Air Date: 092608
Subject: Why Study the Battle of Fredericksburg?
Books: Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! & The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics
Guest: Professor George C. Rable
Summary: Civil War Author and Historian Professor George Rable discusses the reasons to study the Battle of Fredericksburg among other things.
Brett’s Summary: The interview with George Rable starts with Dr. Rable going into how he got started in the Civil War. His original focus was Reconstruction history, and he never thought he would get involved with Civil War military history. (Note: With the paucity of actual military history in Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, wags might say he still hasn’t.) He is encouraged by the recent resurgence in Reconstruction studies. He believes a wildly popular new book aimed at a wide general audience will come along sometime soon and further popularize the subject of Reconstruction.
Rable starts off the discussion of his book by giving a short history of the Fredericksburg Campaign. Rable calls the result a “false low for the Union and a false high for the Confederates.” Rable mentions Frank O’Reilly’s book on the Fredericksburg Campaign, which is more of a traditional military history of the campaign. He jokes about how he and O’Reilly joke about people needing to buy both of their books. It is true that they fill different niches. Gerry takes some time to mention that typically the academic world does not usually write typical campaign studies and in many cases disdains them. Rable explains that he is not a military historian, so he wanted to approach the campaign from a different angle, writing about those things which pertained to the battle but which were not military in nature. He was fascinated by a battle which occurred between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and how the tremendous casualties affected the home front. Rable was also fascinated by this being an extreme low point for the Federals. Gerry points out that the Battle of Fredericksburg seemed much more important to people at the time than it does to historians today.
At the start of the second portion of the interview, Gerry asks Rable to give his views on Burnside.Rable points out the tendency to caricature Burnside as an “amiable fool”. The author points out that Burnside was able to recognize his own shortcomings and realized that he wasn’t fit to command such a large number of men. Rable says people liked Burnside. He lacked many enemies. However, at the same time, he had no political allies, making him an easy target barring anything but complete victories. Gerry likes this to academic politics. Interestingly, Burnside wasn’t even willing to stick up for himself! Rable continues on, saying that Burnside had trouble making up his mind, but that once he made up his mind, he had trouble changing it. In the end, says Rable, Burnside “was ill-served by his subordinates”, and his initial plan was a good one. The failure to get pontoons to Fredericksburg in a timely manner allowed Lee time to dig in on the heights behind the town. Gerry points out that it is amazing one person in command of 150,000 could get anything done at all, given the logistical nightmare this entails.
Rable says repeatedly he is more concerned about what the common soldiers thought in the aftermath of the battle than the tactics of the battle, and he goes on to describe some of the common refrains he found in soldier diaries and letters. He says most “battle books” end when the battle ends, and that he devoted a third of his book to the aftermath of the battle. (Note: I guess Professor Rable hasn’t read Ken Noe’s book on Perryville.) The author goes on to mention the lack of the subject of religion in battle histories. I’m left wondering if tactical history should be included in books with a thesis focusing on the religious beliefs of the common soldier. Gerry notes Professor Rable’s professional approach in his chapters on death and wounds. Rable laments the lack of any studies on death during the Civil War of any real worth prior to Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering. The second section of the interview ends with Rable discussing the unusual situation of a battle fought literally within a town, and the suffering of the civilian population.
In the third segment, Gerry asks Dr. Rable about the growing tendency of authors of Civil War books to be non-professional historians. He wants to know why academic historians do not write about the Civil War. Dr. Rable disagrees, believing there are many academics writing on the Civil War. He does point out a bias against Civil War history in academic circles, believing only a small portion of that criticism is justified. He also points out prejudices against academia by some Civil War buffs. (Note: We see this pop up from time to time in the Civil War blogosphere.) Rable is “no great defender of academic history” and believes academics should try to write for a broader audience. Gerry is afraid some of his students may be turned away from history if he forces them to read too many “boring” academic-oriented books.
The hour ends with the two professors talking about another of Rable’s books, The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics, which obviously enough focuses on the Confederate aversion to politics. In the book, Rable argues that the lack of an opposition political party worked to Jefferson Davis’ advantage. The author isn’t sure a two party system would have strengthened the Confederacy at all, contrary to the beliefs of authors such as David Potter. He points to the democratic opposition of the summer of 1864 as an example of the two party system as a weakness rather than a strength.
As of late September 2008, Rable is working on a new book focusing on religion in the American Civil War. He is pleased there is a growing interest in the religious aspects of the conflict.
Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.
In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.
Check out more summaries of Civil War Talk Radio at TOCWOC.
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