Sometimes I Wonder…

28 10 2015

…why I even bother.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. I know that not every single person researching the First Battle of Bull Run (or even, if you prefer, the First Battle of Manassas) is going to use this site. I know a lot of people do, but I’m certain there are some who do not. And even those who do may only use a part of it. But I also know that, while there are some major issues which I feel almost everyone who has written about the battle have misapprehended, there is at least one minor misconception I thought had been put to rest: the uniforms of the 11th New York, and specifically those worn on July 21, 1861.

I’m not going to rehash that here. You can find other stuff I’ve written on the topic by searching the tag 11th New York in the cloud at the bottom of the margin at right, but this post sums things up nicely, I think.

What brings me to remind you of this is a book I’m currently reading and recently previewed, Custer’s Trials, by T. J. Stiles. So far it’s been what I expected – very nice writing and some interesting takes in the way of storytelling based on facts already in evidence. Some instances of a lack of familiarity with military structure during the Civil War, both theoretical and practical. But one inconsequential passage set me off, and perhaps is more illustrative of the stuff that gets in the way of folks like us, who have perhaps read too much, enjoying non-fiction story telling. Here it goes:

The cavalry did not stand by the artillery. Instead, the 11th and 14th New York infantry regiments hustled up the hill – the 11th wearing the baggy red pants of Zouaves, patterned after Algerian troops serving in the French army and something of a craze in America in 1861.

Ugh. No footnote, of course.

I have kept and will continue to keep in mind that this is a book about George Armstrong Custer. A character study. It will get some things wrong, as the author is not a specialist. He will rely on some he considers to be specialists (one author of very popular books on the Peninsula Campaign and of the Union Army commander, for instance). And I may not be happy with the results as far as that goes. But I will be guided by the question of how an error affects the story being told about Custer, as opposed to falling into the “if he got that wrong, what else does he get wrong” trap. That’s just plain lazy.


Actions

Information

12 responses

28 10 2015
Mike Peters

Harry, say it ain’t so!

Liked by 1 person

28 10 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Mike, it could be that Stiles was using Custer’s own account (I haven’t checked yet, but like I said, no footnote). In which case, Custer (being a cavarlyman) would have been wrong. Heck, a lot of “eyewitnesses” got the 11th’s uniforms wrong – there’s no shame in it. And if it helps, the 14th NYSM were wearing red pants.

Like

28 10 2015
Joseph A. Rose

There is so much erroneous and contradictory information about the Civil War in every kind of resource, that I never expect any author to get everything correct. But when you see the sources that they have used and they don’t get it right then, maybe there’s a bigger problem.

Like

28 10 2015
Harry Smeltzer

I don’t know Stiles’s source. It could be Custer – I have his account here somewhere, in a magazine. Or it could be one of many, many other accounts that put the 11th in red pants. But all one has to do is go to the battlefield visitor center to see that the 11th’s zouave uniform (which had been replaced with standard New York blue by the time of the battle) in fact never included red pants. Red hat? Red trim? Sure. But only the officers early on wore red pants, and IIRC those weren’t really baggy.

More important, and let’s not lose sight of this, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. This is a biography of Custer, and as yet I’ve not come across egregious errors with regards to him (though I’m no expert). And it’s a popular biography at that.

Liked by 1 person

28 10 2015
Ted Savas

Gentlemen,

You should see what comes over my transom in manuscript form. Often, I am surprised it is not written in Crayola.

Like

28 10 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Just to be clear, I’m not going to savage this book because the author bought a story that has been bought for years by Civil War specialists. The book is what it is, a popular biography of a compelling figure. As such it’s pretty good, and a pleasure to read (though his jumping into vignettes is at times a little perplexing).

Like

28 10 2015
Miriam Houk Cunningham

Please do not give Mr. Stiles a pass. If he purports himself to be a historian and author, then all written material should be factual and sourced properly to a recognized proof standard so we can measure the reliability and validity of the whole story he is telling us. It is not that hard to get your facts correct if you really care about your reader. Maybe he and his editor are just lazy.

Like

28 10 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Miriam, there are many, many, many sources from which Mr. Stiles could have drawn his description, including, perhaps, Custer himself (I still have not had time to look for the article). In fact, outside of my site, I don’t know anyone who even makes an attempt to correct the narrative that has been passed down for many years, by many “eyewitnesses.” This is a minor issue.

Let me give you an example. Have you ever read “Black Hawk Down?” I read it and loved it. Not a footnote in it. Now, if I was some sort of expert on the modern military and Mogadishu, I might have had a lot to bitch about – I don’t know.

The point being, let’s not miss the forest for the trees. I see it happen far, far too often. This is popular history – it’s a different animal altogether. Take it for what it is. It would have affected the narrative not one iota if Mr. Stiles had described the uniforms as I think they should have been described, or if he had not described them at all. Proper citation is the problem here, if there really is one, and that’s a weakness in pretty much all mass-market non-fiction these days. But Stiles could have cited many, many sources that would have backed up his description 100%, and it still would have been 100% wrong, so in this case a lack of citation is not big deal to me.

All I really want if for people to stop saying that the 11th New York wore red pants at First Bull Run. ;-)

Like

28 10 2015
Meg Thompson

Maybe you write this blog because someone needs to remind the rest of the world that the 11th New York did its best, that General McDowell wasn’t an idiot, and that this first battle sets the tone for the rest of the war. You remind me, and I think about these things daily. Huzzah, and a long, drawn-out Tiger for you, Harry!

Liked by 1 person

29 10 2015
John Foskett

Harry: I think that you make valid points about the weight to be given to this error in the context of the author’s primary purpose. That said, I do wish that authors who include subjects which are outside their “wheel houses” would vet the material with somebody who knows the area.

Liked by 1 person

29 10 2015
Harry Smeltzer

John, there are some experts out there who would not have corrected him on the red pants. I will add that, after reading his wild-eyed, rabid description of McClellan, I set the book aside. He would have been well served to read something like Ethan Rafuse’s “McClellan’s War” to get a more balanced view to counter the works I’m pretty sure he did look at.

Like

18 12 2015
Popular History – What’s the Problem? | Bull Runnings

[…] last wrote about my recent foray into popular history works concerning the American Civil War here. As I wrote, I was cutting the author, T. J. Stiles, slack in relation to what I described as […]

Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: