Monday, February 27, 2006

Hey, aren't you the guy who lost 1st Bull Run?

[Photo by Wesley A. Leiser]

I have periodically mulled over the idea of writing a biography of one or another lesser-known or less celebrated Civil War notable. Like a lot of people with an unnatural fixation on the literature of the Civil War, I have spent time thinking about how to make my lasting contribution, how to make my mark, and that invariably leads one to try to discern the gaps on the bookshelf — to try to imagine what's left undone.

For one thing, I think about peripheral, roughly-treated, or short-shrifted officers, and there's no shortage in those categories. I narrow it down further by focusing on character
s who had some impact before or after the war in California, because it melds periods of interest for me, and connects them to the geography I live in and love. I mull these biographies at least seriously enough to collect bits and pieces of information along the way, and to record little reminders to myself to mine less obvious sources. I think about people like Frederick Steele, because he is buried not far from my home, because he engaged in operations in areas that hold fascination for me (e.g., Trans-Mississippi), and because his papers are at Stanford. And I think about Irvin McDowell, who came to San Francisco during the war, and who returned later and made part of his legacy an enduring contribution to one of America's great urban open spaces, Golden Gate Park.

Dimitri Rotov's
blog entry today, castigating Carol Bundy for sloppy errors in Nature of Sacrifice [see additional comments below], noted the lack of a McDowell bio. And like a breath on a dying ember, the McDowell reference prompted in me a wistful flare-up of the excitement and dread that surrounds a project that needs doing, and one that inspires more conviction than commitment. McDowell played an important role in the war, and he deserves better than the snide remarks one encounters so frequently in the works of armchair generals, or in the "best" and "worst" lists of buffs, and weekend warriors. I'm reminded of another Dimitri offering, addressing this very point about generals like McDowell, and Nathaniel Banks, men who became cardboard cutouts in the recounting, their long lives of distinction discounted because of the fortunes of war in their short times on stage.

"Honest patriots struggling with their own limitations in trying circumstances at the bottom of the red hot crucible of war are to be dressed in jester's costumes and showered with scorn: the Popes, the McClellans, the Buells, the political generals, the failures. You are invited to hiss at them."

"Commisary Banks," under any other criteria than his generalship in Virginia and Louisiana, has to be regarded as an exceptionally successful and interesting man. But to those who view the four years of the Civil War as a lifetime, Banks is the object of casual ridicule.

McDowell doesn't need a biography to settle the score, or to rehabilitate his image. He just needs one to capture his life as a man, and to present an indifferent appraisal of his Civil War service. Irvin answered the call. He served his country faithfully and well, the chaotic collapse of his green troops at Bull Run notwithstanding. At the very least, we should start by spelling his first name correctly on his tombstone. Cue Rodney Dangerfield punchline.

Getting back to Bundy's biography of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., this was the subject of quite a bit of discussion in The Civil War Forum last August. What started as a guardedly complimentary appraisal quickly turned into a laundry list of embarrassing errors, as more readers chimed in. Steve Meserve, for example, commented on Bundy's characterization of California governor Leland Stanford as a "copperhead." In fact he was a staunch Unionist and Lincoln man all the way, who campaigned for Lincoln. Nearly everyone who reads this book, apparently, finds something glaringly erroneous. I guess I'll settle for the book reviews.


Anonymous said...

If you aree considering a book on aa Federal General, why not General George H. Thomas. There are no good modern books treating that man. A good one would be welcome by many.

Don Plezia

dw said...

Hi Don,

You're right about Thomas needing a full-fledged, modern biography. With his stature, you would expect there to be 1 or 2 in the last twenty years. Surely someone out there is finishing off years of reasearch on the man.

Thanks for the encouragement. I'll mull it over. (g)