26 March 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 24 comments

On Friday, I posted about a debate that we’ve been having within the management group of Ironclad Publishing. It prompted an e-mail exchange with Drew Wagenhoffer, who correctly identified the campaign that I described but went out of my way not to describe. That e-mail exchange, in turn, pointed out the inherent conflict between Gettysburg scholarship and the rest of the Civil War.

It never ceases to amaze me how many Gettysburg books have been written, and how deeply the Gettysburg craze goes. There are, for instance, multiple (at least six that I can think of off the top of my head) books that address nothing but the impact of the battle on the civilians of Gettysburg, as if that particular town was the only one so effected throughout the course of the war. Mark Nesbitt seems tomake a living writing books about, and advancing, Gettysburg ghost lore, having published half a dozen books just on that particular topic alone. There is a magazine devoted completely to the Battle of Gettysburg that has so far published something like 36 issues that delves into minutae like no other magazine I’ve seen. The depths of Gettysburg have been plumbed so deeply, in fact, that we’re left with utter garbage like Carhart’s book as the only “new” insights into the battle. Given that Carhart’s book is fiction masquerading as truth, that’s a pretty pathetic statement indeed.

The percentage of Civil War devoted to the Battle of Gettysburg seems to run close to 50%. This means that there are only a relatively small percentage of books devoted to the other 10,000 or so battles and skirmishes that took place during the Civil War. This means that there are still plenty of fascinating actions that deserve a detailed treatment but have been completely overlooked by history for whatever reasons. There are, likewise, other large and extremely important battles that have not received the sort of detailed examination that they deserve. Chickamauga and Shiloh are two that come to mind immediately. Chickamauga, in particular, deserves a good microtactical examination, but it has not received one. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s that the battle is not perceived as being decisive. Perhaps it’s because Braxton Bragg is such a thoroughly dislikeable fellow. Perhaps it’s that William S. Rosecrans, the Federal commander disgraced himself and trashed an otherwise admirable career by fleeing the battlefield in the midst of battle. Perhaps it’s the perception that books on the Western Theater of the war will not sell. Perhaps, most of all, it’s that neither Robert E. Lee nor Stonewall Jackson nor Ulysses S. Grant were there. Whatever the reason, Chickamauga has been treated as a red-headed stepchild by many in the Civil War community, but it was one of the most tactically interesting and strategically significant actions of the Civil War.

Another example comes to mind. There was, perhaps, no more important or significant campaign of the war than the Petersburg Campaign. Filled with hard, intense fighting interspersed among long periods of seeming inactivity, it was the Petersburg Campaign that ultimately broke the back of the Confederacy and finally hastened the end of the Civil War in the Eastern Theater. It involved both Lee and Grant, and the armies that seem to spark the most interest, the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. However, other than Noah Andre Trudeau’s book The Last Citadel, I am unaware of there being any other comprehensive study of the campaign. given that this campaign lasted eight months, I find that remarkable.

Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the obscure. The more obscure, the better. Things like Pickett’s Charge hold less than no interest to me. I couldn’t possibly care less about Pickett’s Charge, and if I never heard of it again, I wouldn’t be terribly disappointed. Although Gettysburg has traditionally been my first love, I’ve reached the point where I find the Battle of Chancellorsville more interesting. I’m much more interested in obscure actions such as the Wilson-Kautz Raid, or Sheridan’s Trevilian Raid, or Sterling Price’s 1864 Missouri Raid.

It seems to me that there ought to be a happy medium, and that there ought to be a way to level the playing field a bit and to ensure that some of these other actions also get the attention that they deserve. It’s long overdue, but I’m also not holding my breath. The book business is already hurting, and the odds of publishers taking chances on things that are worthy but which may not have the commercial appeal of a Gettysburg book instead of yet another ridiculous and fictional version of Lee’s “real” plan for the Battle of Gettysburg are, sadly, not good.

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Comments

  1. Dave Kelly
    Sun 26th Mar 2006 at 10:51 am

    I think maybe it’s time to see a shrink about this phobia…. You seem to keep revisiting Gettysburg with these love hate maunderings. Is there some angst that just maybe you’re wrong and your gonna go to hell ’cause you don’t believe in Gettysburg? Have you no shame that you don’t realize that six Civil War pixies drop stone cold dead every time you sanctimoniously proclaim you don’t believe in Gettysburg?? Don’t you realize that the Civil War fairie is gonna stop putting Mort Kunstler prints under the pillows of good little boys and girls because Eric Wittenberg can’t find it in his heart of hearts to come to Gee Whiz and embrace the true religion of Gettysburg??? (pant, pant, pant. ) ;)

    Petersburg IS extremely interesting (I live here: err, it’s not interesting because I live here. I decided to live here because of the campaign). Unfortunately its a long campaign, and hard to embrace in detail. And you can’t come down here and see much. (Fort Sedgwick – Fort Hell – is under the parking lot of a long defunct KMart. Folks get real impressed when you point that out to them.) There are opportunities for some dramatic writing in this campaign. It usually doesn’t have ‘southern” appeal because it is palsied with eventual defeat. But Petersburg is where AP Hill and the third Corps came of age and did their best service. There is a remarkable tension to the Campaign. The illusion of Federal overwhelming superiority persists in the minds of observers. In fact, the military forces of both combatants were attenuated and each move and counter was done fretfully, fearing a counterstroke that could unravel the whole situation.

    As you have previously noted, sometimes with surprise, good books sell. Can’t help ya with the fatal attraction to Disneyburg. It’s locked in concrete, and even the most ardent historical advocate for a larger view of the war is tempted to suck at the cash tit. (Consider Stephen Sears book).

    (And I still need to get to Disneyburg and spend some time admiring the tree chopping. Some of the wild eyed evangelicals tell me we’re gonna have to rewrite all the histories now ’cause the Virgin can be seen in the open spaces – hallelujah.)

  2. Sun 26th Mar 2006 at 12:27 pm

    I’m intrigued by Tom Desjardins argument that Gettysburg became promient after the war because it was the easiest battlefield for northeastern veterans to get to for visits. After that, every generation learned from the previous one that Gettysburg was important, and on it goes. I’m not enough of a Gettysburg expert to argue that he’s right, but like I wrote, it’s an interesting tack to consider. Maybe there are so many Gettysburg books because there have been so many Gettysburg books. Maybe people go to Gettysburg because people traditionally go to Gettysburg, and not, say, Perryville.

    Certainly publishers still think that way. Gary Gallagher wrote his essay “Has the Gettysburg Theme Been Exhausted?” (pretty much, he said) after a publisher approached him for yet another standard battle narrative. A lot of the literature is publisher driven.

    I’ve got to get ready for church, but here are two last thoughts. First, my nineteen-year-old son is not a Civil War buff, he reads about World War II. Well, I say that, but in truth, he reads about Normandy, largely due to “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers.” I teach methods classes, and those are the films my students routinely bring up as “best movies about history.” Is the Normandy Inavsion the Gettysburg of a new generation?

    Finally, as I’ve said on here before, what we absolutely need most in the field is a “Gordon Rhea treatment” of Petersburg.

    Excuse the incoherence,

    Ken

  3. Sun 26th Mar 2006 at 1:54 pm

    Dave,

    LOL. I hear you. Love-hate is definitely a good way to describe my feelings about the place. On one hand, I HAVE to go there a couple of times per year. I’m not sure I can explain why, but I feel the need to go there. On the other hand, I find the overwhelming obsession with the place appalling. As I have said before, and as you point out here, there WERE other battles.

    Eric

  4. Sun 26th Mar 2006 at 1:55 pm

    Ken,

    You’re absolutely correct about it being publisher driven. That Trudeau, Sears, and Woodward came out with narrative histories of the battle within twelve months of each other is proof positive of that fact.

    And the incoherence is no problem. I’ve certainly been incoherent here (probably more often than not), so I’m in no position to be offended by anyone else’s incoherence. :-)

    Eric

  5. Lee White
    Sun 26th Mar 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Well I am biased, but I agree 100% about Chickamauga. I think the larger problem is that it is considered by many to be so confusing, so many events going on at the same time, not like most battles where you have an even flow to them.

  6. Sun 26th Mar 2006 at 10:49 pm

    Lee,

    You are, undoubtedly, correct. It is definitely one of the more confusing battles I have ever studied. But, good books in this series will go a long way toward helping to eliminate some of that confusion. Or so I hope.

    Eric

  7. Charles Bowery
    Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 8:12 am

    Eric,
    To your comments about Petersburg, I say Hallelujah. I find it the war’s most interesting campaign for its strategic significance, personalities, political-military interplay, diversity (joint ops, siegecraft, battles of maneuver, cavalry, logistics), and fertile ground for memory studies. I am aware of an ongoing project to document memories of the Battle of the Crater, and I think A. Wilson Greene (historian at Pamplin) is working on a multi-volume history of the campaign. I can’t think of a better person to do that. A monograph on City Point and the Union logistics machine would be excellent as well.

    I’m a native of New Kent County, very close by to Petersburg, so I may be biased, but for my money Petersburg has the most potential for future scholarship of any major Civil War campaign. Maybe the fact of its occurring at the end of the war, and the resulting feeling of inevitability that surrounds it (justified or not!), have also prevented more work on it.
    Charles

  8. Paul Taylor
    Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 8:25 am

    All,

    “Richmond Redeemed: The Siege of Petersburg” (1981) by Dr. Richard Sommers and Peter Cozzens’ “This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga” (1992) appear to have garnered critical praise over the years. I own both, but have not read either — yet — but after the laying of hands on each and then applying the Wittenberg test, they appear to pass initial muster.

    Thoughts by anyone on these two titles?

    Paul

  9. Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 9:37 am

    Charles,

    I agree that Will Greene is the right guy to do such a study, and I can only hope that you’re correct.

    Eric

  10. Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 9:39 am

    Paul,

    They clearly pass the test, no doubt.

    Dr. Sommers’ book covers only a portion of the campaign–mostly the late summer and fall of 1864. To be honest, it’s one of the few books I’ve never finished, because I just couldn’t. Too dry.

    Pete Cozzens is a terrific writer, and his book on Chickamauga is the best published to date.

    Eric

  11. Dave Kelly
    Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 9:51 am

    Haven’t picked up Somers since reading it when published. It would mean more now than it did then as I’ve become more familiar with the campaign. It’s very dry, but detailed.

    Cozzens is excellent, though his chapter compartmentalizations get a little flighty at times. Need an atlas handy with larger operational maps to keep track of where you’re going.

    The Virginia CW Battles and Leaders series has several good Petersburg Books. TJ Howe’s wasted Valor – June 15-18 is one o fthe full analyses of the first federal push on the city.

    Forgotten Valor, the rediscovered memoirs of Orlando Wilcox is a gem. His commentary and papers on Fort Stedman are a revelation. Bursts the Hartranft Myth.

  12. Charles Bowery
    Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 12:15 pm

    I concur with everyone above. Cozzens’s trilogy, covering Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga, is really great, if you like detailed tactical description and in-depth background on leaders. Mr. Cozzens also seems like a nice guy- I wrote a review on his Iuka/Corinth book on Amazon a long time ago, and he wrote me a personal note in reply.

    Not to say there isn’t quite a bit of material out there on Petersburg, but it will be nice to have an authoritative account a la Ed Bearss on Vicksburg.

  13. Dave Powell
    Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 1:16 pm

    Eric,

    Hello, I thought I would wander over and post on your site for the first time – and you provided the ideal seque, by bringing up Chickamauga.

    First, I drifted away from Gettysburg some years ago because I found most of the discussion about the battle had become redundant. I still read some of the better books that come out on the battle, but I do not study it in quite the same detail that I once did.

    But familairity breeds that detail. To a certain extent, publishers have to train their audiences. I don’t expect other battles to ever develop the following the Gettysburg holds, and the bookshelves will never groan under a similar weight, say, about Chickamauga, but there is still room for development.

    However, Chickamauga, in particular, is a very hard battle to get right. Cozzens book is a fine study, with lots of detail, but it is also somewhat confusing and there plenty of things about the battle not included. I know another author who was attempting a study of it, but gave up because of lack of time, the confusing nature of the fighting precluded easy description, etc. The more detail you go into at Chickamauga, the more confusing the battle becomes.

    I have a huge source collection on Chickamauga – possibly the largest concentration of published and unpublished sources describing the battle in one place – and my original intention was to tell the battle via an atlas of about 80 maps and supporting text. I still intend to do that, but the time it has taken to get the first day of the battle down has been far more than I expected when I started.

    So Bragg, Rosey, etc, all have limitations as draws for the reading audience, but the battle itself, IMO, is part of the problem.

    The good news is, if publishers and authors do build that audience, there is enough detail in Chickamauga to rival even the most hardcore Gettysburg minutia junkie’s addiction.:)

    When I was involved with a partner publishing wargames, we recognized that 2-3 topics dominated wargaming interest – Gettysburg was one of those. However, we viewed publishing games on those subjects as helping to subsidize some of the more obscure things we also wanted to publish. I suspect that book publishing shares many of the same problems – limited markets, small print runs and narrow margins. I think any good publisher needs a longer term strategy to survive, and that almost certainly, in the ACW world, means going to the Gettysburg well now and again – if only to draw enough water to help other topics grow:)

    Dave Powell

  14. Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 2:32 pm

    Dave,

    I’m glad to see that you weighed in on this topic. I had hoped that you might.

    For those not familiar with Dave Powell’s work, Dave has designed a number of wargames, and is a very gifted historian. Next to Jim Ogden, I can’t think of anyone who knows more about Chickamauga than Dave does.

    What you describe is precisely what we at Ironclad have done, and intend to continue doing. Sales of the Gettysburg stuff has funded our ability to publish the very good books on Ball’s Bluff and Averasboro that we have published, and it will provide the funding to publish your work on the cavalry at Chickamauga. As none of us are made of money (too bad, eh?), we don’t have a lot of other options available to us.

    Eric

  15. Eamon Honan
    Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 3:48 pm

    Eric,

    You said:

    “This means that there are only a relatively small percentage of books devoted to the other 10,000 or so battles and skirmishes that took place during the Civil War. This means that there are still plenty of fascinating actions that deserve a detailed treatment but have been completely overlooked by history for whatever reasons.”

    This is true…and I do find it a little odd (especially as an outsider) that so many ACW books are about Gettysburg, in much the same way that I find it odd that so many books on the Second World War are about the Normandy campaign.

    On the flip side, I would ask you to stop and pause a moment and appreciate the COLOSSAL amount of work that has been done on the Civil War, work that for me as a relative latecomer to the field is utterly intoxicating in its breadth, quantity and sheer quality of scholarship.

    I have a broad range of interests in military history, including the Eastern Front during the last war, Britain’s smaller colonial campaigns, the wars of French Indochina, the Falklands campaign, the Crimean war and the Risorgimento amongst others.

    I’m used to having a maybe a dozen books of real quality to choose from and often less, discovering the American Civil War scholarship was like having my mouth stuffed with sweets. It was almost too much.

    I have never come across a conflict for comprehensively researched, pored over and written about, including the last war.

    Not that you’re not right vis a vis the Gettysburg obsession, but be thankful for the smashing stuff that’s produced.

  16. Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Eamonn,

    Your point is, of course, well-taken, and it’s very easy to lose sight of these issues. Thanks for raising it.

    Those of us who are interested in this field are demanding, and that’s what triggered this rant in the first place.

    Eric

  17. ESRafuse
    Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 8:59 pm

    Glenn Robertson has been working on a study of Chickamauga for decades. In addition to leading staff rides of the campaign and battle every year for the Command and General Staff College, he has accumulated about 27,000 note cards worth of material on the battle. He also informs me that Larry Daniel is working on a study of Chickamauga. Will Greene’s contracted with UNC to do a two-volume study of Petersburg (to which I say good luck in getting it all in two volumes!)

    It is it a product of irrational obsession to say that Gettysburg is a cool and interesting (not to mention important) campaign to study, whether on the field or in an armchair? That’s why so much is published on the campaign and so many people visit the field–although the battlefield’s proximity to major population centers certainly helps. While I agree the battle receives disproportiate attention in Civil War literature, am I the only one who detects a whiff of snobbery in the complaints of the Gettysburg and Eastern Theater bashers? Yes, yes, we “know” the war was won in the West–as long as we ignore the fact that the killing of diehard Confederates that was a necessary precondition for Union victory occurred on a greater scale in the East and particularly at Gettysburg than anywhere else.

  18. Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 9:24 pm

    Ethan,

    I had heard that about Glenn Robertson. Any idea where he stands on it?

    As for your take on things, I agree. An interesting question to explore is the question of why things are as they are. That would make for an interesting study for someone some day.

    Eric

  19. Dave Kelly
    Tue 28th Mar 2006 at 1:41 pm

    “While I agree the battle receives disproportiate attention in Civil War literature, am I the only one who detects a whiff of snobbery in the complaints of the Gettysburg and Eastern Theater bashers?”

    Gosh, I thought that was the complaint of the “western campaign” folks?

    Of course, holistically, the Virginia meat grinder, and the breakthroughs in other departments were interdependent. Didn’t somebody complain that Gettysburg’s mythos was too “southern” dependent? The Lost Cause maunder that Gettysburg was supposed to be the place where we won the war; but “someone” was a traitor…

    It’s taken some time for us commoners to remove the blinders and understand that Vicksburg tipped the scales by freeing up the Army of the Tennessee to run amuck and throw its weight into the balance in central TN and on to Atlanta and the Carolinas. Maybe YOU know that the war was won in the west, maybe Steve Woodworth knows it; but I’m old enough to recall suggesting it 20 years ago and getting slapped around for it ;).

    (Hey, I moved back to Virginnie, just so I could drive to all them thar useless eastern battlefields….)

  20. ESRafuse
    Tue 28th Mar 2006 at 7:50 pm

    I don’t know if “snobbery” was the right word. But I do detect in the Gettysburg/Eastern Theater bashers a bit of the arthouse mentality that says that the virtue of anything (be it a book, movie, battle, or general) must be in inverse proportion to its popularity. It’s the sort of mentality that leads to true classics of American cinema like Wedding Crashers going unrecognized in favor of movies no one saw when Academy Awards are being handed out.

  21. Sat 01st Apr 2006 at 2:26 pm

    Eric, thank you for all your efforts here. I’m a newbie. (That’s fun to say at 51.) GB was my entry to the ACW. I still have the souvenirs from my first visit at age 10 in 1964, but I let professional studies and their reading requirements keep me from reading history.

    A weekend trip to GB last Sept. led me to dig out the Shelby Foote series my wife bought years ago. Most of the volumes were still in cellophane. My only other reading was Killer Angels.

    I am hooked. I need a hobby that requires reading and study like I need a Minie ball to the occiput, like my fellow Lancastrian. For the newbie, GB is fascinating and for me, accessible. There is so much to digest for the beginner. It’s led me to begin Lincoln and the prelude. I’ve gone back to the founding and the debate on Federalism. My bookshelves are groaning.

    In my mind, EW’s lament is akin to the singer with new material being tired of requests for their first “hit”. For better or worse, those folks are the market, too. To mangle some more metaphor, it’s like throwing away your seed corn. GB is a great way for people to enter the community.

    The scholar must lead, and I imagine it can be frustrating, especially given the economics of publishing. I’m reading as fast as I can :)

    Thanks again,
    Don

  22. Sat 01st Apr 2006 at 11:11 pm

    Don,

    I really appreciate your insight here-it helps me to focus on where you’re coming from.

    I think that you’re probably right in your analogy…I’ve heard Bruce Springsteen talk about how many thousands of times he’s sung “Born to Run”, but that he knows it’s what the folks who buy the tickets to his concerts want to hear.

    Eric

  23. Art Bergeron
    Thu 20th Apr 2006 at 2:00 pm

    Eric,

    I agree that the Petersburg Campaign (and it was a campaign, not a “siege”) has not been covered adequately. Andy Trudeau’s book was a start, and there are a couple of good books on individuals battles during the campaign (Sommers’ being the best). The “definitive” history has yet to be written. Will Greene has finished a book on the town during the war, but I doubt that he will venture into a full campaign study. Tackling such a huge project probably scares off most historians.

    Your point about other battles and campaigns needing better coverage is also correct. Maybe we don’t need 50 books on Palmetto Ranch, but we need a new study of the Red River Campaign.

    Art

  24. Thu 20th Apr 2006 at 11:13 pm

    Art,

    Welcome. I’m glad to have you aboard.

    For those unfamiliar with Art’s work, he was the staff historian at Pamplin Park for a number of years, before he accepted a position at USAMHI in Carlisle. If anybody would know what’s going on with Petersburg scholarship, it would be Art.

    Thanks for the input and the update.

    Eric

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