30 December 2005 by Published in: General musings 19 comments

I’m in the midst of writing my biography of Ulric Dahlgren. Beginning with Franz Sigel’s appointment to corps command in the Army of Virginia in June 1862, until Sigel was relieved of corps command in the Army of the Potomac in early 1863, Dahlgren served as on Sigel’s staff, and for much of that time, was Sigel’s acting chief of artillery. During October and November 1862, but especially during October, Dahlgren was particularly active, leading daring scouting missions, chasing Confederate guerrillas, and then commanding a bold dash into the town of Fredericksburg on November 9. Dahlgren particulalry distinguished himself during this period of time.

It’s an interesting period. Although there wasn’t much in the way of major fighting during this time frame, there was a lot of skirmishing, particularly cavalry skirmishing, in the Loudoun Valley. Some, in fact, have argued that this time frame truly marked the turning point for the Union cavalry and not the spring of 1863, as I have claimed in print. Stuart’s Second Ride Around McClellan occurred during this time. It’s also the period when Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s tenure as commander of the Army of the Potomac was under the heaviest scrutiny and when Abraham Lincoln became most dissatisfied with McClellan’s “slows,” as Lincoln put it. Consequently, McClellan was relieved of command on November 6, just before Dahlgren’s mad dash into Fredericksburg.

However, after a fair amount of searching, I have yet to find a detailed treatment of events (especially dealing with the tactical aspects that fall) during this period. I’ve even sent out e-mails to the discussion groups that I belong to, looking for input on books that address this period, all to little avail. That brings me to the point of this post.

Although there have been countless books written about major events, such as the Battle of Gettysburg–why in the world do we need yet another book on Pickett’s Charge, anyway–there are none on other, lengthy periods of the war where important events occurred. There are so many areas that have been done to death, and yet there are other significant areas where nothing at all has been written. The asymmetry of this can be stunning. I have tried very hard to choose topics that are off the beaten path–obscure things and events–instead of writing yet another useless account of Pickett’s Charge, or the invention of some bizarre theory in the hope of making my mark by coming up with something new on ground that’s already been plowed too damned many times. A careful review of my work will demonstrate this. When I have written about big battles like Gettysburg, I’ve selected small or obscure aspects of it. From my perspective, the more obscure the better.

Let me use one of my own books as an example. Sheridan’s second raid–and the resulting Battle of Trevilian Station–were important aspects of Grant’s Overland Campaign, but had not had any sort of a detailed treatment. There was PLENTY of excellent primary source material out there just waiting for somebody to tackle it, but it had never happened before I tackled it. I was able to cobble together a nearly 150,000 word treatment of this campaign that has been very well received, and has sold reasonably well.

Here’s another example. Until just a handful of years ago, there hadn’t been a good, modern, scholarly treatment of the Fredericksburg Campaign until two appeared in the space of one year–George Rable’s and Frank O’Reilly’s–that covered this campaign in the sort of detail it had been crying out for. The Petersburg Campaign really needs a detailed treatment–the entire campaign has never had one; only Andy Trudeau’s The Last Citadel covers the whole campaign, and that’s more of an overview than anything else. This campaign lasted 8 months, was really one of the most important phases of the war, but yet it’s been largely ignored by historians in spite of some brutal, bloody fighting. It really needs the sort of superb multi-volume treatment like the one that Gordon Rhea’s done on the previously overlooked Overland Campaign. I don’t understand why this hasn’t happened to date, but it clearly hasn’t.

Still others have gotten some attention, but cry out for a really thorough treatment. Two come to mind immediately. Until Ken Noe’s excellent Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle was published in 2001, the only detailed treatment that the Battle of Perryville had received was the God-awful and unreadable book by Kent Hafendorfer. Yet Perryville marked the high water mark of the Confederacy in the West. It needed a real treatment, and Ken finally gave it one. Or John Hunt Morgan’s Indiana and Ohio Raid of 1863, which also needs a solid tactical treatment based on real scholarship, and not on family oral history that cannot be corroborated.

Even though there have literally been tens of thousands of books published on the Civil War, there are still very large gaps in the historiography and there are still plenty of worthy topics that remain virgin, untouched territory. I would love to see someone beside me tackle some of these more obscure topics and a lot less speculation on Lee’s “true” plan at Gettysburg. Ultimately, we will all be richer for it.

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Comments

  1. Dave Kelly
    Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 9:47 am

    True. There are a lot of holes that could be plastered in CW history.

    After reading Dr John Marsalek’s treatment of Henry Halleck I did a book review bemoaning the lack of information provided on how the General in Chief function really operated during the war, and what Halleck’s strategic input was to ways and means managed by the War Department.

    Someone gave Marsalek my review and he emailed me a very courteous reply. Basically said he didn’t feel equipped to delve into the hard military research regarding staff function, and no one had ever really tackled that aspect of the war before so there wasn’t a neat pile of research data to exploit. The task was there to be done and he’d be glad to assist me in doing it. (Sigh. I live 112 miles from the National Archive. All I need to do is win a lotto so I can live there and crunch records for 6-8 years. :) ).

    There isn’t a decent military bio of Edwin Stanton. Nor of Lorenzo Thomas.

    The Army Quartermaster Department had a massive budget, leased or operated 10,000 ships and barges, ran two railroads, opened depots for goods all over the place. How were these functions staffed and how many people actually worked for the Qm Dept? How many line troops were diverted into service support? I’ve never seen any numbers.

    I dreamed that up in two minutes out of my pet rock bag. Mind boggles at the topic list of books publishers don’t want ;).

  2. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 10:37 am

    Dave,

    Precisely. Jeff Wert, who’s one of my favorite writers, proposed a comprehensive new bio of George Meade to his publisher, and they blew out the idea, claiming that it was too boring and that nobody would want to buy it. Can you imagine?

    Meade certainly needs a modern treatment, big time. Since his publisher rejected it, not surprisingly, Jeff moved on and is doing a bio of Jeb Stuart instead.

    Eric

  3. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 10:48 am

    Eric,

    I’m glad you mentioned Petersburg. No books exist that cover the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, First Hatcher’s Run (Boydton Plank Road), and second Hatcher’s Run. Of the books that do exist, most are from H.E. Howard’s Battles & Leaders series and they are not what I’d call even close to definitive. I know Gordon Rhea is working on a book covering the first part of the Petersburg Campaign (I’m kind of hoping it will cover the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road as well, but I suspect it might just be the Battle of Petersburg proper from June 15-18, 1864. Bryce Suderow is also working on a book covering both Battles of Deep Bottom. However, a LOT of work still needs to be done. Petersburg to me is the single greatest virtually unexplored major action in the Civil War. Here’s hoping some publishers (and writers of course) take note and do something to rectify the situation.

    Brett S.

  4. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 11:45 am

    Eric:

    Synergy facinates me. When I started doing Appalachian Civil War history back in the mid-eighties, I was convinced I was alone in a lonely field, that is until I encountered folks like John Inscoe, Martin Crawford and Ralph Mann who were asking the same questions and reaching the same conclusions. By the same token, I’ve been telling people all year–most recently one of my grad students earlier this month–that Petersburg needs and deserves “the Gordon Rhea treatment, ” sentments that Brett, Kevin Levin over on his blog, and you happily endorse. Please allow me to add to the web-based groundswell.

    The Trans-Mississippi of course is another field begging for serious scholarship, although I suppose that’s akin to asserting that the sun rose this morning. Excellent recent articles on “North and South” certainly have whetted my interest and pointed out how much we need full treatments of the Red River Campaign battles. Perhaps the N&S authors will follow through. And we also need new biographies of Meade as well as D. H. Hill and Rosecrans, among others. I’ve kicked around the Hill idea for a decade off and on, but I’m knee deep in another project now and at least a couple of years away from starting anything new. I expect someone to take advantage of my sloth eventually.

    Oh, Happy New Year and thanks for the plug ;-)

    Ken

  5. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 12:36 pm

    Brett and Ken,

    Having talked to Gordon about this, I know for a fact that he goes no further than Beauregard’s initial defense at Petersburg and ends there. Gordon’s reached his “enough already” point and wants to try his hand at the Great American Novel. If anybody can do it, it’s Gordon.

    Ken, I agree about the Trans-Mississippi. Having visited what remains of the Westport and Big Blue battlefields in March of this year, I got interested in Price’s Raid, and and it really needs a good scholarly treatment. And Ken, I agree with you about D. H. Hill. I bought the Bridges book and was stunned to find out that it pretty ends with Hill’s departure from the ANV. One of my collaboration projects in the March 8-10, 1865 Battle of Wyse’s Fork, where Hill played an important role, so I bought Bridges’ book to see what help it might be, and it was no help at all.

    Thomas, Meade, Rosecrans, Sedgwick, Pleasonton, and Stoneman are just some of the Union general officers who come to mind as people who could really use modern biographical treatments. On the Confederate side, there’s Bragg, Wheeler, Kirby-Smith, A. P. Hill, and others. So, there’s plenty of room there.

    And you’re welcome, Ken. Keep up the very good work.

    Eric

  6. Paul Taylor
    Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 1:06 pm

    Eric,

    Amen to the notion that we do not need any more treatises on the battle of Gettysburg in general or Pickett’s Charge in particular! Unfortunately Eric, when we research and write about the overlooked or obscure, it’s primarily for ourselves and similar like-minded folks. The big New York City publishers are only interested in the great mass of casual readers who, apparently, cannot get enough of the Gettysburg story or Lincoln bios. (i.e., Dave Kelly’s comment about Jeff Wert proposing a bio of Meade that gets rejected as “too boring”) Thus we see fairly recent offerings from well-known authors like Trudeau and Sears that cover for the umpteenth time those three days in July. I can only imagine what hastily prepared regurgitations we’ll see in five to eight years when the war’s 150th anniversary occurs.

    I would dare guess that most readers of this blog who have authored Civil War books subscribe to the notion that there are ample “virgin” topics out there worth writing about. I t’s part of the artistic spirit to not repeat that which has come before you and to “keep it fresh.” I know I strive for that with my writing projects and it also stretches into the books I buy. One of my own book collecting interests are battle or campaign books which do not cover the tried and true. My rule of thumb is the more obscure the battle, the better, which is why your forthcoming book on the battle of Monroe Crossroads is one I eagerly await. An obscure fight, heretofore not covered, authored and published by respected entities. Conversely, I do not own Sears’ latest book on Gettysburg. I think it’s a very well done work and I believe Sears to be a first-rate historian, bit I simply do not need to squeeze another tome on that battle into my already overflowing bookshelves! Hey, maybe I need to move! :-)

    Paul Taylor

  7. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 1:35 pm

    Ken,
    We seem to share similar interests. Have you heard any advance buzz about:

    “Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia”
    by Brian D. McKnight (University Press of Kentucky) March 2006?

    Drew

  8. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 1:41 pm

    Paul,

    “One of my own book collecting interests are battle or campaign books which do not cover the tried and true. My rule of thumb is the more obscure the battle, the better”

    This is also my primary collecting interest. In addition to other things, I buy all the book-length studies of Trans-miss. battles and skirmishes that I can find. One of my favorite “unknowns” is a wonderfully comprehensive look at the Battle of Whitney’s Lane in Ark.

    Drew

  9. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 2:43 pm

    Paul,

    As someone who has never found Pickett’s Charge interesting to begin with, the number of pages devoted to it astounds me.

    I’ve said this before–the more obscure, the better. That’s why I choose things to write about that interest me. I got interested in Monroe’s Crossroads from visiting the place and realizing that there was no interpretation to speak of. That’s how I typically choose my topics.

    Eric

  10. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 5:18 pm

    Eric,

    I went back and reread our CWDG discussion on Petersburg from earlier this year, and in addition to what you said about Gordon Rhea, you also mentioned a hard drive crash for Bryce Suderow. I had forgotten about that and was disappointed (again) when I read it. Kevin Levin mentions on his blog that A. Wilson Greene is starting the “Gordon Rhea” treatment on Petersburg. That’s exciting news, to say the least. I’m encouraged by what Ken has to say on the subject as well. Maybe people are finally starting to see the light…

    Brett S.

  11. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 5:36 pm

    Brett,

    Indeed. Let’s hope so.

    Eric

  12. Sat 31st Dec 2005 at 7:57 pm

    Drew:

    I’ve known Brian McKnight for many years, and I read his book in manuscript a few months ago. It’s an excellent piece of scholarship, one I was happy to endorse and “blurb.” I think you’ll like it a lot.

    Ken

  13. Charles Bowery
    Sun 01st Jan 2006 at 7:56 am

    Eric,
    Great comments. All true Civil Warriors share your frustration on the big publishers’ attraction to a few staple stories. I believe that Will Greene is absolutely the best guy to give Petersburg the comprehensive treatment it deserves. No other Civil War campaign features the scope and diversity of Petersburg, so his product will be exciting.

    I also wanted compliment you on your Trevilian Station book. One of my Civil War highlights for 2005 was using it for a day-long driving tour of the summer 1864 cavalry actions. I was born and raised fifteen minutes drive from the Samaria Church battlefield, but this was an aspect of the war that I had not investigated.

    Happy New Year and best of luck on your new projects.
    Charles Bowery

  14. Sun 01st Jan 2006 at 10:50 am

    Charles,

    Thanks for your kind words–much obliged. I will eventually do a second edition of it–I’ve submitted it to a publisher for a new edition. I hope to hear soon.

    I agree that Will is the right guy. Let’s hope he gets it done soon.

    Eric

  15. Sun 01st Jan 2006 at 2:41 pm

    Ken,
    Thanks for the reply. Does he cover Humphrey Marshall’s operations in detail (if you can call them operations)?

    Drew

  16. Sun 01st Jan 2006 at 3:57 pm

    Drew:

    Yes he does.

    Ken

  17. Sun 01st Jan 2006 at 5:05 pm

    Thanks, Ken. Wonderful! Now I am looking forward to it even more.

    Drew

  18. Bryce A. Suderow
    Mon 13th Nov 2006 at 5:23 pm

    To remedy the lack of a good and detailed book on the Siege of Petersburg, I collected and transcribed a series of unpublished essays by Ed Bearss. The finished manuscript covered all but two of the battles during the siege.

    I submitted the manuscript to LSU Press. My plan was for them to look it over while I was supplying text on the 2 missing battles.

    I was quite shocked when they rejected one of Bearss’ finest pieces of writing. It was clear to me from my conversation with Rand Dotson, LSU’s new civil war editor, that he hadn’t even read most of the manuscript. The missing chapters played no role in his rejecting the manuscript.

    Rob Hodge, Bearss and I still plan to supply chapters on the 2 missing battles. Once I get them I’ll try to find a publisher.

    I am open to suggestions as to who might publish this fine book.

    Bryce A. Suderow
    streetstories@juno.com

  19. Tue 31st Aug 2010 at 9:38 pm

    I agree completely.

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