We all have a favorite battle, odd as “favorite” sounds when applied to an event wherein many folks died or were maimed. Yet, each of us has at least one engagement in particular that has caught the imagination, continuing to interest us year after year. This seems to be a fact of both professional historians and buffs, no matter what period of history one prefers. Nothing wrong with that–right? Well, if Gibbon wrote your lasting impression of Rome, then yes, there is something definitely wrong. I take nothing away from historians who published early in the twentieth century, or even late in the nineteenth. It is only that things have changed.
No one can help when he or she is born, and no one can help what is available from which to research during the writing of history. I have often thought it would be wonderful to have lived in the 1860s. I could hear about the war as it was happening. Then again, perhaps it would be better to have some distance from an event. I can never decide, but I do know this–no one alive and working with history right now has ever had more opportunity for remarkable research due to both the Internet and the Freedom of Information Act. There is often so much available that the question isn’t what to use, but what can be left out.
Just how this affects my topic should be evident: if the last history you have read of, say–the Battle of Shiloh was either written in 1892, by Leander Stillwell or was the analysis in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, first published in 1887-1888, you have a lot to learn. Of course I own both/all of these books, but they are not in any way definitive. You have completely missed the 1977 descriptions of James Lee McDonough in Shiloh—In Hell Before Midnight, James Reasoner’s Shiloh (The Civil War Battle Series, Book 2) published in 1999, and others in between.
Why is this important? Newer books do not change the battle or its outcome, but they change the way the battle is presented. Just as a photographic image changes depending upon the lens used, so does history. It has evolved, my friends, and continues to do so. The great white men aren’t gone; they are just placed a bit further away in the focus frame.
What emerges first are the men who fought the battles–the common soldier, resurrected by the painstaking digging and transcribing of countless grad students. Letters and mementoes galore have emerged, each telling its part of the epic.
If you look into the corners of the picture, there are now slave and freedmen narratives, and histories from the homefront. Nurses and doctors come into focus, as do children and animals. Even the very ground upon which a battle was fought has its version of history. Trees still alive, called “witness trees,” bear within their trunks bits of shrapnel and minié balls, and were watered by blood 150 years or so ago.
Which brings me to the men and women who are writing today. All this is available to them, and so much more: James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Allen Guelzo, John Guntzleman, Drew Gilpin Faust, Lisa Brady, John Keegan, Stephen Woodworth, George Rabel, Harold Holzer, Elizabeth Varon, Peter Cozzens, Amanda Foreman–our own editors here at Emerging Civil War, Kris White and Chris Makowski–all are good, maybe even great writers of American Civil War history. All use every bit of modern technology available, and a ton of old fashioned hard work to make the history of our defining moments ring even more true than before, and if you are not reading them, your loss is unimaginable.
Where are these good folks hiding? They can be found writing articles for Civil War Times, Monitor, and Hallowed Ground. Going to amazon.com and typing in your favorite battle can find them. They are teaching MOOCs (massive open online courses) which can often be audited for free, and several of them volunteer as guides at national parks during the summer. They teach at colleges and even high schools. They speak at symposiums, conferences, and Roundtables. They sign books at bookstores. Basically, they hide in plain sight.
So go find a new (to you) book, by an author you haven’t read yet. Maybe you will like it, maybe it will make you mad, but I guarantee you it will remind you once again just why that particular episode–your favorite battle–of the war got you hooked in the first place.