Even More Ranting …

Several readers of this blog have drawn my attention to yet another rant about me from an unhappy fellow blogger.

Brooks Simpson is a paragon for an underlying fault among many academic historians identified by Harvard’s Gordon Wood that might explain why Simpson thinks publishers have been “duped” into issuing my books and articles:

… many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.


First … although Gordon S. Wood received his PhD from Harvard, he taught at Brown University until his retirement. Gordon and I met way back in 1986 during a convention in Knoxville, Tennessee, and ate at a Pizza Hut. As I was but a graduate student at the time, I doubt he remembers the meal: I did because the first book I read as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia was his The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969). Those of you familiar with the book will recognize why I would remember that assignment.

Second, I said that the blogger in question “is a very funny person posing as a student of the American Civil War. He’s duped other people and publishers into believing the same thing.” You would think that someone pretending to be a qualified historian would render a quote and its meaning correctly, but then in this case that’s much too much to ask.

Having established the level of competence of my critic, let’s now look at the major charge: that I’m “obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history.”

Ah, yes. A biographer of famous and powerful dead white men in presidential, political, and military history is obsessed with inequality and white privilege. We await the citing of actual examples from my work … oh, that’s right … only a real scholar would support an accusation with evidence, and, once again, that might be too much to expect in this particular case.

I have also been accused with being obsessed with race, class, and gender. Clearly an interest in those subjects, in the eyes of my critic, would simply mark me as engaging in “incestuous conversations.”

Now, you’ll point out that Gordon Wood used those words, and I concur. What we’ve seen in recent years is that certain bloggers, including those who whine and yammer about political correctness, evil Yankees, and so on, have taken to citing Wood’s essays bemoaning the course of American historical writing, which in turn are reactions to his later work (see this essay for a useful overview). Apparently merely quoting Wood serves as sufficient analysis in their challenged minds.

I need not repeat what I’ve already written about these themes: you are directed to what I thought would be my comments delivered at the March 2013 conference on “The Future of Civil War History” hosted by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. If anyone wants to debate or discuss those comments, they can do so here … or from their own blogs (instead of issuing foolish challenges to “debate” a subject of the blogger’s own choosing … the whole idea of blogs is that one can have these discussions and debates right here, available to everyone, even if some people don’t get that). Essentially, I believe that you can’t offer more than a rather narrow understanding of the American Civil War if you don’t incorporate the themes of race, class, and gender into your work as part of historical understanding. That’s not a sign of “political correctness,” a claim which in this context smacks of intellectual triteness. If your interest is in narrowly-focused battle and campaign studies that simply drop officers and men onto a battlefield and narrate the resulting fight as if it’s an online version of a HALO firefight, why, you are welcome to it.

Real historians know that the story of war is more than that. Let’s move this conversation into a different venue, that of professional sports. Now, I’m sure you could write a wonderfully detailed description of the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and the Yankees featuring a home run by Bucky Bleepin’ Dent, but a far better book (or a book on the 2003/2004 ALCS clashes) would talk about the impact of money on the construction of each team’s rosters, the stories of how the Red Sox were jinxed, how teams represented in some fashion the fanbase that supported them, the increasing impact of media, notions of ownership, and so on. In other words, a truly rich and memorable account of those contests would take readers to many places, not simply Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, and would touch on many subjects.

The same can indeed be said about writing a study of the Gettysburg campaign. You would get a lot more out of it if you wrote about how race, class, and gender (as well as politics, ethnicity, and so on) were woven into that campaign. These perspectives would come naturally to a gifted writer who had thought long and hard about these matters.

But not everyone feels this way … including, it appears, my critic:

Before 1998 official information provided by the Civil War National Park Battlefields like Gettysburg were specific to the historical events on the battlefields and the military campaigns connected with them. The Park Service avoided statements about the causes of the war for two reasons. First, they were unnecessary to the study of the military events. Second, they were subject to conflicting interpretations, best left to visitors to decide for themselves….   The Park Service was wise to originally focus on the historical military events at the National Battlefield Parks. It should have declined to add editorials about the causes of the war, which are inevitably subject to “interpretive spin.” 

Let’s begin by suggesting the remarkable ignorance that this statement displays about Getteysburg National Military Park, especially its mission statement, which speaks about interpreting the battle and the Gettysburg Address “within the context of American history.” It’s rather difficult to make any sense of the Gettysburg Address without understanding something about the causes of the war, including the debate over slavery, and what had happened to that point of the war, especially in regards to slavery. But, contrary to the narrative offered by my critic, who seems wonderfully ignorant about the evolution of the park and its mission, it was in 1990 that Congress defined the mission of the park as follows:

. . . In administering the park, the Secretary [of the Interior] shall take such action as is necessary and appropriate to interpret, for the benefit of visitors to the park and the general public, the Battle of Gettysburg in the larger context of the Civil War and American history, including the causes and consequences of the Civil War and including the eflects of the war on all the American People.

That 1990 came eight years before 1998 escapes the fine mind of my critic, who wants to blame a single person, Dwight T. Pitcaithley (whose name my critic spells in multiple ways), for what has happened at GNMP.

In short, the twisted rendering of historical fact and interpretation by my critic results in utter nonsense masquerading as informed narrative, although I suspect that in saying this I’ll be accused of “political correctness” in following some unstated agenda … at least, that’s what some people will say.

Now that we’ve established that my critic’s familiarity with the basic rules of evidence and chronology suggest a fundamental lack of competence, we can move on to discuss whether we might obtain a better understanding of what happened on various Civil War battlefields if we integrate race, class, gender, ethnicity, and overarching political aims in our interpretation of those battles and battlefields. I would think this to be painfully obvious, but then some people (including, one ventures, serveral recent critics) seem blind to the painfully obvious. Let’s just mention a few items in passing …

Isn’t it better to visit Harpers Ferry if you have some idea of why it became important in 1859?

We talk about the Irish Brigade and the German immigrants in the XIth Corps. Might an understanding of ethnicity help us there?

Robert E. Lee noted the need to offer the home front some relief in 1863 by invading the North, an idea that might well have been reinforced by the Richmond Bread Riots. Might we need to know more about the home front and how women experienced the war as a way to understand military decisions better? What about Lee’s orders on how to treat civilians? What about the role of women when it came to desertion?

How can you explain why Abraham Brian was not at his rented farm on Cemetery Ridge in July 1863 if you don’t know about the activities of the Army of Northern Virginia in capturing blacks?

What do you make of conscription and the notion that it had become a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight? Class, anyone?

Gee, folks, why was Antietam important, period?

Why did generals continue to choose to command from the front, even though that exposed them to deadly enemy fire? Might it have had something to do with morale, inspiring the men, and responding to expectations of manly masculine behavior that defined courage in certain ways?

Yes, I know, I’ve left out many possible questions. It’s a few items, remember?

Some people must not even think of asking these questions if they think that to raise them demonstrates an interest in race, gender, class, ethnicity, and overriding political aims (to name but a few concerns), marking them as “politically correct” or too interested in “inequality and white privilege.” Talk about fear and insecurity. I believe differently. One gains a far richer, more thoughtful, more insightful, and fuller understanding of what generals and soldiers did–and why–if they just open up their minds and imagination to the complexities involved in being historically accurate.

And if you don’t believe that, I feel sorry for you.

(Mind you, the blogger in question also declares that “the attack on Confederate heritage is often an attempt at cultural genocide.” Really.)


31 thoughts on “Even More Ranting …

  1. Jason Perez July 22, 2016 / 11:42 am

    Well prof Brooks I commend you, I’ve gotten to the point where if you are not being ranted about, then I take it as a sign that you are not taking your profession seriously and are putting “other agendas” before being objective and honest.

    Your example about internet halo was perfect. Some of us want uncensored history in color, not the PC narrative.

    In other words keep up the good “poisonous” work. And don’t let these hooligans get you down.

  2. Shoshana Bee July 22, 2016 / 12:08 pm

    It seems that someone is experiencing a Summer of Discontent: be it complaints about why another blogger gets more “likes” when he posts (’cause he’s honest and sincere) or the ever-present creepy-choice-of-words: ‘incestuous conversations between academics” canard. I would posit that if prof. Simpson was only interested in discourse with other historians, he certainly would not entertain conversations with the unwashed masses who peruse this blog 🙂

    At any rate, if priceless observations such as this one below are inspired by the sophomoric rants of others, than I guess there is a divine plan, and there is a special place reserved for even the most uninformed.

    Love this:

    “One gains a far richer, more thoughtful, more insightful, and fuller understanding of what generals and soldiers did–and why–if they just open up their minds and imagination to the complexities involved in being historically accurate.”

    • bob carey July 25, 2016 / 5:07 pm

      As a member of the unwashed masses, I am not a historian. I have had an interest in American history since childhood, which I suppose would make me a Civil War buff. As such I find that blogs like Crossroads have enhanced my understanding and increased my knowledge of the Civil War Era.
      Although I am not a sophisticate on blogging, I do know this much, full time professors at major universities don’t operate blogs unless they want to.
      Dr. Simpson does not have to prove his “bona fides” to anyone, but I for one am grateful that he chooses to conduct this blog in the manner that he does.
      Where else can someone like me interact with so many accomplished people.

      • Shoshana Bee July 26, 2016 / 9:42 pm

        Mr Carey,

        I agree with everything you wrote. I hope that it is abundantly clear that I include myself in the pool of the unwashed masses (my Ivory Tower resides in the Low Rent district where the bay window doubles as drive through coffee pick-up for local air traffic)

        • bob carey July 27, 2016 / 1:52 pm

          I didn’t take the slightest offense with the term”unwashed masses”. I was simply reiterating your thoughts that Dr. Simpson donates his time, energy and knowledge in maintaining this blog and that most of the readers and commentators are grateful.

  3. terry6400 July 22, 2016 / 7:33 pm

    Civil War era governor’s mansion burns in Louisiana, and a piece of history is lost forever. Brooks Simpson and the flag haters are responsible for disseminating hated towards Confederate Heritage, like shouting fire in a crowded theater, the disastrous consequences multiply time after time.

    Simpson and the flag haters are no better than the terrorist that murder innocent people. Simpson and the flag haters hate so thoroughly others perpetrate criminal acts, and the history that the flag haters proclaim to love so much suffers a fatal blow in the process.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 23, 2016 / 9:15 am

      This is hilarious! How did you manage to pick up the wacky vibe of half-crazed Confederate heritage advocates?

      • terry6400 July 25, 2016 / 6:26 am

        Confederate Heritage (History) matters. The burning of Civil War era governor’s mansion in Louisiana is proof enough. What will you have to complaint about or ridicule when all the mansions are gone?

          • terry6400 July 25, 2016 / 3:37 pm

            Well, I don’t believe I’m in the same category as a monument or historical building. I was not alive 150 years ago, so I pretty insignificant for purposes of ridicule at this point.

          • Brooks D. Simpson July 26, 2016 / 9:59 am

            We agree with your sense of your insignificance. However, never underestimate your power to amuse.

    • Shoshana Bee July 23, 2016 / 9:23 am

      Is this an inside joke of satire and parody? I’m not familiar with all the players here, so it’s hard to tell the jesters from the soldiers 🙂

        • Shoshana Bee July 25, 2016 / 6:56 pm

          He’s serious…. I am gob smacked silent. My staff requests that I read more comments like his; they enjoyed the (brief) silent respite.

          I believe my kitten possesses more intelligence than this guy.

    • Scott Ledridge July 25, 2016 / 3:05 pm

      “like shouting fire in a crowded theater” – Except that fire is real.

      Are blaming the fire on “flag haters”? What connection are you trying to make here?

      “Simpson and the flag haters are no better than the terrorist that murder innocent people.” – My the heritage crowd are a dramatic bunch. Such hand-wringing!

      • terry6400 July 26, 2016 / 11:10 am

        Yes, the fire was real that destroyed southern homes and crops as early in the war as 1862. The Union army invaded the South burning everything in sight. In one southern town only two residential dwellings were left standing.

        Yes, the fire was real that destroyed the Louisiana Governor’s Manson in 2016. Do any of you flag haters care that a historical building is gone forever? Apparently you would rather ridicule me, instead of lamenting over a part of lost history.

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 26, 2016 / 3:21 pm

          First you accuse me of causing the fire. Now you get upset because people note that you’ve made a fool of yourself. Sure, it’s too bad the site was burned. But you said I caused it. Proof? Absolutely none.

          So now you know why people make fun of you. Thanks for reading.

          • terry6400 July 26, 2016 / 4:43 pm

            Your hate rhetoric that continuously ridicules southern heritage helped create an atmosphere for some nut job that thinks like you to burn the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion. Like “shouting fire in a crowded theater” your hate rhetoric turns these nut jobs on to criminal acts. I would think a man of your intelligence and stature in the education community would be more responsible?

          • Brooks D. Simpson July 26, 2016 / 11:07 pm

            And there you go again. You can either prove your assertion or stand revealed as a blithering idiot. Until then, it’s been nice.

          • Jimmy Dick July 27, 2016 / 7:59 am

            While it is terrible when any historic structure is destroyed by any means, you are making accusations that have no proof to support your statement. It was definitely arson, but it seems that the same person or persons who burned down this mansion also tried to burn down the Orphan Train Museum. How do these heinous acts make teaching with facts incorrect?


            You seem to dislike factual based history, Terry.

        • Shoshana Bee July 26, 2016 / 6:51 pm

          Okay, I will take a break from my ridicule to attempt some sort of discourse..

          Quote: Do any of you flag haters care that a historical building is gone forever?

          You are your own worst enemy, here, as your PR campaign begins with a great, big, hysterical salvo accusing the blog readers of 1. fomenting hate 2. Igniting criminal acts 3. being on par with murderous terrorists. Not exactly the sort of marketing that stirs empathy, if you know what I mean.

          Quote: Apparently you would rather ridicule me, instead of lamenting over a part of lost history.

          In your first comment, you offer ONE statement about the lost building, and the rest is an acrimonious rant about the readers. Again my empathy runneth dry when confronted with a verbal frontal assault. As a person who served in the armed forces and stood up to REAL terrorism, I take great umbrage with any and all of your accusations, so quit sniveling about being picked on when you threw the first punch.

          If you are truly concerned about historical preservation, your energies might be better served in taking a more positive, pro-active approach to the task at hand, rather than disseminating disparaging remarks about people you know nothing about.

  4. John Foskett July 23, 2016 / 8:13 am

    Said blogger seems to have adopted a blog site version of Trump’s use of “plausible deniability” re-tweeting:

    “Today’s “Myth of American History” is written by Bo Traywick who is the author of Empire of the Owls and Virginia Iliad. As a guest contributor, Mr. Traywick’s opinions and claims must be taken as his own and not necessarily mine.”

    What follows are several paragraphs of junk “history” and agenda-driven opinion. Admittedly, it is odd that Lincoln failed to move against the “African slave-trading ports” of Boston and New York in 1861.

    • Andy Hall July 26, 2016 / 10:52 am

      > What follows are several paragraphs of junk “history” and agenda-driven
      > opinion. Admittedly, it is odd that Lincoln failed to move against the “African
      > slave-trading ports” of Boston and New York in 1861.”

      The Lincoln administration actually hanged a slaver captain during the war.

      Your move, Jeff Davis.

      • John Foskett July 26, 2016 / 3:09 pm

        I would, of course, be interested in any manifests showing vessels berthed in Boston or New York in 1861 and which were engaged in the African slave trade. And i don’t mean the occasional rogue which converted to a slaver in, say Liverpool, like the good old Nightingale of Boston. One rogue violating the law (and ultimately being seized) does not an “African slave-trading port” make.

        • Andy Hall July 27, 2016 / 12:25 pm

          Some merchants in New York, Boston and other places continued to be involved in the slave trade, quietly outfitting ships and investing in the slave trade. (The infamous Wanderer, one of the last ships to land African slaves in the United States, was bought from a member of the New York Yacht Club; by investors from South Carolina who wanted to reopen the trade.) But the federal government had little power to interfere with those activities, unless the perpetrators were actually caught in the act of transporting and holding slaves. That’s why the United States maintained an anti-slavery patrol on the West African coast in the years before the war.

          All of this is well known; it’s only a revelation if (as Gary Gallagher might say) you never read anything.

          Calling New York and Boston “the two largest African slave-trading ports in the world” is simply asinine, given that the last landing of African slaves in Boston and New York, via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, in 1763 and 1775, respectively.

          The poisoned economic tendrils of chattel bondage reached into every segment of this country in the years leading up to the conflict of 1861-65; there’s no question about that. But the author is setting up false equivalencies that really serve only as deflection. “They did bad things, too! What about them?” isn’t really an acceptable reasoning for a five-year-old, and certainly not for someone of that author’s stature. He can, and should, do better.

          • John Foskett July 28, 2016 / 10:22 am

            I’m aware of that and i firmly agree. As you suggest, that’s fundamentally different from characterizing the two ports as “African slave trading ports”. There’s a good reason why Lincoln didn’t extend the blockade to New York and Boston.

          • Andy Hall July 28, 2016 / 11:12 am

            It helps to think about this using a different, current-day commodity of trade. Take petrochemicals — crude oil, gasoline, LNG and the like.

            Many major petrochem companies are either based in New York City, or have major offices there. It’s a huge component of the larger shipping industry and maritime commerce, representing billions of dollars. But in the commonly understood meaning of the term, very few people would call New York City a “major petrochemical port.” So too with the international slave trade in the mid-19th century; it’s misleading and deliberately so to refer to New York and Boston in that way. But truthfully, this person is writing for an audience that either doesn’t know that, or doesn’t care.

      • Leo July 26, 2016 / 9:52 pm

        Andy, you crack me up!

  5. Joshism July 23, 2016 / 5:06 pm

    Placing historical events in context is a great answer and could stand on its own, but I will offer a second explanation.

    Given that Gettysburg is probably the most visited Civil War site in the country (and certainly the most famous) it seems the best place to teach the big picture of the war. And the outstanding visitor center the park has today is i think the single best Civil War museum in the country, even if it didn’t have the accompanying battlefield. For many visitors the Gettysburg battlefield and museum represents the most contact they will ever have with Civil War history.

    Also, the park rangers at any Civil War park, especially Gettysburg, are going to be asked many questions about the war beyond the events of the battle or the campaign. The rangers should be knowledgeable about the war, they should present both sides of arguments, and they should be clear when they are venturing into personal speculation. But for the sake of the visitor interest, education, and expectations they should not refuse to discuss other aspects of the Civil War because it doesn’t fit within a narrow interpretive window.

  6. Patrick Young July 28, 2016 / 9:18 am

    I have been reviewing the posts on the blog in question for the last few months. Quite the hash.

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