On a whim, I recently purchased Stephen M. Hood’s John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General (2013). Besides the trans-Mississippi, my main Civil War interest is the Army of Tennessee. This is due in part to the fact that my g-g-grandfather served in the Adams-Gibson Louisiana brigade of that often ill-fated army. Although I’ve only read the first forty pages of Hood’s book, I’ve already found it to be a pertinent reminder of how careful historians need to be when crafting their findings. Hood points out that soon after the war, John Bell Hood had a positive reputation, but then he became a convenient scapegoat in Lost Cause historiography. Although some twentieth-century historians, particularly his biographers, wrote favorable assessments of the general, the writings of Stanley Horn, Thomas Connelly, James McDonough, and Wiley Sword have been critical of the General. Hood argues that certain historians (and he names the offenders) have engaged in various academic sins such as misusing sources, relying too much on Lost Cause writings, and inserting unattributed “facts.” The book has hooked me, and I’m looking forward to reading the more analytical sections.
For several years, I collected primary documents relating to the Adams-Gibson Louisiana brigade with a goal of writing a history of the unit. For various reasons, the project was abandoned, however, I noticed some interesting things while collecting sources. Many books argue that Braxton Bragg was unpopular among his troops, and yet I found few negative comments about him in the primary sources that I collected about the brigade. Balancing out the negative remarks, were some rather glowing positive comments. This is rather extraordinary when you consider that the Louisiana brigade was supposedly opposed to Bragg. Randall Gibson, the commander of the 13th Louisiana, certainly had a run-in with Bragg after Shiloh, but the men in the ranks? For the most part the Louisiana soldiers rarely commented on their commanding generals; other matters drew their attention much more.
And, that points out the danger of the historiographical box. If a historian relies too much on secondary sources, then you run the risk of distorting the past in your own writings. The Hood book made me think more about the various historiographical boxes that relate to the trans-Mississippi. What “facts” do we read time and time again in secondary sources about the trans-Mississippi? Are they really true? Here’s a quick example: on a regular basis, I have read that the trans-Mississippi was a sort of “backwash” for incompetent leaders. Is it true? Certainly, I can think of some poor leaders in the trans-Mississippi: Nathaniel Banks and Sterling Price immediately come to mind. On the other hand, were James G. Blunt, Samuel Curtis, Jo Shelby, and Richard Taylor incompetent? Could it be that the truth is more nuanced than commonly believed?
What else do you commonly read about the trans-Mississippi theater in secondary sources? The next time you read one of these common viewpoints, perhaps you should ask yourself what sources is the comment based on? And, is it really true? Perhaps if historians and readers alike ask themselves such questions more often, we’ll come to a better understanding of that world that we call the past.