How Long, Lord . . .
. . . . how long, if ever, does it take for historical opinion on an aspect of the Civil War to change? This question is on my mind, given 1) my past pursuit of a balanced look at McClellan; 2) a pre-publication reading I am currently doing of the next volume in Russel Beatie’s Army of the Potomac series for Savas Beatie; and 3) some thinking I have been doing recently on Grant. What, I ask the readers of Civil Warriors, are the prospects of the combined effect of Joe Harsh’s Maryland Campaign work, Thomas Rowland’s historiographic study, my own book, and Beatie’s books actually changing the popular perception of McClellan as a timid idiot frustrating an ever-wise Lincoln to the point that future historians no longer fall back on this gross oversimplification of events? Or will we just be used as foils for a future generation of scholars to dismiss without really addressing the points we raised? Will the questions that have been raised in these works, and Brooks’s gem in the Farnsworth monograph series, Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Campaign, and the War in the East, 1861–1863, regarding Lincoln’s military wisdom make a dent on the Lincolnphilia (soon to be presented in the a rock opera Lincophenia) that characterizes the works of a Doris Kearns Goodwin, Richard Norton Smith, or Ken Burns, whose work and facility at getting face time on TV really shape, for lack of a better word, “middlebrow” America’s thinking on Lincoln? Or can we expect the image of Lincoln as military genius (and according to Goodwin a “sexy” one) and “master of men” to continue to dominate literature. If so, should those of us he disagree with this interpretation just give up now?
The turnabout in the reputation of James Longstreet over the last forty years, thanks to Michael Sharra, Bill Piston, and Ted Turner offers hope that such a change in opinion is possible. Indeed, Longstreet revisionism has become so deeply ingrained among Civil War enthusiasts that I often find it necessary to point out to audiences who embrace the (no longer) “revisionist” take on Longstreet that he did lose a battle to Ambrose Burnside. At the same time, I feel a bit guilty in throwing out so flip a comment, as I think (and I can hear the hair on Professor Harsh’s neck rise as I write this) William Marvel made a very good case in 1991 that Burnside has not been studied with sufficient sympathy by historians. All I know is that everytime I have walked military officers through the options Burnside had in December 1862 and the situation he faced, they have found it difficult to find a better course of action than the one he pursued at Fredericksburg. And one can’t but wonder what would have happened had Meade and Grant not denied him his plan to spearhead the assault at the Crater with Ferrero’s division. Perhaps if financing could somehow get secured for a movie . . . George Clooney as Little Mac! Mel Gibson as Burnside! . . . (Actually, considering his recent remarks concerning certain religious groups, Mel would probably be more comfortable playing Grant.) And, of course, Sam Elliott playing . . . Sam Elliott (whatever character we give him that is what he ends up doing anyway)!
Then there is the matter of Ulysses S. Grant. Almost every one of the veritable army of writers who have published works on Grant in the past decade has proclaimed their work is necessary to help rescue Grant from his image as a drunk and a butcher. Who on earth still holds this view? I mean, even before I was born Thomas Connelly had already proclaimed Grant the most rediscovered general in history! Some will no doubt point to William McFeely, but a cursory consideration of Civil War historiography since World War II reveals his to be a fairly lone voice—albeit a Pulitzer Prize winning one—of criticism of Hiram Ulysses’s generalship in an otherwise Grantophilic world. Will there come a time when we can heap scorn on any future author who justifies a study of General Grant by raising up the strawman of a “popular image” of Grant as a butcher and drunk, on the grounds that it is clear that while they may know of the Simpsons re-enactment of the Battle of Springfield, in which Barney was cast as Grant, they do not possess the familiarity with previous scholarship to be taken seriously? After McFeely, I can see the rationale for such a proclamation, but after the appearance of Perret’s, Smith’s, and Brooks’s books . . . come on! “A Victor and Not a Butcher”? If there anyone whose reponse is anything but “well, duh”, please let me know and I will gladly rethink my take on this matter (as well as advise them to go to Amazon.com, type in Brooks Simpson, and purchase everything that comes up)!