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