Yesterday, Kevin Levin wrote:
While I understand Ericâ€™s point I would like to hear more about the virtues of obscurity. What exactly is important about an obscure military event in the Civil War like the Wilson-Kautz Raid? I know people here in Charlottesville who can tell me close to every single detail about the small engagement at Rio Hill which led to the capture of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. When I hear the name Rio Hill I immediately think of the IHOP and an order of pancakes. Yes, I learn about new people, but it seems to me what I learn fails to reveal anything new about the soldiers – same stories and experiences in a different time and place. I sometimes want to ask why it is necessary to know this much detail. How does knowing more detail help me understand better? There is of course the element of local interest and a desire to know the history of oneâ€™s backyard, but that only sheds light on a small group. Is there a hope among people who write detailed battle studies of such events that the obscure will eventually become more familiar, and if so is this a worthwhile endeavor? Is this ultimately the same obsession that drives Gettysburg historians, but applied on virgin ground?
I will attempt to answer Kevin’s question. However, as an opening note, it should be pointed out that Kevin and I have fundamentally different interests in the war. From what I’ve divined, Kevin’s primary interest is with the social issues, with a special and definite focus on the issues of race relations. I, on the other hand, am interested in the tactics and strategy, and in dissecting those tactics and strategic decisions to see how they worked out in the field. The social issues don’t interest me much, and I leave those to others. So, with that analytic framework in mind, let’s proceed.
In this context, I think I may have unduly limited myself by using the word “obscure” to describe my interests, although I have an undying fascination with and love of those obscure places. I genuinely enjoy visiting obscure Civil War sites and figuring them out, perhaps more than anything else. Instead, I think that a better way to describe my interests and to describe what I find interesting is that which others have not written about in any detail. There are a variety of reasons for this. First, I’ve already stated my thoughts about things like “who really needs another book about Pickett’s Charge?” Instead, I prefer to look at things that others haven’t, as doing the research and figuring them out for myself is not only extremely challenging, it’s also extremely gratifying.
The reason why I like to pursue these actions is because there are lessons to be learned from the tactical and strategic analysis, even for those events that are obscure or smaller in scale. We at Ironclad recently published a book on the Battle of Averasboro. Averasboro fascinates me, even though the Confederate side numbered less than 10,000 men, because it was a textbook example of an almost perfectly designed and almost perfectly executed defense in depth. To me, that makes it fascinating and makes it worthy of study, even if it was a smaller battle that nobody would ever call a decisive battle.
As someone who is primarily interested in tactical study, the Wilson-Kautz Raid offers me a lot of interesting lessons. It demonstrates, for example, the consequences of trying to pursue a strategic vision that is too aggressive. By trying to do too much, it meant that Wilson’s and Kautz’s commands got chopped to bits, losing fully one-third of their men (mostly captured), all of their artillery, and all of their wagons. It also offers very interesting lessons in the dynamics of the consequences of what happens when one event is tied to another, and the underlying event does not work out the way it was hoped or planned (in this case, the event that did not work out the way it was planned was Sheridan’s utter failure to achieve his objectives for the Trevilian Raid, thereby freeing Wade Hampton to pounce on Wilson and Kautz with three full divisions and two independent brigades. That any of Wilson’s or Kautz’s units made it out intact at all is really remarkable). Those are the things that interest me, and those are the things that make this worthy of study in my mind.
While the Battle of Rio Hill suggests IHOP and pancakes to Kevin, to me, it serves as a prime example of a situation where a commander did a poor job of picketing his camp, got caught by surprise, and still managed to turn that situation around and make the best of a bad situation. Again, there are lessons to be learned from that, and those lessons are interesting to me, and which make that action worthy of study.
Obviously, these things are not of the scale of the Battle of Gettysburg. That much is clear, and I doubt even Kevin would dispute that. Just because they’re smaller or lesser known events doesn’t mean that there are not lessons to be learned from the study of them, and that, in turn, makes them worthy subjects for scholarly study.
Bottom line, Kevin: I think that our disconnect here arises as a result of the fundamentally different approach that we take to Civil War history.Scridb filter