19 August 2007 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 15 comments

It’s been a long time since my last good rant. However, after scooping something close to ten pounds of dog poop in the back yard, I’ve got a good one coming.

The Battle of Monocacy, fought July 9, 1864, has long fascinated me. I first visited the battlefield in April 1992, not long after the National Park Service acquired the land. At that time, other than the monuments that were placed on the battlefield by the veterans, there was no interpretation whatsoever, and no visitor’s center. We were left to try to figure it out on our own. It was very difficult to do, and knowing almost nothing about the battle, I failed pretty miserably. All I could do was to try to get a feel for the terrain and then try to figure out the details later.

In those years, the park has come a long way. It has a brand new visitor center ably documented by Mannie Gentile. Nearly the entire main battlefield is preserved, save those portions destroyed by the construction of I-270, which cuts through a corner of the field. There is now good interpretation, and there are several terrific walking trails on the Worthington and Thomas farm properties. The park is an oasis in the middle of Frederick, Maryland’s terrible suburban sprawl. Within a few hundred yards of the new visitor center is a huge shopping mall. That’s how close we came to losing this gem of a battlefield.

The northern portion of the field, where Ohio militia stood and fought like veterans against Jubal Early’s veterans, is long gone to development. It’s tragic, but it happened.

As a consequence of the lack of interpretation on the field, I set about educating myself about the battle. I ended up writing an article on it that was published in America’s Civil War, my second ever published historical work. I’ve retained an interest in the battle and visit the field whenever I get an opportunity. A couple of years ago, J. D. and I decided to try to tackle our own interpretation of it.

Consequently, earlier this year, I became very concerned when I learned that a fellow named Marc Leepson was about to come out wiht a new book on the Battle of Monocacy. Leepson describes himself as “a journalist, historian and the author of six books”. While he teaches history at a local community college in Northern Virginia, the vast majority of his career has been spent as a journalist. The book on Monocacy is his first publication on the Civil War.

I bought the book today. The book states that the idea to write it came from Leepson’s agent. In other words, it’s a commercial venture. It wasn’t written because of a long-standing interest in the battle. It wasn’t written because of a fascination with Early’s invasion of Maryland. It was’t the product of a Civil War historian of long-standing credentials. Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m all for making money. Few truer statements have ever been made than what Dr. Ben Johnson said when he declared, “no man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. I don’t begrudge Mr. Leepson success with his book; I hope he makes a nice buck on it.

However, the fact that he is not a Civil War historian is abundantly clear from a glance at the bibliography to his book. He did no newspaper research at all. That means some wonderful sources such as The National Tribune, one of my very favorite sources, were completely overlooked. Published soldier letters, written at the time of the events and then published in the soldier’s hometown newspapers, are also some of my very favorite sources. Finally, conventional newspaper coverage can provide excellent material. Leepson did not touch the newspapers.

He also did almost no archival research. He looked at a few collections at the Virginia State Library and a few at the University of North Carolina, but that’s it. He did apparently ignored crucial repositories such as the United States Army Military History Institute, Duke University, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and others. As just one example, there were two Medals of Honor awarded for valor at Monocacy, and the author failed to examine the Medal of Honor files at the National Archives, which are a treasure trove of good primary source information. Instead, he relied upon a secondary source, which is just plain lazy.

The scope of the author’s survey of the published primary sources also did not impress me. As just one small example, an officer of the 10th Vermont Infantry named Lemuel A. Abbott published his diary and memoirs. The 10th Vermont suffered the highest casualties of any Union unit at Monocacy, but yet the author missed this book. Abbott’s book, by the way, is available in a relatively inexpensive reprint edition, which makes missing it even tougher to swallow. Again, you’re never going to get EVERY source–it’s impossible. However, there are some that shouldn’t be missed, and this is one of them.

The one I REALLY don’t get it how the author–who lives perhaps an hour away–did not even visit the Historical Society of Frederick County, which is located in downtown Frederick. Given that the battle was fought just outside the town limits of the city of Frederick, I can’t begin to imagine how the author missed the collections there, if for no other reason to see whether there were useful civilian accounts in the collection. But he did.

I also didn’t see a reference to Ed Bearss’s study of the battlefield that was published a couple of years ago. It’s available, and it’s less than $20. How could someone claim to be an authority on this battle and not have taken advantage of such an important source?

In short, the book seems relatively well-written, as I would expect of a journalist, with only three maps and a few illustrations. How a battle book can only include three maps is a mystery to me. I find the scope and depth of the research profoundly disappointing. Consequently, the door remains wide open for J. D. and me to pursue our project on Monocacy, which will include the sort of tactical detail and detailed tour guide that we’re known for.

Again, I’m all for writing as a commercial venture. However, it REALLY galls me when someone writes a book like this as a money making venture, lands it with a big commercial publisher (and probably with a nice advance), and turns out something eminently forgettable, as this book is. It bothers me a great deal to see books that don’t deserve it getting promoted and play with the big book chains when they simply don’t deserve it. What’s wrong with this picture?

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Sean Dail
    Sun 19th Aug 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Eric,

    Actually, Leepson does acknowledge Ed Bearss’ study on page 245, and he lists it in his bibliography on page 287. But I certainly agree with the sentiment that this book is a disappointment.

    However, I will give Leepson credit in that he acknowledges that the book is primarily intended for the general reader – and he acknowledges Cooling, Worthington, and Bearss in the introduction to his notes as the “road maps” he used to do his work. So I guess if we want to feel better about things, we can hope that this book will do for the badly-negelcted battle of Monacacy what Ken Burns did for the War itself – motivate the general public to learn more, perhaps from those more satisfactory books.

    Yes, I have been called an optimist many times… :)

  2. Sun 19th Aug 2007 at 9:35 pm

    Eric,

    First of all, we need to teach you to use the bathroom like normal people :)

    Secondly, Sean has a point about the book perhaps appealing to the general reader, and if it garners some publicity and PR for the battle and the battlefield, then it’s not so bad. But I heartily agree, as you know, that the shallow research (no newspapers, collections, etc) featured in so many books lately is becoming irritating.

    Then again, as you point out, it leaves the door open for our study – and also provides a ready-made comparison for when we get ours out.

    Hey, and I’ve never been called an optimist…

    J.D.

  3. David
    Mon 20th Aug 2007 at 6:41 am

    Eric and JD: Exactly when do you plan to write your book? I thought you already had your hands full with the retreat from Gettysburg, in addition to the multi-volume work on cavalry at Gettysburg, and … who knows what else?! :-)

  4. Mon 20th Aug 2007 at 10:56 am

    Eric:

    I know you don’t feel this book is up to your par, but would recommend it as a book for someone just getting started?

    Chris

  5. Lanny Thomas Tanton
    Mon 20th Aug 2007 at 12:00 pm

    Dear Eric,

    Sorry to hear about this book. You are right. It doesn’t make sense. However, if life was fair, Elvis would still be alive and all his impersonators would be dead.

    Best wishes always,
    Lanny

  6. Rob Wick
    Mon 20th Aug 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Eric,

    Again you’ve hit the nail on the head. The same thing that bothers you about Leepson’s book is what bothered me about James Swanson’s “Manhunt”. Ed Steers and Mike Kauffman are two fine historians who have written what are now the standards in the field of Lincoln’s assassination, but at BN we have just one copy of each (and we have Mike’s book because of my insistence that we carry it) and about 10 copies of Swanson, which is just wrong no matter how you slice it. While I obviously have no problem selling any book (it’s what pays my salary) I do have a problem when people equate the number of copies on the shelf with the quality of the work. Good rant!

    Best
    Rob

  7. Mon 20th Aug 2007 at 10:44 pm

    “Eric and JD: Exactly when do you plan to write your book? I thought you already had your hands full with the retreat from Gettysburg, in addition to the multi-volume work on cavalry at Gettysburg, and … who knows what else?!”

    David,

    Truth be told, we both actually have our basements full of trolls who do our writing for us. They’re good and cheap – they write 23 hours a day in the dark and eat nothing but oatmeal (with just a little honey). Everything’s fine so long as we keep the basement door locked.

    Did I remember to do that last time I was down there?

    Gotta run… the wife’s screaming something about seeing a figure about 3 feet tall, running across the living room floor, screaming something about “Sheridan… Farnsworth… Pleasonton…. I can’t TAKE it anymore!!!”

    Must be time to ease up on the honey again…

    J.D.

  8. Charles Bowery
    Tue 21st Aug 2007 at 11:00 am

    Eric,
    Did Lemuel Abbot serve at Petersburg at all? Ethan Rafuse and I are working on an Army War College Guide to the Petersburg Campaign, and I’ve been looking for good Union company / field grade officer accounts. We are going to expand a little bit from the traditional OR focus in the AWC guides, and include some additional primary source material.

  9. Dave Jordan
    Tue 21st Aug 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Hi Eric!

    I couldn’t figure out any other way to email you, so I figured I would use this Leave a Comment feature.

    I’m the President, Program Director, and Newsletter Editor for the Kalamazoo Civil War Round Table. We are proudly celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. Today I received the CWRT of Milwaukee newsletter (we many of us editors send complimentary copies to each other) and I noticed that you are going to appear in Milwaukee on October 20th. Our Round Table meets on October 19th, and if you are driving to Milwaukee I was wondering if you would kindly stop by and present a program for us. Unfortunately, I was unable to come see you when you appeared in Ann Arbor a few years ago, but I hear it was great fun (unless one is a Sheridan fan. I’m not.). Anyway, if you would do your Stuart at Gettysburg program I imagine that quite a few people from Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, etc. would come over to see you. We’re about halfway between Columbus and Milwaukee, so it would be a good place to stop.

    Please let me know if you are willing and able to stop and see us so I can arrange our program schedule. Also, please let me know what you normally receive for expenses, honorarium, etc.

  10. Tue 21st Aug 2007 at 9:01 pm

    Charles,

    I haven’t bought the book yet, so I don’t know. We’re really just getting started with the research. I’ve just had my eye on it for a long time.

    Eric

  11. Tue 21st Aug 2007 at 9:02 pm

    Dave,

    You can e-mail me at eric at civilwarcavalry.com, and we can discuss it.

    Eric

  12. Fri 24th Aug 2007 at 10:43 pm

    Eric,

    Under no circumstances begin a post with a reference to ten pounds of dog poop.

    I think I speak for a vast silent majority on this.

    Uh, uh, no. I said “no”.

    Regarding dog poop, the answer is “NO”. Don’t make me come over there!

    Mannie

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