An Excellent Primer?: Writing the Civil War

by Brett Schulte on April 11, 2008 · 0 comments

While browsing through the Civil War book offerings on eBay last week, I ran across (and eventually purchased) Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand edited by James McPherson and William J. Cooper, Jr. The inside cover flap has the following:

In Writing the Civil War, fourteen distinguished historians present a wide-ranging discussion of the vast effort to chronicle the conflict–an undertaking that began with the remembrances of Civil War veterans and has become an increasingly prolific field of scholarship.

Topics include military history (four essays), political concerns (three essays), a combination of political and societal concerns (one essay), economics and society (two essays), and race, gender, and slavery (two essays). In these essays, the authors cover the already existing literature on these subjects and identify gaps which have yet to be covered. Since the book was published in 1998, I’m sure some of these gaps have begun to close, but this looks to be a fascinating bibliographic treasure trove for amateur students of the war such as myself to bring themselves up to speed in some areas.

Has anyone else read this one? I hadn’t heard of it until now and I’m curious what others think.

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As a side note, I read with some amusement the following paragraph in the introduction, penned jointly by the editors:

In the area of tactics, numerous single-battle narratives and several accounts of soldier motivation and combat experience have offered fragmentary snapshots, but we lack a systematic analysis of Civil War tactics that integrates such factors as technology, terrain, weather, and leadership and traces tactical evolutions over the four years of conflict. Such a study would need to respond to the questions raised by Paddy Griffith’s dubious contention that the Civil War was the last Napoleonic conflict, in which rifled and repeating shoulder arms made no real difference, and that close-order assaults could have been more successful if only pressed home with greater determination.

Contrast this with Mark Grimsley’s recent words on Earl J. Hess’ new bookThe Rifle Musket in the Civil War:

Alternatively, the conflict can be seen as the last of the Napoleonic wars — indeed, as what Paddy Griffith suggestively called “a badly fought Napoleonic war.” In Battle Tactics of the Civil War (1989), Griffith argued that the rifled musket was at best an incremental improvement over the smoothbore musket, and that the linear tactics used in the war were therefore appropriate, not outmoded as the prevailing orthodoxy maintained. The key problem, he argued, was that Civil War units lacked the tactical sophistication to execute a Napoleonic assault successfully.

In so doing, Griffith took direct aim at Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson’s Attack and Die (1982), the best study to emphasize the transformational impact of the rifled musket. Initially Civil War military historians greeted his thesis with skepticism, partly because of his iconoclastic presentation and partly because of his limited evidence base. Over time, however, they have taken it with increasing seriousness, and Earl J. Hess’s forthcoming The Rifle Musket in the Civil War largely confirms Griffith’s thesis. In fact, Hess’s book is so well executed that upon publication it will become the standard work on the subject, and the Griffith thesis will become the new orthodoxy.

It doesn’t look quite so dubious now, eh? All joking aside, it is always interesting to me to see what was once held as gospel truth overturned after an especially well-written and researched book. I think this new Hess study is going to go to the very top of my reading pile once I can get my hands on it.


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