I have been working my way through General Grant and the Rewriting of History by Frank Varney, that was published by Savas Beatie this past July, and I have a problem: I am so annoyed by it I might not be able to finish. I wanted to like this book, but do not be surprised to find me writing multiple blog posts pointing out how bad it is.
Let me briefly describe what is good about the book, as I can get that out of the way in a quick paragraph. The premise of the book is good. Grant’s memoirs definitely have had an impact on the presentation of history. Memoirs, by their nature, are written from a subjective point of view and there have been authors who have too readily accepted and relied upon Grant’s version of events. So I like the idea of a book that critically examines what Grant wrote and challenges how others have used his memoirs. But a good concept only works if the execution is good and here Varney fails.
Varney may not have realized a problem facing writers of civil war history in the 21st century: there are some of us who are obsessed with the Civil War (see what the name of this blog stands for) and the Internet puts a lot of the source material at our finger tips. So when I see an interesting reference or quote and I am curious to know more, I check the citation and search online to read the source. This process first exposed problems with Varney’s book.
For example, on page 77, in the section about the battle of Iuka, appears the following:
Confederate general Dabeny Maury said in his after-action report, “Rosecrans struck us a heavy blow. Grant failed to cooperate, fortunately, and we got back to Tupelo considerably worsted.”88
I thought this was an interesting quotation, so I looked at footnote 88 which cited OR 17, pt.2, 103. The Official Records (ORs) are available freely online so I quickly looked up the citation here. What one finds is that part 2 of volume 17 contains correspondence not after action reports, and page 103 is Union correspondence from July 1862 and has nothing to do with Maury’s after action report. So the footnote pointed to the wrong page — is that a big deal? Maybe it was just a typo: Maury’s report appears at OR 17, pt.1, 136. Yet even after finding the right page, I discovered that the quoted statement isn’t actually in Maury’s report at all! So to recap, Varney wrote “Maury said in his after-action report” and then quotes something that is not in Maury’s after-action report and footnotes to something that is neither Maury’s after-action report nor the source of the quote. This has the facade of scholarship — an official looking footnote — that fools some people into thinking Varney has ‘built solid cases’ and ‘examined primary sources’, but it is actually sloppy and misleading work that I find disturbing from a history professor.
Because of the wonder of the Internet, we can search for the elusive Maury quote. It turns out to be from Maury’s memoirs, published in 1894. Oddly, while he uses the quote, Varney does not include Maury’s memoirs among his bibliographic sources though he does list an article Maury wrote in 1872. It is interesting to compare what Maury wrote over 30 years after the battle (“Rosecrans struck us a heavy blow” ) with what he wrote 10 years after the battle (“Rosecrantz had been beaten.“). It is also curious that Varney quotes Maury’s memoirs, which he tries to pass off as his after-action report, but doesn’t quote from the post war article, which is listed in his bibliography.
Here is another passage, from page 114 in the chapter on the battle of Corinth, that has really got under my skin:” Both Woodworth and Cozzens repeat an anecdote that Rosecrans told the chaplain of the 50th Illinois that the army was whipped, and issued a panicky order to burn the baggage train – a course from which the chaplain firmly dissuaded him in stern reprimanding tones. The only problem with that story is that neither Woodworth nor Cozzens gives any source for it, and the 50th Illinois was not part of Rosecrans’s command; it was in Bolivar with Hurlbut. Its action in the Corinth campaign would come during the fight at the Hatchie, not in Corinth. Why its baggage and its chaplain would have been in Corinth needs to be answered before the story can be accepted as fact – and some source should be given for it by these two fine historians.”
So first Varney attacks Cozzens and Woodworth by claiming they didn’t give a source for the anecdote, except that both do give a source. The source that both give is also freely available online here, so we aren’t talking about something obscure and hard to track down. With a little effort, Varney could have found the source himself rather than making false accusations against Cozzens and Woodworth.
If you ever wonder when it is a good time to take an extra moment to check your work and diligently cite sources, I recommend right after you have leveled false accusations against other writers. But Varney keeps digging a deeper hole for himself by declaring that “the 50th Illinois was not part of Rosecrans’s command; it was in Bolivar with Hurlbut”. Of course, after attacking Cozzens and Woodworth for allegedly not sourcing, Varney doesn’t source his own claim at all. Perhaps because there are no sources that validate what he wrote but there are multiple references to the 50th Illinois in the official records that put it at Corinth, in the battle. For example, one can read the after-action report by the regimental commander, it is also mentioned in the report of the brigade commander and the reports of General Davies, General McKean, and General MacArthur, and you can see it listed in the table of casualties at Corinth. Thus with a teeny effort at scholarship on the subject of his book (it took me just a couple minutes to collect those links), Varney might have realized himself that the 50th Illinois was at Corinth. But yet, without citing anything, he declared the regiment was not there.
I understand that errors happen in writing. I make them too. But it strains credibility to think this is just a typo, or a misplaced word or a few transposed letters. This is an emphatic statement that in actuality is a complete falsehood without any supporting citations right after he falsely attacks two other historians for allegedly not sourcing the anecdote they used.
I don’t feel these are isolated examples, but rather are symptomatic of Varney’s assault on the historic record. A successful writer of history needs to earn and hold the trust of the reader. Varney snares readers with a mask of scholarship, then abuses their trust with mangled history.