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Our Under Studied Civil War

 

 

It seems shockingly counter-intuitive to suggest that the Civil War is under studied.  Beginning while the War was being waged, and continuing to the present day, there have been an avalanche of books about that conflict.  However, certain aspects of the War have been understudied.  With the advent of almost cost free e-publishing, the legions of amateur Civil War scholars can help rectify this situation.  I expect to retire in approximately a decade.  If God grants me a long life and good health after retirement I will attempt to aid in shedding light and analysis on facets of the War which have received comparatively little scholarship.  Here are ten such areas.  I would note that the inclusion of an area for further work does not mean that books and articles have not been written on the subject, but that they are comparatively sparse, especially in reference to topics that receive endless treatment.

  1. The Trans Mississippi– Both the Union and the Confederacy frequently used the conflict beyond the Mississippi as a dumping ground for failed and/or troublesome generals and that perceived taint has apparently descended down the years to make this the most ignored theater of the War.  This has helped give a false impression of the War overall.  In the far West the War was fought to the knife and the knife to the hilt, engendering hatreds that lingered for generations after the last shot was fired.  The conflict was important with the Union dedicating manpower and resources against local Confederate forces that could have been better spent elsewhere.  If the Union had lost the War, the conflict in the Trans Mississippi might well have been blamed for being a drain on Union military and naval resources.
  2. Jefferson Davis-Unsurprisingly, the scholarship on Davis is infinitesimal when compared to the mountain of studies on Lincoln.  That imbalance will never be addressed, nor should it be.  However, the day to day activities of Jefferson as commander in chief do need a serious and comprehensive study.
  3. United States Colored Troops-Some 180,000 blacks fought for the Union, most in the United States Colored Troops.  The scholarship  on this organization is limited, weak and much of it dated.
  4. Regimental histories-In the decades immediately following the Civil War, many regimental histories were written, most by former members of the regiments.  Although there is valuable history contained in these tomes, the scholarship usually ranged from non-existent to shoddy.  Modern regimental histories, in the mode of the pioneering history of the 20th Maine, are needed.  Here, especially, amateur scholars could be quite helpful.
  5. Alcohol and the Civil WarAlcohol tends to be mentioned in most Civil War histories only in reference to General Grant.  It was a hard-drinking time and drunkenness was a common problem among officers and men.  Alcohol and its impact on the Civil War awaits good, and detailed, studies.
  6. Artillery-Compared to the infantry and cavalry, books on Civil War artillery have been relatively few in numbers.  The men who served the king of battle deserve better.
  7. Logistics-Serious consideration of logistics and its impact on Civil War operations tends to be scarce in most histories.  A logistical history of the Civil War needs to be written.
  8. Foreign Volunteers-For decades after the Civil War Heroes von Borcke proudly flew the Stars and Bars from the battlements of his Prussian estate, a memento of his service under Jeb Stuart.  Considering how many of them there were, the foreign volunteers who fought for the Union and the Confederacy have received little attention in most histories.
  9. Staff work-Ah, the Remfs, always unloved by the frontline soldiers in every conflict.  Nonetheless, staff work often determines the success or failure of most military operations, and the scholarship devoted to this important topic is minuscule.
  10. War Governors-Considering the key role they played, the war governors, Union and Confederate, have received, the majority of them, relatively little scholarly attention.

In regard to America’s greatest war, much work remains to be done.  Scholars, to your key boards!

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

2 Comments

  1. “5. Alcohol and the Civil War–Alcohol tends to be mentioned in most Civil War histories only in reference to General Grant. It was a hard-drinking time and drunkenness was a common problem among officers and men. Alcohol and its impact on the Civil War awaits good, and detailed, studies.”

    Under the circumstances of the oceans of bloodshed—how many accounts of so many battles, such as Antietam, Cold Harbor, Devil’s Den at Gettysburg, etc—literally describe the fields and rivers running with men’s blood—plus the maimings, the amputations, the bodily destruction—so that, despite not really being a “useful therapeutic option” at all, men during the Civil War being prone to abuse alcohol is an almost-rational response to a mind-shattering day-to-day reality.

  2. Another aspect of the Civil War that I believe does not get enough attention is the fact that the divisions among the American people were not as cut and dried as we are led to believe. For example, not all slave owners were secessionists, nor were all secessionists in favor of slavery.

    If you like audio podcasts I recommend the Church history podcasts by Msgr. Michael John Witt, a former Christian Brother and now professor at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. He has one series that addresses the role of Catholics in the War and explains all the different issues involved; you can find it at his website, http://www.michaeljohnwitt.com. Click on the link for “St. Louis: The Lion and the Fourth City, Vol. 2” and the links to each episode (usually 22 to 25 minutes long) will appear on that page. Those that deal with the Civil War are labeled as such. The “Lion”, by the way, was Archbishop Peter J. Kenrick, whose episcopal motto was “Noli irritare leo” or “Don’t mess with the lion.” 🙂

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