“All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many sneer at such thoughts. Certainly, most academic historians would not agree with this assessment, and I don’t either. In fact, the overwhelming majority of my work has been writing battle narrative, not writing biography.

As my regular readers know, I’ve been working on a special labor of love, a full-length biography of Ulric Dahlgren. Tonight, after nearly ninety days away from it as a result of our having to put one dog to sleep and then bringing a new puppy into the house, I finally got back to working on it. I finally got to finish up the tenth chapter of the book, which required only about two hours of work to complete, and the first draft of which is now finished.

This book is my first attempt at the solo writing of a full-length biography. For years, I’ve been working on a full-length biography of John Buford with a friend, so it’s a collaboration and not a solo project. It’s been a challenge putting meat on these bones, but in order to understand Ulric Dahlgren, and in particular, the fashion in which he met his demise, the context of his short but full and controversial life is critical. If you only look at the last few days of his life–and the controversy that has raged for 140+ years as a result–it’s not possible to place Dahlgren’s life in its proper context.

My objective with this project is to fully tell the story of this fascinating young man’s life, place it in its proper historic context, and then do a thorough analysis of his deeds and flaws, and speculate upon what might have been had he lived, which is always a risky thing to do.

I doubt that this will be the last biography project that I will tackle. I can think of a couple of others that I hope to do at some point, including a biography of Union cavalry General David McMurtrie Gregg, and Brig. Gen. Theodore J. Wint, who spent more than forty years in the Army and whose life is microcosm of the United States Army during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Both of these men deserve to have the stories of their lives told, as nobody has done so to date (although there’s a bad biography of David Gregg that was self-published by the author in the 1980’s).

At the same time, with yet another new biography of Ulysses S. Grant about to hit the market in a couple of weeks, it’s difficult to avoid the nagging question of whether there’s enough undiscovered material out there to justify the publication of yet another biography of a man whose already had dozens of biographical treatments of his life, some very good indeed, and some not very good at all. Is there anything out there that hasn’t already been turned up to justify continuing to churn out more biographies that add little to the body of knowledge?

I can only hope that, by choosing lesser known figures who nevertheless made an impact, I will actually add something useful to the body of knowledge and literature. I specifically hope that my Dahlgren biography–the only full-length treatment of his life yet attempted–will be considered to be a worthwhile project even if its commercial appeal will be limited.

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Comments

  1. Valerie Protopapas
    Fri 26th May 2006 at 9:32 am

    Biographies are one of the most difficult things to write even as opposed to historical events as those present underlying facts even if there are a hundred different ‘perspectives’ relative thereto.

    Biographies – even moreso than simply ‘histories’ – are subject to the ‘mental lens’ of everyone who had contact with and/or intimately knew the subject – including published documents from the subject him (or her) self. Let’s face it, very few people are objective about others, still less about themselves, so the biographer must muddle through a lot of material that is not only lacking in objectivity, but is frequently written as a means of validating (or excusing) the author as well as revealing (or obscuring) the subject. And even after all that is considered and dealt with, the biographer must then deal with his own feelings about the subject.

    Michael Kauffman in his book ‘American Brutus’, began his 30+ years of research prepared to be objective about John Wilkes Booth. Indeed, Kauffman stated in a Civil War Roundtable presentation, that he had difficulties making sense of Booth in the context of assassin given how apparently good and well loved he was by those around him earlier in his life. The Booth known by most people before April, 1865 didn’t seem to be the same man known by most people AFTER April, 1865. As his work continued, however, Kauffman learned much about Booth that put the lie to his benign character, finding instead a manipulative and murderous man obsessed with bringing down a prominent political figure.

    But Kauffman’s objectivity in his subject study is not always (or even often) the norm. Most biographers have a definite point of view referable to their subject and it is only the best among them who are willing to ignore their own prejudices when facts clearly indicate that they should do so. Insofar as Mr. Wittenberg is concerned, I am absolutely assured that any biography he undertakes will be objective even when that objectivity ‘hurts’.

    V. P.

  2. Fri 26th May 2006 at 12:05 pm

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Val. I try to go where the evidence leads me, but I have my biases, too. I have done my level best to be objective about Ully Dahlgren, and I can only hope I succeed.

    Eric

  3. Valerie Protopapas
    Fri 26th May 2006 at 3:45 pm

    Only machines have no viewpoint – except for my computer which, of course, hates me.

    The true test is being able to recognize what represents personal ‘bias’ as opposed to conclusions drawn from the evidence extant. Not everyone CAN do that and – even more to the point – not everyone WANTS to do that. I have no fear that you fall into neither of the two latter categories but rather, you are in the former. You will present your personal viewpoints as ‘fact’ only when the evidence sustains them. THAT is the mark of a good biographer.

    There’s nothing wrong with being prejudiced on the side the subject – it must be HELL to write about a subject one dislikes – but a good biographer will present him (or her) as did the man who painted Oliver Cromwell’s portrait – warts and all.

    V.P.

  4. Sam Elliott
    Sat 27th May 2006 at 7:51 am

    Eric, I’m interested in the comment about the attitude of academic historians toward biography. It is not the first one I’ve seen on one of these blogs. I know of several very fine academic historians who have done biography. What is the viewpoint of those who “look down” on bios? and, as a follow up, why?

  5. Sat 27th May 2006 at 5:20 pm

    Many have, not the least of whom is Bud Robertson. However, in this day and age of social history, biographies, and especially military biographies, seem to get short shrift. The attitude seems to be that, like military history, biography is the red headed step child of the historical discipline. I’ve heard that sort of thing too many times.

    Eric

  6. Valerie Protopapas
    Sun 28th May 2006 at 4:17 pm

    And yet, frankly, I can find nothing more interesting than the people involved in ANY historical event. I remember reading once that Sarah, First Duchess of Marlborough went to Switzerland on a trip and quickly grew bored to tears. The scenery was magnificent, but she found the people irrevocably dull and as the people were what she cared about, she couldn’t wait to get away.

    That’s the way I view history. Battles and diplomacy are interesting only insofar as they illumine what the PEOPLE were doing. If I find nothing worthy of interest in a person, then what he (or she) did is of little interest to me unless if directly or obliquely affects someone in whom I AM interested. And being interested in someone doesn’t necessarily mean that one LIKES that person. Some of the most interesting people in history are those one loves to hate. More has been written about Jack the Ripper than many a President or Prime Minister and certainly his name is better known!

    Take the most historically well known episode involving Ulrich Dahlgren, the so-called ‘Dahlgren raid’ which resulted in the young man’s death. How can one possibly understand it at all unless one knows something about Dahlgren? Were ‘higher-ups’ in the Federal Government involved? Some say yes, some no, but the matter might be better understood by knowing Dahlgren himself. For instance, if Dahlgren were the type of soul who would only obey orders from a respected superior – and I don’t mean Kilpatrick – then one must assume that there was an order ‘from above’ regarding not only the raid but what it was intended to accomplish. On the other hand, if he was a young man who would throw caution to the winds in a great enterprise, it might well be that the matter originated with Dahlgren and Kilpatrick while Lincoln and Stanton et al. were as innocent as Davis and Lee in the matter!

    How anyone can make judgments about historical events without knowing about or being interested in those who were involved? And, after all, isn’t that what biographies are all about; that is, getting to KNOW these people? For all of me, you can keep your endless repetition of facts and dates! Give me the PEOPLE and if they interest me, I’ll LEARN the facts and dates.

    V. P.

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