06 February 2006 by Published in: General musings 5 comments

As I have mentioned here previously, I provide forum boards for discussion for folks at the Civil War Discussion Group. Although these boards were already in the works at the time of the demise of a prior group run by a con man who conned me and a lot of others, upon the demise of that group–which was solely devoted to the Battle of Gettysburg–my boards replaced the con man’s boards. Thus, the majority of my members are Gettysburg people. I get that. In fact, it even makes sense to me. In a very real sense, I am a Gettysburg person, too. It’s always been–and always will be–my first love when it comes to the Civil War.

At the same time, I think that a measure of a person’s growth is his or her capacity to learn. I have an insatiable thirst for learning, in almost any area of endeavor, but especially in the realm of the Late Unpleasantness. Consequently, I have expanded my horizons significantly. In fact, in a lot of ways, I now find the Battle of Chancellorsville more interesting and often more compelling than Gettysburg. Perhaps it’s that I don’t know the ground as well. Perhaps that I’m a relative newcomer to the study of C-ville. Perhaps it’s my firm belief that nobody can really and truly understand the Battle of Gettysburg without having a solid understanding and knowledge of Chancellorsville. Perhaps it’s that I have a very short attention span and need variety to keep from losing my mind. So, while Gettysburg remains one of my primary interests, I cannot say that it is my sole interest. It hasn’t been since I was a child, and I can’t see it ever being that way again.

Yet, I know folks that are that way. There’s one fellow I know–a fellow lawyer and a good guy–who once told me that he had made a conscious decision that it was better for him and more important to him that he focus exclusively on Gettysburg to the exclusion of everything else. What that means is that he’s taking a micro perspective on things that overlooks the big picture, and expecially that portion of the big picture that places Gettysburg in its proper historical context, including seeing the inexorable connection between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg that I described in more detail in an earlier post on this blog.

Then, there’s another fellow who has been a CWDG regular since day one–a good guy, too–who is so focused on Gettysburg that he developed his own acronym to describe the affliction–GAS, which means not too many baked beans but rather Gettysburg Addiction Syndrome. He recently proceeded to list an entire litany of symptoms of this dreaded affliction, such as ” You consider the best vacation you have ever had was spent at one of the anniversarys of the Battle” or “You keep trying to convince your MRS that we MUST move to Gettysburg or at least closer to it!” Obviously, he is afflicted by all of these maladies and many more.

I can appreciate that, as this fellow has a famous forebear who made his mark at Gettysburg, but at the sime time, I can’t comprehend having such an all-consuming obsession with one particular battle as to largely ignore all others. Maybe it’s just me and my short attention span, but I would go bonkers if all I ever studied was Gettysburg. Another thing I don’t get are the endless arguments that come up time and time again about specific points of controversy, such as whether Sickles should have advanced to the Emmitsburg Road plateau on July 2. That drives me crackers. Most of the time, I won’t even read it when that happens, as I have no interest in hashing the same thing over and over again when there is no new evidence to warrant a reconsideration.

And finally, there’s the one thing that bugs me most of all. There seems to be a need among some to propound bizarre new theories about the battle, irrespective of whether there’s any evidence to support them. There are a few folks out there that seem to feel a pathological need to do this, in the hope of making some big find. Perhaps they like the sound of their own voices. Perhaps they feel some overwhelming, compelling need to find something new or to leave their mark on the interpretation of the battle. These folks will ignore you when you make an effort to disprove them with evidence, or they lash out at you, with insult after insult. Some insults are wrapped up in a prettier package–couched in seemingly polite terms but in reality condescending and tinged with disgust that you’re not on the same plane of existence because you cannot or will not accept the validity of this novel theory, just because the proponent says you should.

In addition, the proponent has certain disciples (minions?) who seem to (a) defend him unfailingly, even when you point out that he’s being condescending and insulting and that you have a legitimate gripe about how you’re being treated. The minion immediately shuts you down, claiming that you’re actually the one in the wrong and defending the proponent, no matter what, even though the other person has just given you the extremely polite and condescending digital version of the Finger and (b) accept the proponent’s BS unquestioningly, just because he says it’s so. I see way too much of this going on on one of the other forum board sites to the point that I’ve pretty much stopped reading the posts there. It’s caused me to pretty much lose all respect for the principal defender who is, by the way, one of the moderators of the site. You can dress it up any way you like, but a pig dressed in a tuxedo is still a pig, no matter how you slice it. Condescending and insulting is still condescending and insulting even when it’s dressed up in courteous and respectful tones.

I cannot, for the life of me, understand this trait or tendency. Folks, there WERE other battles. Other things of significance did happen in the Civil War–it did not begin or end with those three days at Gettysburg. Open your eyes–there’s a big world out there, full of interesting things that really did happen, and not a fantasy world filled with bizarre and unsupportable theories. Wake up and smell the coffee, folks. There is more. Live it, learn it, love it. You will be a better and more well-rounded person for it.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Russell Bonds
    Mon 06th Feb 2006 at 5:41 pm

    Good post. I agree with you, though I won’t recycle the tired (but probably true) complaints about the West being unfairly slighted as all the focus remains on Lee et al. in the East.

    I think part of what you’re seeing there is a combination of hype, availability of sources and an understandable desire on some folks’ part to feel like they have some expertise. The Civil War (as a whole) is a large and challenging body of coursework. I can see where some get frustrated–they read Foote, Catton, McPherson, Goodwin and Sears; they watch Ken Burns; they visit a few battlefields; they’re enthusiastic and think of themselves as fairly knowledgable–then they have a ten-minute conversation of you going off on “the paradox that was Ulrich Dalgren” or the unpublished correspondence of John Pope’s adjutant, and they feel like a freakin’ idiot! :) Narrowing the lens to something like Gettysburg makes the topic managable, and there’s a lot of available material, plus there’s always a movie to fall back on!!

    I think the saddest thing about narrowing to Gettysburg or the Eastern campaigns is the personalities you miss out on–and I don’t just mean Sherman. Keep up the interesting work; I enjoy it daily. –Russ

  2. Mon 06th Feb 2006 at 11:14 pm

    I would like to elaborate on an insight noted by Mr. Bonds–that the western theater has traditionally been “unfairly slighted” by Civil War historians until fairly recently. True indeed, but rather than to dismiss this concern as “trite,” I believe that there is considerable profit (and likely some future scholar’s dissertation) in asking how this historiographical imbalance evolved. From my own work, I would contend that the power of “knowledge production”–newspapers, memoirs, regimental histories and eulogies; the institutional control over what knowledge was disseminated about which battles and key figures, e.g., Bostonian and historian John Codman Ropes and the Massachusetts Military Historical Society, as well as the earliert and most prominent Civil War historians, were largely an eastern and connected with the Army of the Potomac. Few western battles had post-war, virtually full-time commemorators as John Bachelder, whose Gettysburg maps became standard wall hangings in many a home. The antebellum South had long complained that a handful of eastern intellectuals had essentially “Northernized” the story of the Revolutionary War and neglected its Southern theater. I believe this was true, and that a similar structural bias continued post-bellum in another guise–the primacy of the eastern theater in histories. This was perhaps inevitable given the concentration of media and socio-economic power concentrated in what today we might refer to as the Bos-Wash corridor.

    A second key factor was access. Simply put, post-war Gettysburg was more accessible by road and rail than say, Antietam; but unlike Antietam, the battle of Gettysburg offered what many 19th century literati would refer to as superior “dramatic unities”–a balance between Southern victory on the first day and Southern defeat on the third; dramatic tension on the second day followed by a climactic finish, then the denoument (the Gettysburg Address.) It has taken historians decades to dispel notions of Gettysburg as “the turning point” of the war, and, pace Faulkner, the overdramatized notion of the “highwater mark of the south”–as if the South’s objective was ever the annexation of Federal territory above the Mason-Dixon line!

    In sum, there were many reasons why Gettysburg is first among equals in a theater of war that has long enjoyed an unwarranted primacy. Some future scholar will probably mate notions of literary theory, economics (no gainsaying that local residents are an entrepreneurial lot), geography, and 19th century concentrations of media and political influence to explain just how this happened.

    And if I live long enough to see it written, I shall be the first to buy the book.

  3. Mon 06th Feb 2006 at 11:21 pm

    Richard,

    Really good and interesting comment–thanks.

    I agree with you.

    And it sounds like there’s a book project waiting for you to write on the historiography of Gettysburg……

    Eric

  4. Mon 06th Feb 2006 at 11:24 pm

    Russ,

    I think you’re probably right, and I also think that you raise a very valid point. We all have our strengths, and we all have areas where we know more than others. I, for instance, would never consider myself a Western Theater expert, and I would never attempt to hold myself out as one. That’s not to say I’m not interested or I’m not willing to learn–I am. What it does mean is that there are areas that interest me more than others. What it also means is that I have a great deal to learn about a lot of things.

    Eric

  5. Russell Bonds
    Tue 07th Feb 2006 at 10:35 am

    Eric:

    I agree. Certainly developing expertise in one area or on some favorite topics does not and should not preclude you from broadening your horizons. And of course I was by no means denigrating your strengths– sorry for needling you about Dahlgren et al. !!

    And I thought Mr. Miller’s comment was insightful indeed. I’d buy that book as well.

    Best regards, R.

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