Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Injustices of all sorts on trial

I've been reading Curt Anders Injustice on Trial, Second Bull Run, General Fitz John Porter's Court-Martial, and the Schofield Board Investigation That Restored His Good Name -- not reading thoroughly, but moving through it. Why should I read too carefully when Porter's biographer can write, "Finally, I did not undertake this project to grind an ax for or against General Porter. I hold with General Lee that Porter might 'do well enough with someone to tell him [what to do]' It was Porter's misfortune, however (as had been William Franklin's and Charles Stone's) to have come under the influence of George McClellan instead of -- well, Henry Halleck, whose lieutenants included William Tecumseh Sherman and U. S. Grant and, by the way, John Schofield, but also, alas, John Pope."?

Anders read the many thousands of pages comprising the trial notes. Even though Grant had initially supported the trial verdict, he changed his mind once he read these notes.

Underlankers might suspect me of smelling blood in the water after reading "And Stephen W. Sears has written recently that 'An example had to be made, and General Porter was the not entirely undeserving victim." Perhaps the Sears-grinding-wheel is still spinning a bit, but I'm letting that pass.

Lee's comment about Porter reminds me of something that happened to me years ago. I was working in Engineering on the Skybolt program and had a small group responsible for creating a "Task Plan" that was to identify all the segments comprising the program and the steps needed to design and build them. There was a lady in my group named Betty B. She told me that she was for the first time working for someone younger than she was. She was a pushy lady and wanted to be promoted to salary. She said, "I can do anything. All you have to do is tell me how to do it and I can do it."

I recall at the time thinking that what she said comprised a good definition between an educated person and a non-educated person. The education doesn't need to be told "how to do it." Of course I didn't tell her that, and she was still on the clock when McNamara cancelled the Skybolt program.

But surely Fitz-John Porter was "educated." He graduated from West Point eighth in his class, which was higher than Meade managed: nineteenth. Of course class standing doesn't tell us everything. Stonewall Jackson was second in his class and his ability seemed commensurate. Sheridan on the other hand was last in his graduating class and by the end of the war was right underneath Grant and Sherman in status.

On page 37 Anders writes, "General Pope's presence in Washington in early July led to his standing aside while Secretary of War Stanton dictated . . . 'By special assignment of the President of the United States I have assumed the command of this army' . . . quickly enough, though, Pope and Stanton injected slurs obviously directed towered the Young Napoleon. . . "

After reading Pope's words, "Fitz John Porter wrote to a friend: 'I regret that Genl Pope has not improved since his youth and has now written himself down what the military world has long known, [as] an ass. His address to his troops will make him ridiculous in the eyes of military men . . .and will reflect no credit on Mr. Lincoln who has just promoted him. If the theory he proclaims is practiced you may look for disaster.'

"Four days after issuing his bombastic address to his troops, John Pope confirmed the correctness of Fitz John Porter's low opinion of him by circulating certain orders that clearly had a Stantonian ring. This provoked General Lee into condemning Pope as 'a miscreant who ought to be suppressed.'"

This reminded me that I had yet to study Stanton; so I sent for a bio, not just because of the Stantonian influence on Pope. A few days ago I was checking the bibliography in Sears The Young Napoleon and discovered Margaret Leech's Reveille in Washington which I read back in 1997. On page 132 I discovered the sort of statement that offended me in Sears, but this one was not directed against McClellan: "Mr. Stanton was a physical coward. Fear drove him to bluster, sneer and rage." How on earth could she know that. I checked Leech on Wikipedia and she is highly thought of -- her book as well. I checked through my library for references to Stanton and everything I found was favorable. Still, Margaret Leech could assert, without referenced evidence that "Mr. Stanton was a physical coward . . ."

That made me wonder about Civil War scholarship in General. As Underlankers jokingly said, perhaps I have spent too much time studying theology. There may be some truth to that. Such an unsupported statement as Leech's would never appear in the writings of one of the better theologians. It might in the writings of someone who without qualification decided to sit down and write a Biblical commentary. That is why I went to Wikipedia, to see if Margaret Leech was in that category, but she is not. She is highly thought of. She won the Pulitzer prize for her bio of McKinley.

But back to Underlankers joke, While I didn't really look for that sort of thing before I got serious about studying the Civil War, I believe I would have reacted if I read a comment like Leech's in anything I read. I spent several years chipping away at Norman Cantor's "A Core Bibliography for Medieval Studies." I read Cantor's Civilization of the Middle Ages, and his Inventing the Middle Ages. The latter is an excellent introduction to Medieval Studies and his bibliographies provide lists of books he recommends. In Cantor's view very little prior to 1900 stands up to the high standards of work that were written later on, work he praises in his Inventing the Middle Ages.

I don't think the same sort of thing could be said about Civil-War histories. Historians are probably still too close to that war. Anders says he doesn't have an axe to grind in regard to Fitz-John Porter, but it was not meaningless for him to say this. Many who read Civil War history as well as some who write it do have axes to grind. The best writers should strive toward objectivity, but that is easier said than done, especially if one is passionate about her subject. Margaret Leech didn't provide a reference for calling Stanton a physical coward, but we can be sure she had something against him, something she felt passionate about.

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