How Historians Work: Retelling the Past-From the Civil War to the Wider World

By Ivan, Adrien D. | Air Power History, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

How Historians Work: Retelling the Past-From the Civil War to the Wider World


Ivan, Adrien D., Air Power History


How Historians Work: Retelling the Past--From the Civil War to the Wider World. By Judith Hallock, John Waugh, and Drake Bush. Buffalo Gap Tex.: State House Press, 2010. Illustrations. Photographs. Notes. Appendices. Index. Pp. ix, 282. $24.95 ISBN: 978-193333743-2

Have you ever wanted to know how your favorite historian approaches the historical method? For modern-day Civil War historians, How Historians Work opens us mere mortals to the minds of deities such as James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Steven Woodworth, and other major thinkers of the period. Edited by Judith L. Hallock, this book is a transcription of John C. Waugh's and Drake Bush's interviews of numerous historians on their approach to history. The first ninety pages consist of interviews of various historical thinkers, such as a professor who distinguished himself as an educator, a genealogist (or family historian), and an editor of the Jefferson Davis Papers. The remaining nearly 200 pages are dedicated to some of the most distinguished historians of the Civil War era. Overall, How Historians Work is a must-read book for those discerning a career in history and for history majors (both undergraduate and graduate) on the various approaches to the historical method.

Gallagher, author of The Confederate War and editor of numerous books on individual battles of the Eastern Theater, provides his insight into the historian's craft. Among his advice for historians is to let sources and evidence lead the analysis. He bemoans historical works that are thesis-driven, ignoring evidence that may suggest something contrary to the author's opinion. Gallagher recommends that historians be honest and acknowledge evidence that may disagree with their positions. Finally, he advises that the vast majority of research should be completed before the writing process, a point that most of the interviewed historians agreed upon.

McPherson, the author of numerous books including Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, echoes much of Gallagher's advice. When writing a small work, McPherson completes ninety-five percent of the research before writing. …

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