Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION: THE MAKING AND MEANING OF GREATNESS

Biography is the most popular form of history and the most problematic endeavor for the professional historian. Few present-day academic historians try their hand at biography, yet their students demand that biography have a place in the classroom. Professors often resist their students’ requests because they find teaching biography difficult. One major reason for this difficulty is the persistent problem of contextualizing the subject’s life and evaluating the importance of that person to the historical period in which he or she lived. Too often, the historians and their students also find that the many books and articles they read about a leader’s life reveal contradictions and disagreements among scholars that both confuse and distort the process of evaluation.

One group of leaders who have proved particularly difficult to evaluate for scholarly research and teaching are the great heroes of the U.S. Civil War. That is because many modern scholars have relied on the memoirs of the participants in the Civil War, as well as their contemporary biographers and historians, to assess their activities. But often those original sources prove disadvantageous to adequate analysis of the leaders’ accomplishments. Those early authors concentrated mainly on personality to the detriment of rigorous evaluation of the leaders’ wartime activities. Only recently have a number of “new” military historians gone beyond those older sources to develop sophisticated means to study types of war leaders and evaluate their contribution to the total wartime experience. If they use those early works, these new military historians are careful to ignore the battles over personality and to focus on the actual descriptions of events the leaders participated in.1

The historians who have written the entries in this dictionary place these great leaders’ lives in historical context by showing how others have judged their accomplishments since that first generation of primary witnesses. To achieve their purpose, the contributors describe those leaders’ family history, childhood, education, and prewar career patterns to show how those leaders prepared for

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