Plenty of Blame to Go Around – Pt 2
It would be impossible to narrate the ride without at least hinting at the answers to these questions, but the authors are so complete and even-handed in their approach that the case is never cut and dried. They devote three whole chapters to a fascinating account of the various arguments and counterarguments used to condemn or rehabilitate Stuart before finally offering a compelling assessment of their own. The book’s title — Plenty of Blame to Go Around — suggests the direction of their conclusions. It also indicates that the authors have chosen what John Keegan has termed the “accusatorial” approach to military history. Historians who employ this method, he writes, “implicitly put someone or something — a general or an army — in the dock, charge him or it with a crime — defeat if a friend, victory if an enemy — and marshal the evidence to show his or its responsibility.”
In his classic work, The Face of Battle, Keegan makes the case for a different, “inquisitorial” approach that “would allow the historian . . . to discuss battles not necessarily as conflicts for a decision, but as value-free events — for it is as events that they appear to many participants and to most non-combatant spectators — and if one began from their unpartisan stance one might well hit on a clearer view of what real significance it was that a battle held.” It sounds quite enlightened. Yet in much of his subsequent work, Keegan himself adheres to the “accusatorial” approach, which suggests both its value to the military historian and the difficulty of avoiding it. In any event, controversy drenches Stuart’s ride so thoroughly that to eschew the accusatorial approach would be to miss much of the operation’s significance.
What is needed, then (to adjust Keegan’s metaphor a bit), is something akin to an investigative commission, one that seeks to apportion responsibility but which does so judiciously. Wittenberg and Petruzzi know their subject so well, and are so sensitive to the complexities of waging a Civil War operation, that while unafraid to judge, they do so with an impressive degree of deliberation. And their eventual apportionment of “blame” is anything but a scattershot, plague-on-all-your-houses affair. It is measured, fair-minded, and insightful.
Plenty of Blame to Go Around is unabashedly traditional in its approach to military history. That is no bad thing. Certainly it is indispensable for military historians (whether professionals like myself or gifted amateurs like Wittenberg and Petruzzi) to integrate their chosen subject matter into general history, to avoid insularity, and to place themselves fully in conversation with other fields. But this involves a broadening of military history, not a dilution of it. We lose rather than gain if we lose sight of the field’s traditional concerns. Victorian ideas of manliness, to take a case at random, undoubtedly played a significant role in shaping Stuart’s ride. They enhanced or detracted from command relationships according to how well officers affirmed or impeached the masculinity of their peers. They affected combat motivation: soldiers fought in no small measure so as to preserve their reputation as a man among men. But the participants in Stuart’s ride did not consciously think in these terms, and to focus on such considerations to the exclusion of what they did think about — time-space calculations, the water level at crucial fords, the availability of food and forage, the maintenance of horses, the dangers of combat, the care of the wounded, the disposal of the dead — would be to distort an event one is supposedly trying to understand. Here, then, is Stuart’s ride as the troopers on both sides would recognize it, well researched, vividly written, and shrewdly argued. It is, in short, as good an account of the ride as we are likely to get.
Part 1 – Part 2