20 October 2005 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 11 comments

Time for a rant. This one has been brewing all day.

Here are a few random gripes, presented in no particular order. All of these are things that I hate about Civil War books.

1. Books that do not have bibliographies. See Tom Carhart. This permits authors to cut corners, big time. It also allows them to avoid being held accountable for the quality and quantity of their research.

2. Books that do not have maps. If you ever want to go nuts, try to read a history of a complex battle without any decent maps. Not including maps is corner cutting of the worst variety.

3. Books endorsed by people who obviously haven’t read them. One very prominent historian sent me a glowing endorsement for a dust jacket blurb for one of my projects without reading the manuscript. His comment was to the gist of I know your work, so I assume it’s going to be a great book, and I don’t need to read it as a result. It’s quite a compliment, but it meant that he was putting his imprimatur on the book sight unseen. What if I had written absolute, utter garbage? This particular fellow’s imprimatur lends instant credibility. This sort of thing is bad news, and it apparently goes on far more than any of us realize.

4. Books written to advocate a particular theory or position but which are not intellectually honest enough to tell the reader this up front. Stephen Sears is a prime example of what I mean here. Each of his books has a theme. Take his Chancellorsville book: Hooker was not as bad as has been portrayed, he did a good job of managing the battle, and it was someone else’s fault. The whole book is oriented around this. I don’t have a problem with people having opinions, and I also don’t have a bit of problem with authors stating them, even if it’s to advocate a position. Just be honest and tell me that’s what you’re doing.

5. Notes lumped together at the end of a paragraph that amalgamate six or seven sources, making it nearly impossible to figure out what came from where. Give me notes to each source, please.

6. Authors who quote themselves as the authority for things that they say. It reminds me of a legend that we heard in law school. The former dean of my law school supposedly quoted one of his own works as THE authority for a proposition of law that he was arguing before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Too many authors do that sort of thing. It’s lazy, and it cuts corners.

7. Books with lousy production values. White Mane is the primary example of what I mean here. They don’t edit, they don’t proofread, and there is almost no quality control. That permits the plagiarism of other people’s works. See my review of one of their recent books for an example of what I mean here.

8. Books that are based almost entirely on the repackaging and regurgitation of secondary sources. Again, this is intellectual dishonesty, because it means that the author has not done his or her homework and is piggybacking on the fruits of someone else’s labors. See my review of the book in the link indicated above for a good example of what I mean here.

There are, undoubtedly, more things to add to this list, but this is all I can think of at the moment. I will keep a list and add to this rant as I think of more things worth adding.

Scridb filter


  1. Fri 21st Oct 2005 at 1:09 pm

    I have to concur with Eric here. Books which fail in these ways are not works of serious history, for they don’t advance knowledge.

    For example, I love reading Shelby Foote, but he is often wrong. Unfortunately, when he makes a claim that you find interesting, you have to go somewhere else to find out whether it’s true or not because there are neither footnotes nor end notes.

    In reading books on Operation Market Garden of late, I have been driven to the point of madness with books which don’t include maps or have very few maps. Some also only have a single note per paragraph, making further research frustrating.

    During my short time in graduate school, I was frustrated by a number of professors who violated #6. I was working on a degree in international affairs and they apparently don’t have the historian’s apprehension about assigning their own books as required reading for their courses. When I asked about this, I was told that the professors in question were the ONLY sources on the knowledge, so it was not arrogance, but the only option available. I made sure that I waited until I was out of sight before rolling my eyes….

  2. Fri 21st Oct 2005 at 7:26 pm

    One of my favorites is when the author cites a source, which, upon examination, actually contradicts the point the author makes from supposed use of that source. Now that’s gall. I wish I could think of a specific example but it isn’t rare.

  3. Sat 22nd Oct 2005 at 12:53 am


    I’m with you, brother.


  4. Terry Walbert
    Sat 22nd Oct 2005 at 6:45 pm

    I agree with your list of things that bug you about Civil War books. One of my biggest peeves is when a writer simply repeats and never questions cliches. Examples include Longstreet was slow, McClellan was reluctant to fight, JEB Stuart violated orders and was late for the battle of Gettysburg, and the battle of Gettysburg started over shoes.

  5. Mon 24th Oct 2005 at 7:16 am


    How about CW books that do not have an index?? That one frustrates me to no end, though it seems to be more common with older titles than newer ones…

    Paul Taylor

  6. Mon 24th Oct 2005 at 8:27 am


    Good one. That one drives me nuts, too.


  7. Will Keene
    Wed 26th Oct 2005 at 12:15 pm

    “2. Books that do not have maps.”

    So I went to Borders last night to look at the new book on the Army of the Tennessee. Its hefty — 784 pages, $40. Total number of maps: 1.
    The single map appears at the front of the book and shows the southeastern US. What’s up with that?

    Anyway, great list Eric,

  8. Terry Walbert
    Wed 26th Oct 2005 at 7:49 pm

    Another pet peeve is endnotes. If God had wanted us to use endnotes, He wouldn’t have put footnotes in the Bible.

    Seriously though, footnotes make it easy for the reader to check a citation. I have a subconscious suspicion that endnotes are meant to discourage checking. And with modern word processing, footnotes are just as easy to set as endnotes.

  9. Wed 26th Oct 2005 at 10:03 pm


    That would cause me not to buy the book. Good heavens.


  10. Wed 26th Oct 2005 at 10:04 pm


    I agree. However, I have one exception to your rule. I’ve managed to talk Brassey’s into putting the notes at the end of chapters in the books we’ve done together, although one actually had footnotes. I can handle having them at the end of the chapter.


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