27 March 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 10 comments

Yesterday, Kevin Levin wrote:

While I understand Eric’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 one’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


  1. Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Eric, — Thanks for taking the time to respond as it does help me make sense of what may in fact be a “disconnect” between the two of us. As I thought about my post last night it also dawned on me that there is something aesthetic about taking on a detailed tactical study. On one level the ebb and flow of battle was no doubt chaotic and based on limited information, but from the perspective of a historian a certain amount of order can be gleaned in trying to explain how and why a battle/skirmish, etc. turned out.

  2. Dave Kelly
    Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 4:40 pm

    “When I think of Rio Hill I think of IHOP”. Bravo Kevin.

    Like, when I think of civil rights I think of Church’s fried chicken. (Prop mans disclaimer sign behind Kelly’s head, “He’s being sarcastic folks.)

    Glad to see the doink light came on in your response. Aesthetic is a very good word to choose.

    When two obsessive compulsives meet they can bridge the gap with something mutually beneficial; like washing each others hands.

    (I really like blogs.)

  3. Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 5:15 pm


    Fair enough. Like I said, it’s really an issue of how we approach our respective studies of the war.

    And I agree with Dave–“aesthetic” is a good word.


  4. Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 5:17 pm


    LOL. Good point.


  5. Eamon Honan
    Mon 27th Mar 2006 at 8:26 pm

    I’m just still trying to shake the image of two guys in ACW uniforms (I have no concrete mental image of Eric or Dave) fighting over a bathroom sink so that they can wash each others hands from my head.

    I think the guy in blue is winning.

  6. Wed 29th Mar 2006 at 12:34 pm

    In my case, I think my fascination with obscure or less-studied events arises out of my dissatisfaction with generalities. I also feel that one must understand many of these “obscure” events in order to more fully understand the larger picture. Let me give an example.

    Eric and I have just completed a book on Jeb Stuart’s ride to Gettysburg. You can see a description of it at http://www.savasbeatie.com/StuartRide.html. Stuart’s ride is a less-studied part of, of course, the over-exposed battle of Gettysburg. We all know the generalities about Stuart’s ride and its impact on the battle and campaign – “Stuart’s to blame,” “Had he been on the field on July 1 everything would have been different,” “He was joyriding and let Lee down,” etc. etc.

    No one until now have really done an exhaustive study of the ride and its impact, however – there have been articles, yes, and one book – Mark Nesbitt’s “Saber and Scapegoat” – but articles are rarely exhaustive and Mark’s book didn’t go into the depth, detail, or resources that an exhaustive scholarly study requires.

    Stuart’s ride is an “obscure” subject compared to everything else Gettysburg, and his clashes with Federals along the way – Fairfax Court House, Westminster, Hanover, Hunterstown – are even more obscure. However, to more fully understand Stuart’s impact on the battle, and go far beyond the “he was joyriding” and similar generalities, it takes an exhaustive study that analyses the how, where and why. Hence our book. And we found that primary material on the ride had hardly been scratched before, in spite of the many articles and several books that have attempted to explore the subject in varying detail.

    What’s the point? Well, along the way, Eric and I both found that we began to modify and qualify our individual and collective opinions along the way. What we intended the book to be when we began, is not how the final product ended up – we found that a deep study of the primary evidence, in all of its context, forced us to be more unbiased than we were when we went into the project. And the title – “Plenty of Blame to Go Around” – came by itself, it’s almost as if we simply couldn’t name the book anything else.

    But it’s the modifying of our outlook on the subject along the way that fascinated me, and made both of us mature in our opinions on Stuart’s ride, its impact, Jeb’s decisions, the political/social nature of the controversy that exploded afterwards, etc, and – in the end – made us more fully appreciate the battle of Gettysburg itself and the entire campaign. You simply can’t get that by studying July 1, 2, and 3 as if in a vacuum.


  7. Wed 29th Mar 2006 at 11:19 pm


    Well said. You’re absolutely correct about how this all came together. I can’t wait to see this one in print.


  8. Bruce Bronson
    Tue 04th Apr 2006 at 1:22 pm

    Having a personal interest in this skirmish, my great-grandfather who was in the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry(Co. “B”) was listed as amongst the missing as they trickled back to the Federal lines at Petersburg(thank god it wasn’t listed in the killed or wounded, although family history indicates he had been grazed by a ball) gives this engagement a deeper meaning. It was just a part of the continued effort to choke out the war efforts of the South, logistically, which ultimately lead to their demoralized demise.

  9. Carol Miller
    Fri 12th May 2006 at 8:37 am

    When will your book on Jeb Stuart at Gettysburg be coming out? I have always had an interest in Gen. Stuart and would be most interested in reading a more in depth study on the whole Gettysburg controversy.

  10. Fri 12th May 2006 at 4:16 pm

    The book is ready to go to the printer. We are waiting to find out whether it’s being picked by the History Book Club for a selection of the month–that determines the number of copies to be printed–and then it goes to the printer.


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