Assessing Civil War magazines

by petruzj on November 29, 2005 · 10 comments

I’m delighted that Brett has begun comments on the content of various Civil War magazines – in my opinion, they don’t receive enough attention. I would like to talk about assessing these various publications and the criterion we use.

As many know, Civil War Times is the oldest continuously running (since 1962). CWT is owned by Primedia, which also has America’s Civil War. ACW has been around for about 15 years or so. We also have North&South and Blue&Gray magazines.

I’ve noticed Brett’s comment that CWT and ACW are of “lower quality” than the others, and I’d like to discuss that assertion. First, let me say that Brett’s opinion may be shared by many readers, and I certainly don’t fault him for that. Let me also disclose as well, at the risk of seeming biased, that I have written some material for both CWT and ACW. However, I believe that connection also gives me a bit of an angle from which to discuss changes in both CWT and ACW that I’ve seen over the past few years.

Those familiar with these four magazines (the major players in the field) will no doubt recognize that each fills a particular niche in the study and scholarship of the war. Blue&Gray is widely lauded and appreciated for its battlefield and site tours, usually with each issue devoted to a discussion of that topic by one or more of the leading historians on it. Articles are usually footnoted, and the accompanying photographs and maps are first class.

North&South, one of the newest periodicals, discusses a wide range of topics on the Civil War. Therein you’ll find pieces on battles, campaigns, personalities, politics, social issues, etc. Most articles are footnoted. Because there is a wide range of topics in each issue, usually every reader will find something of interest.

Civil War Times has long concentrated on social issues – personalities and politics, with a long history of articles on battles, campaigns, and ephemera by leading historians. America’s Civil War concentrates on battles and personalities. Neither magazine contains footnotes of its material.

Should footnotes be such a primary indicator of “quality” however? I agree that for that smaller percentage of historians, who themselves study one or more topics in deep detail, a list of sources is of immense assistance. I do often hear that magazines such as N&S and B&G are “better” than the others, but what exactly does that mean, and does it mean the same thing for all readers? I truly doubt the latter.

Besides footnotes, let’s look at other qualities that, in my opinion, need to be considered when discussing the relative quality of the magazines. The last several issues of N&S has contained pieces by authors whom I simply don’t recognize. Not that having the “up and comings” (I’m certainly one of them) writing isn’t good, but N&S has seemingly been publishing work by more unknowns lately than ever before. I have heard this same comment by many others.

On the other hand, ACW, under the stewardship of serious historian, author, and preservationist Mr. Dana Shoaf has made some radical changes in the few years he’s been editor. Last evening I went back to the January 2003 issue of ACW, wherein Shoaf states in his inaugural editorial that he intends to change directions with the publication, and he certainly has. Quite a number of nationally recognized historians have been writing for ACW lately. The maps are now done by Steven Stanley, Gettysburg resident cartographer and cartographer of those wonderful maps for the Civil War Preservation Trust. I personally know that other publications are immensely jealous of ACW for having Steve produce its maps. Each issue is richly illustrated with artwork by leading painters like Don Troiani.

Sure, I may sound like an ACW author who is touting “his” magazine with a certain amount of bias, but I’m trying to be objective here. I’ve been reading ACW a lot longer than I’ve been writing for it. And I have noticed the dramatic changes. As for the footnoting, the magazine can be easily contacted (electronically or by letter) for more information about its articles, authors, and source information for the pieces. I for one, for instance, have provided footnoted copies of my articles in several instances when readers have asked me for them.

All I ask is that when we make the general statement that one publication is “better” than another, or of “higher quality,” that we quantify that statement. We must first recognize that each magazine fills a particular niche. We then must look at the quality of authors contributing to the magazines, and the effort behind each topic – maps, illustrations, sidebars – that make up the complete story. In my opinion (and I maintain I would say this if I weren’t writing for any of them) magazines such as ACW have definitely raised the bar lately, and it’s due to both the people behind it, as well as demand by the public.

In summation, each magazine has its good points and its detractive features, certainly. Let’s face it, it’s a business and they’re competing with each other. The folks producing each magazine read those of the others, to see what each is up to lately. Readership is certainly a factor – ACW has something like 100,000 readers, whereas I believe N&S and B&G is about one-tenth of that. That must certainly be taken into account as well.

Footnotes aside, take an objective look at each one. Look at the quality of their content and authors. Consider maps and illustrations, and the implied effort behind each piece. Consider the direction, range, and appeal of each periodical. And if you want more information on a particular piece that isn’t sourced, you’re likely able to get more simply by contacting the magazine. By and large (and maybe this is verified by the readership numbers) most readers would like to have more content, with the ability to then get more source information, rather than having valuable pages taken up with footnotes. I may be wrong, but that may appeal to the majority.

Let’s hope they’re all around for a good long time. If you’ve dismissed magazines such as ACW or CWT, give them a look and decide for yourself. I think it’s terrific that Brett’s doing that here. Conversely, if a magazine like B&G has seemed too specialized for your tastes, you will likely find something in at least one or two issues each year that captures your interest. And continue to watch how each one reacts in the ever-increasing atmosphere of competition and battle for subscription dollars. In the end, it will make all of them better, and will benefit all of us.

J. David Petruzzi

*****

Check out Brett’s list of the Top 10 Civil War Blogs!

Read many Civil War Book Reviews here at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog!

Check out Beyond the Crater: The Petersburg Campaign Online for the latest on the Siege of Petersburg!


***

Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!

What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.

Want to read some interesting Civil War content from amateurs and pros alike? Check out the Top 10 Civil War Blogs and Top 10 Civil War Blogs: 11-20.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin M. Levin November 29, 2005 at 12:31 pm

I tend to agree with you regarding the quality of America’s Civil War and I don’t just say this as someone who recently had an article on the Crater accepted and slated for publication in May. That said, I do prefer North and South because of the broader range of topics and because it has attracted some very talented historians over the years. I am thinking in particular of Charles Dew, William Freehling, Mark Grimsley, John Coski, and Bruce Levine to name just a few. The magazine regularly includes article-length studies of recently released or soon-to-be released studies.

Reply

Drew Wagenhoffer November 29, 2005 at 1:06 pm

Although it remains my favorite magazine by leaps and bounds, that’s precisely what I don’t like about N&S–the mag’s rapidly increasing trend of including articles that (to the heavy cynic in me) are basically article-length advertisements by the author for the author’s current or upcoming book. I subscribe to magazines to read articles about subjects that just right for a highly-detailed article but are too narrow for a book-length study. That’s what I liked most about N&S in its early years.

Reply

Brett Schulte November 29, 2005 at 3:30 pm

JD,

I think you sum it up quite nicely in your last paragraph. To me, in general, N&S and B&G are more specialized magazines, for the people who take being Civil War buffs a little more seriously than your average person. The Primedia magazines are aimed more at the casual (for lack of a better term) Civil War buff and have higher readership as a result. With that said, I don’t dislike CWTI and ACW at all. In fact, I own a copy of every CWTI ever published and almost every ACW ever published, and I think they are both very good magazines. I agree that Mr. Shoaf has done a tremendous job with ACW. I’d say that most people reading this would be more likely to know about ACW and CWTI rather than B&G and N&S, for the reasons you mention.

In any case, JD’s message is valid for any Civil War magazine. Try them all yourself. Don’t just take my or JD’s word for it (or anyone else’s for that matter).

Brett S.

Reply

J.D. Petruzzi December 1, 2005 at 2:13 pm

Today I received my new issue of North&South. Specialized, as Brett says, to be sure… there’s an article on the 10 best occurrences of the war, the effort to oust Lincoln in ’64, etc. There is not, however, a single battle or campaign piece in the entire issue. Such has been the direction of N&S lately, I might add. If you’re looking for battle narratives, you won’t find much in this magazine – go to CWT or ACW. But it seems lately if you want to read debates about whether Grant was better than Lee, or if Sickles was a scoundrel, look to N&S.
I’ve been a long-time subscriber to N&S, but I must say I’m getting disappointed. I like to read the ‘Napsack’ feature, but beyond that, I’m reading VERY little of the magazine any more.

J.D. Petruzzi

Reply

Kevin M. Levin December 2, 2005 at 9:14 am

Just wanted to say that the reasons behind your dissapointment re: N@S are the same reasons for my approval. That said, I can do w/o the Letterman-style “Top 10” Civil War ________. In the end, the coverage of any one issue of N&S is overwhelmingly more sophisticated and broad compared with the other publications. Obviously, this is simply a reflection of my own interests.

Reply

J.D. Petruzzi December 2, 2005 at 3:23 pm

I understand, Kevin. I would take issue with the idea that N&S’s coverage is “overwhelmingly more broad and sophisticated,” however. After giving each a fair reading over the years, I don’t share that view. However, I’ve often heard the same comment. Referring back to my original blog, does much of this sentiment have to do with footnotes? Sometimes it seems as if footnotes automatically brand a piece as more “sophisticated.”

In my case, if you were to see the annotated manuscript copies of my articles, it would hope it’s not the case. My article on Pleasonton in the March 2005 issue of ACW was 90% completely new material, gathered over 20 years of studying him. I’ll unhumbly say that nothing like the subject of my July article on Buford’s cavalry at Gettysburg has ever approached it for its study of tactics and strategy. I’ve seen the same with many of the articles in ACW and CWT lately – the editors of each (Dana Shoaf of ACW in particular) have been bringing on board some of the best experts in their specialties. Nationally, many of these authors might not be household names, but as to their particular segments of a battle or campaign, they’re known in their circles as VERY serious historians.

On the opposite side of the coin, I’m beginning to recognize less and less of the authors in N&S. And as I’ve said regarding the content recently, I’ll take a good battle/campaign article over 10 articles about Sickles’ decisions or whether Grant was a drunk. Enough already. I appreciate that many folks do enjoy that kind of stuff – but if you want to compare “sophistication,” in my opinion Shoaf’s changing the tide in that respect.

J.D. Petruzzi

Reply

Kevin M. Levin December 2, 2005 at 4:41 pm

J.D. — Just wanted to make clear that I was not drawing any necessary connection between footnotes and “sophistication.” I am the first to admit that the quality of CWT and ACW has improved recently (I don’s say that simply because one of my articles was recently accepted in ACW). N&S tends to to include a wider range of subjects (mainly non-military) by some very talented historians. I admit that I learn much more about Civil War by studying topics that fall off the battlefield rather than obsessing about troop movements and other local topics to battles. Again that is simply a personal preference.

Reply

Brett Schulte December 2, 2005 at 5:34 pm

J.D.,

I guess I’m wondering why ACW and CWTI do not include endnotes. Is it a matter of money? Of space? Of time? Of interest? It would be interesting to see Mr. Shoaf’s comments on these questions.

I don’t think it is realistic to have interested readers apply to each author for their notes. It would be much simpler to have the notes published with the articles, as N&S and B&G do by default. Eric Wittenberg pointed out what he looks for in Civil War books on his blog, and one thing he finds almost indispensable is the presence of notes. I mention Eric because my views closely follow his in that regard, and this also applies to Civil War magazines in part, at least in my own view. I know you have extensive notes because you’ve offered to send them to anyone who asks, but how can readers be assured that this applies to ALL authors accepted into ACW and CWTI? I suspect that since Mr. Shoaf took over as editor, this has been the case at ACW. But I’d like to see this implemented in both magazines as a matter of course. Until that and other items improve, I don’t think most people will view CWTI and ACW on the same level as N&S, B&G, and Gettysburg magazines.

Brett S.

Reply

J.D. Petruzzi December 3, 2005 at 5:57 pm

What you both have said makes a great deal of sense. As I mentioned in a previous guest blog here, I also wish that CWT and ACW would print the footnotes – it would be an appreciated and helpful addition. I did discuss this with Mr. Shoaf one day, and I guess it’s been discussed by Primedia also. My guess is that they do not print them due to space. Actually, though (and Blue&Gray is an example) you could print them in teenie-weenie type and only take up perhaps one page for a whole issue.
It’s not, so far as I know, that notes be available. When submitting to ACW or CWT, they don’t have to be included with the submission – but it’s in the contract that the author be able to substantiate their research when called on to do so, and that all submissions be original, of course. I just happen to have provided annotated manuscripts to those who’ve asked, but I have no idea if any other authors do or have done the same.
Again, I agree with your last statement, Brett – as far as a certain segment, I’m sure they’ll see N&S, B&G and GM as superior due to the printing of the sources. Assessing them on content alone, however, I may not agree with that, but I wholly understand why some simply will feel that way.

J.D. Petruzzi

Reply

Brett Schulte December 3, 2005 at 6:15 pm

J.D.,

Thanks for those comments. I’ve always been curious about the footnote thing, and I like the fact that all authors are required to produce notes on demand. I like your idea of the B&G type endnotes. They’re tiny, but they’re still there for the reader to browse.

Brett S.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: