- Dead White Males on Horseback
Academics periodically berate themselves for their failure to reach the nonspecialist. Some of these mea culpas are misplaced, for a number of the best academics do in fact gain a wide readership. But even less of the self-criticism is seriously meant. The primary allegiance of scholars is to analysis, whereas the taste of general readers runs more toward vigorous narrative. Although it is possible to weave the two together, success in such a venture requires a rare literary sensibility melded with the right subject matter. It took an Alan Brinkley, coupled with figures as compelling as Huey Long and Father Coughlin, to produce a Voices of Protest (1982).
In only a few fields of American history does the chance exist for more or less ordinary historians to connect with a large body of general readers. The preeminent example is the Civil War. Here it is possible not merely to write for nonspecialists, but also to address them at round tables, interact with them on battlefield tours, and squabble with them via Internet usergroups. The result is a field that contains not only unique opportunities, but also a unique subculture.
The books under review reflect this subculture and, between them, display its strengths, weaknesses, and puzzles. The weaknesses are redolent in Stanley P. Hirshson’s new biography of William T. Sherman. The strengths and puzzles are in James I. Robertson’s magnificent study of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
In any other field, The White Tecumseh would probably not have been published. Not only does it come in the wake of a strong outpouring of recent scholarship on the tempestuous Union general, it contributes little light of its own. The author, of course, does not think so. He introduces his book with a [End Page 577] preface that at once irritates and piques the reader’s curiosity. Hirshson duly notes that two full-scale biographies of Sherman have appeared in the last five years, as well as two other books in which Sherman figures prominently. To see their successive appearance in print, he writes, “has been the academic equivalent of having the contents of a six-shooter slowly emptied into one’s body” (p. ix). But although Hirshson claims to have “profited” from each of these predecessor works, predictably he thinks none of them got it right. John F. Marszalek’s Sherman (1993) “never even begins to prove [its] thesis that Sherman spent a life developing ‘A Soldier’s Passion for Order.’” Charles Royster (The Destructive War, 1991) and Albert Castel (Decision in the West, 1992), for their parts, are faulted for not dealing with Sherman’s entire career, which would seem understandable since that was not their purpose. As for Michael Fellman’s Citizen Sherman (1995), Hirshson primly states, “I must say that I disagree with it completely. I do not see Sherman as a racist, an anti-Semite, and a philanderer.” He concludes by quoting somebody else’s clever remark about preferring “drum and trumpet history” to “bum and strumpet history” (p. x).
Still, after this brusque critique of several fine historians, one at least savors the prospect that The White Tecumseh will offer a bracingly original interpretation of its own. Wrong. After a few chapters it becomes distressingly obvious that Hirshson tacked on the preface strictly to dismiss the recent Sherman scholarship, not to engage with it. The book is a thoroughly familiar chronicle of Sherman’s life, long on block quotations and short on overt interpretation. Although it is apparent that Hirshson admires Sherman, whole stretches of the book lack any discernible point of view. Based on the episodes he weaves together, one could as easily believe that Sherman was a poor general as a good one, a petty man as a great one. That is not to say that Hirshson has...