Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson


Sometimes a doctoral dissertation enjoys commercial success. In the early 1960s, O. Edward Cunningham submitted to the faculty of Louisiana State University a careful reading of primary sources participating in the 1862 western rivers campaign. Recently his colleagues Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith made some amendments to the record and had it commercially published as Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862. I have long maintained that the Western armies determined the outcome of the Rebellion by early 1863. Shiloh offers much evidence that can be interpreted in that way, although author Cunningham makes no such claim. Book Review No. 25 commends this work to any student of the Civil War. It reads quite well, particularly given its origins as a doctoral dissertation, and, as an Amazon reviewer noted, the footnotes are footnotes, with Joiner and Smith's additions properly identified. The dissertation has long been known to the staff at the National Battlefield Park, and the editors give as their reason to publish it its originality, both as a piece of research in which the author made extensive use of primary sources including war letters, diaries, and regimental histories, as well as his own walking of the battlefield. (There is a quip about the industrial economist being someone who has never been on a factory floor, perhaps there is something parallel about the military historian. As someone with extensive factory floor experience, both as paid labor and as guest, I liked this guy even before I got into the book). The research is also original in its interpretation of events at Shiloh. The maps are also very good. (That's another of my gripes. Many military history books have maps with all the right unit symbols but little geographic context. The unit symbols in Shiloh are idiosyncratic, but the geographic context is good, although it helps that I have also walked that battlefield.)
The book offers a lot of detail, without being overwhelming. One is at the headquarters and in the trenches. There is analysis of the plans and counter-plans (including, on the Union side, the errors of Genls Sherman, Grant, and Lew Wallace, and on the Rebel side, the possible excess optimism of Genl Beauregard. We could do with fewer references to "the Creole." Small gripe.) There is also the incident in which Major John Wesley Powell (as in Grand Canyon expedition and Lake Powell) has his arm shot off, and the scared rabbit that decides an entrenched soldier is the best cover during one of the bombardments.

That this dissertation is successful and readable is in part reason that subsequent dissertations might be obscure and recondite. Once an Edward Cunningham has done the original pass through the primary sources to put together an analysis of the campaign and the battle, subsequent historians working with those sources will have to make some other use of them, such as attempting to uncover racist attitudes (or not) on the part of Union (or rebel, not necessarily respectively) soldiers or evidence of adultery or attitudes of false consciousness, or with a slightly different Zeitgeist, evolution of religious belief.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops).

Tags: history
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