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Jigsaw Puzzles, Mosaics, and Civil War Battle Narratives

From: Civil War History
Volume 53, Number 3, September 2007
pp. 236-243 | 10.1353/cwh.2007.0063

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"But what about your career?" So asked a concerned colleague a dozen years ago when I first remarked that I planned to write a narrative of the Civil War Battle of Perryville. Given the tangible disdain toward both military and "popular" history that remains entrenched within many university history departments, the question was not unexpected. Faced with similar attitudes, students and instructors often unremarkably choose other paths of study that better assure professional advancement and success within the academy. The lion's share of the soldiers who fought Civil War battles, after all, are those infamous and out-of-fashion "dead white men." Thus, while popular Civil War history essentially has remained much as it was a century ago—battle-oriented, wary of cause, and eminently marketable—academic wartime historiography over the last three decades has steadily moved away from the "drums and trumpets" of political and military affairs toward social and cultural approaches written largely for other academics. Much can be said for works that borrow from the no-longer-new "new social history," an approach I have embraced myself, but an unanticipated and unfortunate side effect is that academics all but surrendered the history of the battlefield to others.

Another related result is that most academic scholars of the Civil War who tackle the battles and leaders in some manner are not military historians by training and thus lack the comparative perspective that years of studying world military history provides. One is reminded of the historian Mark Grimsley's assertion several years ago that any familiarity with the horrors of the Thirty Years War would put to rest the age-old argument over whether William Tecumseh Sherman unleashed "total war" in Georgia. The university historian who comes to examine the Civil War on the battlefield, in whole or in part, usually is self-educated instead of academically trained, the end result of informal readings of numerous Civil War battle histories, visits to the war's major battlefields, and conversations with the military historians and "buffs" so many academics otherwise quickly dismiss. In this manner, one can learn a great deal, but the price again is the lack of context that knowledge of world military history as it existed beyond the troubled American shores of the mid–nineteenth century would provide.

Whether anyone so oriented and educated has anything significant to offer about the current state of Civil War military history therefore is debatable, but perhaps the observations of a relative neophyte regarding the process of writing of a battle narrative, as well as the broader lessons learned, at least will resonate with others who claim a similar pedigree. Looking back, I approached the Battle of Perryville with what strikes me now as ridiculous naivete, if not snobbish condescension. Battle history looks deceptively simple from the outside. I expected to comb the archives as well as the published sources, find a few dozen battle accounts, and then fit them together as if they were the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The problems with such an approach quickly grew apparent, however. Simply put, penning battle history is nowhere near as easy as it looks. Indeed, even for a seasoned scholar it can prove the hardest, most mentally taxing work of one's career. Never again will one use so frequently the skills we teach young scholars in methodology and historiography courses, especially the selecting and weighing of conflicting evidence. If battle history again can be compared at all to a jigsaw puzzle, too many pieces simply are missing, and the ones that remain in the box fit together so poorly that they seem to come from different sets. The image that results from working with such elements will be at best an imperfect construction of the event, as faithful to what really happened as objectively possible, yet always unfinished.

There are several reasons for that incompleteness. Most of the men and nearly all the small cadre of women in uniform who fought in Civil War battles are unrepresented in the written record. Worse, of those who did write something that survived the era, hardly any of them remembered it the same way as anyone else. The historian expecting certainties, perfectly...

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