The Ongoing Civil War: New Versions of Old Stories

By Michot, Stephen S. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2006 | Go to article overview

The Ongoing Civil War: New Versions of Old Stories


Michot, Stephen S., South Carolina Historical Magazine


The Ongoing Civil War: New Versions of Old Stories. Edited by Herman Hattaway and Ethan S. Rafuse. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. Pp. 164; $32.50, cloth.)

The American Civil War continues to be one of the most popular historical subjects for scholars and laypersons alike. Publishers know this and writers know this. Editors Herman Hattaway, emeritus professor of history and religious studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Ethan S. Rafuse, associate professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, have teamed up to produce another period book in an attempt to gratify the Civil War enthusiast.

The Ongoing Civil War: New Versions of Old Stories is a selection of nine essays previously published in Columbiad, a professional journal devoted to offering well-researched, yet readable, articles on the Civil War. Columbiad is a unique attempt at "bridging the gap" between scholarship and popular history, not unlike American Heritage magazine without the flare and color. In a sense, Hattaway and Rafuse's purpose is to introduce a sampling of Columbiad, in book form, to the popular Civil War reader.

The articles featured in this book are diverse in topic and purpose. Four of the entries deal with Civil War figures-Halleck, McClellan, Sherman, and Franklin Pierce. The other articles center on tactical logistics, operational intelligence, Civil War stamps, the Official Records, and blending scholarly with popular history. Of the nine articles, six are argumentative to some extent, and three are simply informative.

In the first essay, "The Professional Historian and 'Popular History'," Mark Grimsley traces the origin of "scientific history" in the early twentieth century with its demand on rigorous scholarship supported by heavy footnoting and a straightforward writing style. What was lost was the graceful flow of the narrative, and with it, the public's interest. Citing Alien Nevins and Bruce Catton (I would add James McPherson), Grimsley argues that scholarly Civil War history can be made popular if it is made readable.

In the second essay, "Old Brains' Was Brainy After All," Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones re-characterize Henry Halleck as the real "brains" behind the victories in the western theater and the strategy of simultaneous advances. The authors credit Halleck with the Forts Henry/Donelson-Shiloh-Corinth campaigns. As general-in-chief in Washington, Halleck was an effective organizer, manager, strategist, and presidential advisor. Halleck did not (and does not) get the laurels due him because of his stern temperament and tendency to get blamed for Lincoln's errors.

In the third essay, Ethan Rafuse reevaluates George McClellan as a Clausewitzian who rejected an escalation towards total war that would lead to the destruction of political, social, and economic institutions. McClellan sought victory only on the terms of resource conservation and without catastrophic loss. As a strategic thinker, he sought a decisive engagement only after bringing to bear, through maneuver, an overwhelming force of well-trained and equipped soldiers.

In the next essay, Michael Taylor traces the Civil War role of former president Franklin Pierce. Pierce was vocally pro-Union, but anti-war. Risking treason, he condemned Lincoln's policies as harsh and destructive of winning southerners back into the Union. Prophetically, he warned of long-term sectional divisiveness.

Mark Snell, in "Union Lifeline," stresses the significance of tactical logistics in determining the outcome of battles. Using Gettysburg as a case study, Snell chronicles the efforts of the Quartermaster Department, the Subsistence Department, and the Ordinance Department to procure and move supplies to the battle front. …

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