Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Annoying Carelessness

Map of America On Eve of Civil War

One of the most common yet annoying habits of far too many scholars when engaged in doing a study of a particular aspect of something is to assume a cavalier attitude about the facts regarding other aspects of what they are studying as if it is of little importance.

An outstanding example of this is provided by the book Upon the Altar of the Nation,1. It is subtitled “A Moral history of the Civil War”. The Author decided to provide five maps indicating the major engagements of the years of the Civil war along with who won, who lost, indecisive battles, the total size of armies and military casualties during each year.2

How seriously can you take a book like this though when it is riddled with basic easy to correct errors concerning events during the Civil War? In the case of this book let us look at the maps and their presentation of who won, who lost and indecisive battles.

The map for 1861 contains one obvious error. The map lists the battle of Belmont as an indecisive battle it is more accurately characterized as a Union Victory. The map for 1861 only lists a total of 6 engagements. An annoying feature of the map is it lists one battle as Manassas without providing the Union name of Bull Run.

The map for 1862 as the following annoyances. It lists Antietam without giving the Confederate name of Sharpsburg. The map lists Mill Spring without referring to the Union Name of Logan’s Crossroads. Further it lists New Bern, Kernstown, Prairie Grove and Williamsburg, Iuka, Roanoke Island, Mill Spring as indecisive when they were Union victories. The map lists Chickasaw Bluffs, Cross Keys, Port Republic as indecisive when they were Confederate victories. The map lists Perryville as a Union victory when it was in fact indecisive. Out of 36 engagements the map manages to make 11 errors concerning outcome.

The map for 1863 manages to make the following errors. It lists Fredericksburg II and Salem church as separate battles when they were part of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Further it lists those two battles as indecisive. If they are counted as separate battles Salem Church was a Confederate victory and Fredericksburg II a Union victory. The map gives the Confederate name Murfreesboro II ignoring the Union name Stones River. The map lists Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Black River, Arkansas Post, Helena, Fort Sanders as indecisive when they were Union victories. The Map lists Fort Wagner, Winchester II as indecisive when they were Confederate victories. Out of 27 engagements the map manages to make 11 errors concerning outcome.

The map for 1864 manages to make the following errors. First amazingly enough it lists Wilderness or Spotsylvania, (the map doesn’t use the proper name of Spotsylvania Court House), as half Confederate, half Union victories. Why I have no idea, what is the problem with listing them as indecisive?. The map lists the following as indecisive, Mine Creek, Newtonia, Fisher Hill, Piedmont, Peachtree Creek, Ezra Church, Atlanta, Tupelo, Fort Stevens, Globe Tavern, Reams Station, Pleasant Hill, which were in fact Union victories. The following battles are listed as indecisive, Pebbles Farm, Darbytown, Boyton Plank Road, New Market, Deep Bottom, Lynchburg, Brices Crossroads, Memphis, Monocacy, Kennesaw Mountain which were in fact Confederate victories. Out of 50 the map manages to make 22 errors.

The map for 1865 manages to make the following errors. It lists Mine Creek from the 1864 map again for one thing. The map lists as indecisive Sailor’s Creek, Selma, Waynesboro, High Creek which were in fact Union victories. The map lists as indecisive Hatcher’s Run, White Oak Road which were Confederate victories. Out of 15 engagements listed the map manages to make 6 errors.

Out of a total of 134 engagements listed on the maps in this book there are a total of 52 errors. This is an error rate of 39%. That is unacceptable.

The errors are almost entirely, with only one exception, confined to “indecisive” battles only. Of course it could be argued that it depends on the interpretation of what indecisive is. However listing Brice’s Crossroads, Selma, New Market, Mill Spring for example, which were very one sided victories, as indecisive simply indicates a very casual attitude towards facts.

So why did our author seem not to care very much for being accurate? I would hazard the following.

1), The author simply thought that discussing the moral issues raised by the war transcended mere accuracy in describing the war.

2), The author, if the book is anything to go by, seems to view the war as a bloody, hopeless, and terrible struggle and making all those non-indecisive battles indecisive fits into that mindset.

3), Although the author would deny it his “real” opinion seems to be that the struggle was basically pointless and all that indecisiveness helps reinforce that point.

4), Finally as adding up the number of battles deemed indecisive which were in fact decisive indicates that the author viewed the Union struggle to reunite the country as basically immoral. The author would of course deny this but reading the book indicates that that is indeed the case. The terminology of blame in the book is to a large extent largely blaming Union General’s and politicians for the excesses of the war. This of course leads to the conclusion that the war to reunify the country being considered basically immoral. The fact that 32 Union victories are turned into indecisive battles, as against 18 Confederate victories turned into indecisive battles fits into that mindset of an immoral Union war against the Confederacy.

In other words this author’s cavalier disrespect for facts is not just a result of common laziness but of a particular mindset and position that shifted facts into non-facts to support a position.

At another time I may fully review this book. As of right now it is a good example of a far too common scholarly convention of cavalier treatment of allegedly tangential facts.*

1. Stout, Harry S., Upon the Altar of the Nation, Penguin Books, London, 2006.

2. IBID, Map for 1861 is on pp. 88-89, 1862, pp. 202-203, 1863, pp. 266-267, 1864, pp. 344-345, 1865, pp. 446-447.

* For a brief overview of the American Civil War along with the decisive battles turned indecisive by this book see Dupuy, R. Ernst, Dupuy, Trevor N., The Encyclopedia of Military History, Revised Edition, Harper & Row, Pub., New York, 1977, pp. 868-905.

Pierre Cloutier

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