeant’s chevrons, and he was then commissioned first lieutenant on July 1, 1864. He served honorably until the expiration of his term of service on September 30, 1864, when he mustered out of the volunteer service as a nineteen-year-old lieutenant. On February 20, 1865, he enlisted as a private in the General Mounted Service of the United States Army, and served in this role until November 24, 1865, when he received a commission as a second lieutenant in the 4th U. S. Cavalry. In May 1866, he was promoted to first lieutenant, serving as regimental adjutant from August 1868 to December 31, 1871, serving under, and gaining regular praise from, Ranald S. MacKenzie, generally considered to be the most successful Indian fighter in the Army. On April 21, 1872, he was promoted to captain, and then in May, 1892, he was promoted to major and transferred to the 10th U. S. Cavalry, one of the famous “buffalo soldier” regiments consisting of African-American soldiers led by white officers.

In April 1899, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was again transferred, this time to the 6th U. S. Cavalry. He was promoted to colonel on February 2, 1891, and to brigadier general on June 9, 1902. Wint served in the frontier Indian Wars (1866 to 1888)(where he served with great distinction), in Cuba, during the Spanish-American War (1898)(where he was badly wounded in battle when a Mauser bullet broke his thighbone), China (1900-1901), the Philippine insurrection (1901-1904)(where he distinguished himself by capturing one of the leaders of the insurgency) and the Army of Cuban Pacification (1906-1907). Ironically, while operating in both Cuba and the Philippines, Wint served under the command of General Joseph Wheeler, a former Confederate cavalry officer who again donned the blue uniform of the United States Army. The U. S. Army’s Philippines fortifications were named Fort Wint in his honor. General Wint died suddenly of heart disease at the relatively young age of 62 on March 21, 1907, while still on active duty in the field. He was not scheduled to retire until 1909, when he would have been 64, and was a few months shy of receiving one final promotion, this time to major general, had he lived to finish out his career. “General Wint was a quiet man who did things,” said Secretary of War William Howard Taft upon hearing of Wint’s passing.

Although he has been almost entirely forgotten by history, General Wint was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where one of the largest and most handsome monuments in the entire cemetery marks his grave.

Other than the six months from the end of his term of service with the Lancers and his re-enlistment in the U. S. Army, Wint spent his entire adult life as a soldier, a career that spanned 46 years. No member of the Lancers achieved higher military rank than did General Wint. Few American cavalrymen accomplished more than he did.

Here’s a tribute to a forgotten hero. Let’s hope that he’s not forgotten again.

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27 Oct 2005, by

Other publishers

Just to show that I’m an equal opportunity basher, I have plenty of gripes about some of the commercial presses operating out there.

There are some commercial houses out there that really have very little in the way of quality control. White Mane, as an example, is not much more than a vanity press. They have extremely indifferent editing, not much in the way of proofreading, they use really poor quality materials to manufacture their books, and they don’t seem to care about actually publishing books. What I mean when I say that is that my friend Ben F. Fordney, who has spent most of his retirement studying George Stoneman, has written a very good bio of Stoneman, the first full-length one written. White Mane had published Ben’s master’s thesis, and they had the right of first refusal for his manuscript. Ben signed a contract, and after nearly three years without them doing anything at all with it, he finally reached the limit of his patience and pulled the plug. When last I asked him, he was still looking for a publisher for it. I’ve often said that if I had to make a choice between having White Mane do one of my books or never publish another word the rest of my life, I would choose not publishing, and I mean it.

There’s another publisher in Virginia that had a great idea. This publisher would do regimental histories of every Virginia regiment, and also a series of books on the battles fought in Virginia. The regimental histories are, for the most part, useless. Why? NO detail. No endnotes or footnotes. Atrocious artwork. Indifferent editing. The average length is about 100 pages on the “history” portion of the book. The ONLY useful thing about these books is the rosters at the end. Other than that, they are, for the most part, useless. The battle histories are inconsistent. Some are quite good. Some are really bad. It all depends on the author, because the publisher exercises almost no quality control. If the author writes a good book, then a good book gets published. If the author writes a bad book–and there have been plenty of them in the series–then a bad book gets published. End of story.

Then, there are commercial presses that publish books without bothering to check whether the book has any value, or whether it is historically accurate. If you need an example of this, please see the comments on Amazon pertaining to Paul D. Walker’s book The Cavalry Battle That Saved the Union, which is just an atrocious book. With reviews like that, you would wonder what the publisher thinks.

Finally, there’s the marketing of some commercial houses. Just because they’re for-profit ventures doesn’t mean that they’re going to do a fabulous job of marketing. It’s a never-ending source of annoyance for me to visit the Barnes & Noble store less than five miles from my house and not see a single one of my titles on the shelf. Why? Because the publisher does a terrible job of marketing. I won’t name the publisher, but I have registered numerous complaints, so many, in fact, that I’ve simply given up.

Fortunately, Ted Savas seems to have a gift for marketing the books he publishes. I’m looking forward to seeing how well he does with my new book, which will be ready to go the printer shortly.

I like to think that I’m an equal opportunity ranter. 🙂

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I’ve had four books published by university presses. Three were published by Kent State, and one by LSU. Consequently, I feel qualified to share a few thoughts.

The advantage of a university press is that they don’t have to make a profit. This means that they have the luxury of being able to publish things that most commercial publishers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Some of these books are very good. Many of them are books that nobody in their right mind would ever consider reading. Many university presses publish stuff that’s written by professors for professors, and those professors are the only ones who will ever read the books. Clearly, there’s a niche in the marketplace for that.

However, all of this has many very significant downsides.

First, and foremost, is the pricing issue that I mentioned the other day. Because they don’t need to make a profit, they can get away with charging absolutely outrageous prices for things. If a commercial house charged those prices, they’d be out of business in no time flat. As an example, the first book of mine published by Kent State was a collection of letters by a sergeant of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry titled We Have It Damn Hard Out Here. It’s not a long book, only 175 pages. Yet Kent State slapped an outrageous price of $35 on it in 1999. There’s no doubt that that hurt sales. One of the criticisms of it on Amazon says, quite specifically, “I expected more for my $35.” Honestly, I can’t really blame the customer for saying that. That book should have cost a LOT less.

Second, although they can charge ridiculous prices, the university presses often cut corners in ways that detract from the overall quality of a book. I pulled my next book–a study of the March 10, 1865 Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads–from Kent State for a very specific reason. I wanted 26 maps and had accumulated about 50 photos. KSU said 10 maps and no more than 25 photos, and I said no. I terminated the contract because I was not willing to compromise on a book where I had a very clear vision of what I wanted it to be. In my mind, the map study and the photos–several of which have never been published before–really make the package complete. I don’t get that attitude. If you’re going to charge outrageous prices, at least give the public something in return.

Next, university presses can take an unreasonably long time to get stuff published. LSU published one of my books in 2002. I submitted the manuscript in 1999. For the record, it took them nearly THREE years to get the book out. Then, they slapped a $36.95 price on a 240 page book, just to add insult to injury. Since they’re not in business to make a profit, there is no sense of urgency. They get around to things when they get around to them. That’s extraordinarily frustrating.

Some of them publish some pretty crappy books. Mercer University Press has done some pretty good books. But they’ve also done some real stinkers. Last year, Mercer published a book on Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign by a guy named Broadwater. The name of prominent Confederate general Lafayette McLaws is spelled “McClaws” throughout the entire book. There is not a single map. Have you ever tried to understand a complicated, large battle like Bentonville without a single map? Yeah, right. Concisely stated, this book stinks. Take a look at the review I wrote of it that was published in Civil War News. Here’s an example of a bad book that was overpriced and which never should have been published. It embodies pretty much everything that I hate: poor production, no maps, lots of errors, lousy scholarship, etc., etc. Just because it’s a university press product doesn’t mean it’s worth owning.

Finally, we come to the issue of marketing. Because there’s no profit motive, the marketing effort can often be awfully lame. LSU and the University of North Carolina are the only two academic presses that do any marketing at all. Kent State’s marketing efforts are stunningly lame. I can count the books I’ve sold through Kent State on about three hands. Unless you’re Gordon Rhea, don’t bother with a university press if you’re interested in selling books.

Being published by a university press used to be very important to me. Publication by a university press instantly bestows credibility upon an author. Since I’m an amateur, establishing credibility was very important to me early in my career, and I’m glad that my second book was published by a university press. At this point, I think I’ve established myself, and other than a single project which I promised to a friend, I doubt I will ever do another university press book again for all of the reasons stated herein.

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26 Oct 2005, by

Tonight’s game

Well, I’ve been a dedicated hockey fan for more than 30 years. One can’t have grown up in Philadelphia in the ’70’s and not be a hockey fan. Susan and I have been going to hockey games together for about ten years, and I’ve been to a lot of games in my life, NHL and minor league.

Tonight, I saw something I have never seen before. And that takes some doing.

Nashville came in 8-0. The Blue Jackets played very hard tonight and got some superb goaltending from Martin Prusek. The Jackets led 2-1 with less than a minute to go in the game. However, when a bad penalty was called on one of the Jackets, Nashville scored the tying goal with less than 40 seconds to go in regulation on the resulting power play after pulling their goaltender and exploiting a two man advantage. Then, 25 seconds into the OT, one of the Jackets took a bad penalty, and I figured it was all over. How many penalties can a team be expected to kill?

And then, the impossible happened. Defenseman Adam Foote–who has never been known for being a scorer–then beat Tomas Vokoun short side and scored a shorthanded breakaway goal to win the game 35 seconds into the OT. How often do you see a defenseman do that? Not often.

The new NHL is very different from the pre-lockout version. The game is faster. I, for one, do NOT miss the neutral zone trap. I like the new game…..

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25 Oct 2005, by

Quiet

Sorry I’ve been quiet. I’ve been blasting through the page galleys of my new book, which is just about ready to go to the printer. I finished them tonight, and expect to resume ranting tomorrow night, after watching the sorry Columbus Blue Jackets lose again.

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24 Oct 2005, by

Mythbusting

Dimitri Rotov has a very interesting post on his blog today. It got me thinking about a subject that bothers me a great deal.

I’ve always viewed part of my role as a responsible historian as mythbusting, not the perpetuation of those myths. The self-perpetuating myth that inevitably annoys me to no end is the one that says that Brig. Gen. John Buford’s successful stand at Gettysburg on July 1 was the result of the superior firepower of the Spencer carbines carried by his men. Never mind that the Spencer carbine didn’t go into mass production until September 1, 1863 and that only about five prototypes of it existed as of July 1, 1863. Never mind that of the 92% of Buford’s companies that filed ordnance returns on June 30, 1863, not a single one of those companies reported having repeating weapons. Never mind that the only Spencer RIFLES in the Army of the Potomac were in all of the 5th Michigan Cavalry and half of the 6th Michigan Cavalry of Custer’s brigade. Yet, this one particular canard lives on endlessly and relentlessly, repeated again and again by historians, and, yes, even by licensed battlefield guides.

DaCapo published a horrible little book on the July 1 fighting on McPherson’s Ridge by an academic historian named Stephen D. Newton a couple of years ago that repeats the myth of the repeaters yet again, even though it’s been disproved again and again. See the reviews of this little gem on its page on Amazon.com. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not the author of any of the reviews of Newton’s book on Amazon, although my friend J. D. Petruzzi is. Not only did Newton get any number of things wrong, he also perpetuates myths. How does this stuff get published?

Another myth that bugs me is the one that says that Gettysburg was a “meeting engagement.” Here’s the Army’s definition of meeting engagement: “a combat action that occurs when a moving force engages an enemy at an unexpected time and place.” This, by definition, then requires that the armies both be on the move and that they engage at an unexpected time and place. If both requirements are not met, then by definition, any action is NOT a meeting engagement. That the Battle of Gettysburg was a meeting engagement has been accepted for years by what Dimitri describes as Centennial history. According to this theory, the armies blundered together at Gettysburg in an unplanned engagement. On the Confederate side, that happened because Jeb Stuart was off joyriding.

Never mind that modern research plainly shows that both sides knew precisely where the other was; Buford provided Army headquarters with very precise reports on the dispositions of Lee’s army on June 30, and never mind that A. P. Hill knew that a large force of Union cavalry was in Gettysburg that day. Never mind that Lee himself had ordered Stuart’s “ride” and that Stuart actually obeyed those poorly written orders to the letter. Any other explanation other than that it was a meeting engagement by definition means that Robert E. Lee was, in fact, spoiling for a fight in Pennsylvania, that Gettysburg was the chosen location for it, and that Stuart cannot be blamed for the Confederate defeat in Pennsylvania.

However, this myth also gets perpetuated by the likes of Stephen Sears. It’s bad history, and it’s irresponsible.

Yet, this stuff is accepted as the gospel truth solely because a credentialed professional historian says it’s so. Just because one has credentials doesn’t necessarily make one right. And I would suggest that those credentials add to the professional historian’s duty to get it right, even if doing so means that a few sacred cows–cherished myths–get taken down along the way. The same, by the way, holds true for me. I strive for the truth, and I follow where the evidence leads me. Even when I don’t like where it leads me, and even when it leads me to precisely the opposite conclusion that I expected.

My interpretation of the Battle of Trevilian Station is an example of just that. I expected Sheridan’s management of the campaign to be magnificent, and I was terribly disappointed when I realized just what a brutal and incompetent job he actually did. Those conclusions, in turn, led me to write my book Little Phil. In my mind, following the evidence is the only path that a responsible historian can and should take.

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Here are a few more things that really irk me.

1. There are a handful of historians out there who have, through their past works, built up a fair amount of credibility. They have, however, badly diluted their reputations and the value of their endorsements by being promiscuous about doing so. Here’s the best example–and I know that I keep coming back to the Carhart book, but it’s one of the most egregious examples of being a really atrocious book I’ve seen in a very, very long time–Carhart was a former student of James M. McPherson. Consequently, McPherson gave the book a glowing and ringing endorsement. That the likes of a Pulitzer Prize winner put his imprimatur on the book lends it instantly credibility. Never mind all of the numerous flaws that I have already pointed out. Because most of the reading public is not as well-read about these events as some, they see McPherson’s imprimatur, say to themselves that if someone of McPherson’s stature and reputation says it’s okay, it must be, and they then waste their hard-earned money buying it. And because they don’t know better, they end up being badly misled and believe falsehoods and fabrications to be the truth. That is, in my humble opinion, grossly irresponsible, cronyism at its worst, and fostering the defrauding of the public.

2. I REALLY hate publishers that don’t do their own homework before accepting books for publication. There was a book published a few years ago by a guy named Paul D. Walker that also purported to address the fighting on East Cavalry Field (what is it about this fight that seems to encourage the writing of terrible books?). This book is about 100 pages long, and only 12 of them address East Cavalry Field. Take a look at the reviews of the book on Amazon (the one that was repeated–not sure why–is mine). Disregard mine if you like–instead, read the others. How this kind of stuff gets published is a complete mystery to me.

On a parenthetical note, Walker’s book, published several years before Carhart’s, espouses the same two theories as Carhart’s: that Stuart’s movement to East Cavalry Field was somehow tied to Pickett’s Charge, and that Custer–not David Gregg–was the true hero of the fighting there. Sound familiar? It’s the same theory espoused by Carhart, to much greater fanfare. Both books are awful, just in different ways.

3. Publishers who gouge their customers by pricing things at ridiculously high prices just because they can annoy me to no end. I have a deep interest in the Eleventh Corps, and have for years. Several years ago, I started gathering material for a book on the role of the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg that I hope to write some day. It’s a project of massive proportions that will take years to research thoroughly. Given the important role played by General Francis C. Barlow at Gettysburg, I thought I would check to see what was out there in terms of a biographical treatment of him. I found a recent biography of Barlow published by a university press for the mind-boggling price of $49.50 for a 300 page book. Or then there’s the 150 page book on Sherman’s March to the Sea by Prof. Anne J. Bailey. I gave the book an excellent review in a recent issue of Civil War News–which it definitely deserves–but $65 for a 150 page book that has no dust jacket and no photographs????? Give me a break.

Again, I’m quite certain that there will be more, and I will continue to post these thngs as I think of them.

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Alice Gayley was kind enough to pass on an excellent piece from today’s Washington Post that spells out my position on the issue of Google’s scheme of massive copyright infringement better than I can.

This is, by the way, precisely the same argument that the musicians used in objecting to the Napster concept. And, as I have pointed our repeatedly, what Google proposes here is, in my humble opinion, a copyright infringement scheme on a scale more massive–and infinitely more egregious–than Napster, because a corporate giant is perpetrating it, not a bunch of college kids looking to download a few free songs.

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Time for a rant. This one has been brewing all day.

Here are a few random gripes, presented in no particular order. All of these are things that I hate about Civil War books.

1. Books that do not have bibliographies. See Tom Carhart. This permits authors to cut corners, big time. It also allows them to avoid being held accountable for the quality and quantity of their research.

2. Books that do not have maps. If you ever want to go nuts, try to read a history of a complex battle without any decent maps. Not including maps is corner cutting of the worst variety.

3. Books endorsed by people who obviously haven’t read them. One very prominent historian sent me a glowing endorsement for a dust jacket blurb for one of my projects without reading the manuscript. His comment was to the gist of I know your work, so I assume it’s going to be a great book, and I don’t need to read it as a result. It’s quite a compliment, but it meant that he was putting his imprimatur on the book sight unseen. What if I had written absolute, utter garbage? This particular fellow’s imprimatur lends instant credibility. This sort of thing is bad news, and it apparently goes on far more than any of us realize.

4. Books written to advocate a particular theory or position but which are not intellectually honest enough to tell the reader this up front. Stephen Sears is a prime example of what I mean here. Each of his books has a theme. Take his Chancellorsville book: Hooker was not as bad as has been portrayed, he did a good job of managing the battle, and it was someone else’s fault. The whole book is oriented around this. I don’t have a problem with people having opinions, and I also don’t have a bit of problem with authors stating them, even if it’s to advocate a position. Just be honest and tell me that’s what you’re doing.

5. Notes lumped together at the end of a paragraph that amalgamate six or seven sources, making it nearly impossible to figure out what came from where. Give me notes to each source, please.

6. Authors who quote themselves as the authority for things that they say. It reminds me of a legend that we heard in law school. The former dean of my law school supposedly quoted one of his own works as THE authority for a proposition of law that he was arguing before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Too many authors do that sort of thing. It’s lazy, and it cuts corners.

7. Books with lousy production values. White Mane is the primary example of what I mean here. They don’t edit, they don’t proofread, and there is almost no quality control. That permits the plagiarism of other people’s works. See my review of one of their recent books for an example of what I mean here.

8. Books that are based almost entirely on the repackaging and regurgitation of secondary sources. Again, this is intellectual dishonesty, because it means that the author has not done his or her homework and is piggybacking on the fruits of someone else’s labors. See my review of the book in the link indicated above for a good example of what I mean here.

There are, undoubtedly, more things to add to this list, but this is all I can think of at the moment. I will keep a list and add to this rant as I think of more things worth adding.

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