Thursday, September 25, 2008

General Orders Twenty-Four

There was an argument at work once, and people were taking sides. Everyone had an opinion, and everyone's opinion was the right one. When my boss was asked which side he was taking, he said, "I don't have a dog in the fight." That pretty much stopped the argument dead in its track. None of us really had a dog in the fight. We just had a bunch of opinions.

Not all, but too many historians, have a dog in the fight when it comes to the Civil War. It only takes ten or so pages into the first chapter (and sometimes not even that long) before the dog has been identified. Now, I don't really have a problem with that as long as the author admits that he wants his dog to win, and, therefore, he isn't exactly neutral. I do mind when the author insists he is neutral when he isn't.

In Lee Takes Command, Clifford Dowdey doesn't have a dog and, admittedly, he is a Lee man. He is fair and unbiased in writing about the Seven Days Battle. He doesn't destroy Jackson to protect Lee, nor does he blame Lee for Jackson's performance. He gives detailed analysis that explains Jackson's performance. It is a problem most of us have dealt with. After a month of continual marching and fighting, Jackson had hit the wall. He was past exhausted and even the most simple of commands were almost impossible to carry out. If you have never been that tired, then good for you. But if you have, then you know what handicap Jackson operated under.

Dowdey is very blunt about the abuse that A.P. Hill has received for his actions on the first day of battle. Dowdey explains that in the Jackson/Lee fight during the years, Little Powell has been unfairly scapegoated. He gives a reasonable explanation to why Hill went before he had heard from Jackson.

Of course, for me, books like this rise and fall on Stuart and here I have a problem with Dowdey. Not a big problem... but Dowdey is inconsistent in his dealings with Stuart and his ride around McClellan and whether or not this ride forced McClellan to abandon his White House base in order to set up a new base along the James River. Like I said not a big problem, but I would like to see some more consistency.

Dowdey wins huge accolades for understanding cause and effect. Sometimes, when I read historical accounts, I get the sense that things are happening in a vacuum. Dowdey is consistent in showing that A happened to cause B to cause C to cause D. This way, the reader gets a complete picture of the battles along the Chickahominy that begin with Johnston's retreat from Centreville.

If you have not read Dowdey's book, I highly recommend it.