Have you Ever Checked an Author's Source and Found it Wrong?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Divining the Past From Recollected Scraps....

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It has taken me a while, but I got there. 

After digging into firsthand accounts for 30+ years, and publishing books for nearly that long, I have reached a few conclusions. Sometimes grudgingly, sometimes easily. But I am there now, and there is no going back.


One conclusion I have reached is that what we often believe are “accepted facts” are only “facts” until you research them yourself and check the sources the authors relied upon. 

Far too often, what has come down to us originated from a single pen copying a quote of someone long dead, and was then copied, endlessly, one writer at a time, one book at a time, one article at a time. But each time the "fact" was recorded a tad differently. An extra adjective here, a few extra words there. 

Quoted material is often (not always, but often) flat out wrong and often taken out of context–or in some cases simply made up, or has nothing to do with the conclusions reached. 

Quotes are routinely cherry-picked evidence to grind a particular axe. If you doubt this, think about what happening on today's media front, or for examples from our past, read the meticulously detailed footnotes in John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, by Stephen M. Hood. This book will make you angry at how some authors manipulated data to affect an outcome in your mind. It sure did me.

Just yesterday I was reading Resolute Rebel, the new biography on Roswell Ripley for a magazine review. Ripley has come down to us as a less-than mediocre and difficult officer who had problems getting along with pretty much everyone and was liked by almost no one. I have accepted and believed that for 40 years. Except . . . the evidence doesn't seem to support it.

One instance noted by the author concerned Ripley's objection to Governor Pickens' constant "interfering" with his troop dispositions around
Charleston in late 1861, the department under Gen. Robert E. Lee. Ripley told Pickens his meddling was causing "confusion and harm." Pickens passed this information on to President Davis and alleged that Ripley said "extreme things" about Gen. Lee, and that Ripley may be calculated to do "great injury" to Lee and his command. The letter exists, yet has nothing in it about precisely what Ripley wrote or said. Nothing. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Southall Freeman seized upon "extreme things" (hearsay, by the way) and elevated that to this: "For some unknown reason, Ripley took a violent dislike to Lee." [R. E. Lee, vol. 1, 617.] 

Violent dislike? 

Others have built upon Freeman's thrust. And so it has come to pass that Ripley was difficult, and despised Gen. Lee. The evidence? None at all. 

Little is as it seems, or as it has been fed to us.

My experience as a former trial lawyer and historian led me to a second conclusion: Eyewitness evidence is wholly untrustworthy MOST of the time–and especially when witnessed under stress. 

Most people do not believe this. I staged a loud fake 30-second argument with a "student" in front of one of my college law classes--I taught in the undergraduate college while in law school--and then asked the class specific questions in writing. They could not agree on the "student's" height, weight, hair color, clothing, or the words spoken. It was incredible. The student were shocked by the outcome.

Here is a link to a few classic examples.  Watch a few of these video tests: http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html. Also read Part III of Greg Michno's new Battles of Sand Creek: In Blood, In Court, and as the End of History. (Michno also explains how each time we think of something from the past, we "add" to it something and then rewrite the old memory like a hard drive. It is still "real" to us, because it is our memory.)

Judging someone’s “attitude” or “demeanor” or basing a conclusion on a couple sentences someone overheard or recalled or saw days, weeks, years, or decades later is in my opinion just foolish and naive. 

I have lived long enough to discover some of my own absolutely precise and specific recollections of events are absolutely wrong. That revelation was unnerving because I would have bet the farm I was right.

Take this Civil War example on General Longstreet's demeanor and attitude at Gettysburg(Hat tip Emerging Civil War post recently by Phil Greenwalt on Old Pete. Clear HERE to read it once you finish this post.)

Based upon what has come down to us that he supposedly said or how he looked and acted, we generally believe today he was difficult, obstructive, harsh, detached, and negative and interfered with Lee's plans to the point of helping lose the battle--right? 

Now, maybe he really was an ass at Gettysburg. I wasn't there. Neither were you. However, this part of the discussion is not really about Longstreet specifically, but about historical recollections generally and how readily we accept them as gospel.

Let's engage in some second-stage thinking, shall we? It is rare today in an age where a bumper sticker is often accepted as truth. But play along...


Ask yourself: 
How many words do you think Longstreet spoke during the three days at Gettysburg? Thousands, right? 

How many different people did he personally interact with? Scores? Hundreds?

How many words do we have that were written down contemporaneously as Longstreet spoke? Other than a couple orders from the saddle, essentially none.

How many people who interacted with him recorded their interactions in letters, diaries, recollections, etc? A very very slim handful. Less than one percent of the total?

How many of these recollections were gleaned during high stress? All of them.

How many of these recollections were penned after the South's first major defeat? Nearly all of them. Or penned after the South lost,
Gettysburg came to be viewed as the turning point, and a villain was needed to deflect from Lee's faults? Most of them.

Or after someone had a falling out with Longstreet? Some of them. 

You can see where this is going.

Despite all these second-stage sorts of questions, we have been taught to readily accept another person’s recollections, accept a sentence or two written often years after the event about what Longstreet supposedly said, etc. 

And from all this . . . we are to firmly conclude for the sake of history what Longstreet's “attitude" was like there, and thus reach sweeping conclusions. 

That has always struck me as ridiculous.

Still not convinced about the process of memory vis a vis history? Personalize it. 

Ask yourself: How many words do you think YOU spoke just last weekend? How many people did you personally interact with? Did you laugh and cry during that same weekend at some point? Did you ever raise your voice? Speak calmly with someone? Speak harshly to another? Show some thin shade of anger or frustration? 

Likely the answer is yes to ALL of those, right?

Now, what if one person who interacted with you during ONE of those moments wrote later (and perhaps many years later) to tell others what your attitude was like that weekend, how you interacted with people, and from that made sweeping conclusions? What if that person was someone you were once close to, but had a falling out over something. Trustworthy?

If accepting sweeping conclusions formed in this manner makes sense to you, have at it. 

It has never made sense to me.
--tps

Sunday, March 26, 2017

My New Article (Part 1 of a 2-Part Series) in "Civil War Times" Magazine--and Why You Should Care

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Writing articles for magazines is enjoyable, but I stopped doing so some years ago because I no longer had the time.

I am busier now than ever, but one topic in particular had been eating at me. Late last year a new book was published--let's call it the straw that broke the camel's back (see more below).

I pitched Dana Shoaf, editor of the venerable Civil War Times magazine, an idea for a two-part feature article. My pitch intrigued him and he (thankfully) accepted.

Spread from Part 1 of my 2-part series in Civil War Times magazine
Part 1, "Heart of the Southern War Machine" was just published in the June 2017 issue. It is critically important in many ways, and it is impossible to fully appreciate Part 2 without understanding Part 1. Still, but it something of a feint, for it sets up the knock-out punch that will appear in the next issue as Part 2: "Repeated Strategic Failures of Magnitude: General Sherman and the Bypassing of Augusta."

*     *     *

(Only modest spoilers ahead...)

Every author thinks his or her work is important, In truth, it usually isn't. 

An article (or book, for that matter) might be good, interesting, or entertaining, but when the reader closes the cover, that's it. On to other matters. Very few influence the literature on a particular topic.

I think (and sincerely hope) this two-part series is different. 

Why? Because I believe it can--and damn well might--change the way we look at not only the manner in which the Union high command conducted the Civil War (and three important campaigns in particular), but trigger a reevaluation of these watershed events and, more importantly, of one of the war's leading Union generals--William T. Sherman.

Now you know why I took the time to write these articles.

*     *     *


George Washington Rains, 1865
In the late 1980s, I accidentally stumbled across a Confederate colonel named George Washington Rains in my 128-volume set of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (more commonly known as the OR). He was associated with something called the Augusta Powder Works. What was that? The more I searched the traditional secondary sources, the less I found about Rains and the facility. 

Something was amiss. 

Determined to solve this mini-mystery, I began digging into archives and other repositories with firsthand accounts. Keep in mind there was no Internet back then. As it turned out, Rains designed, built, and operated the South's only (ONLY) major source of gunpowder during the Civil War. How could I have spent decades reading about the war and not known this? 

I determined to write a book on the subject and spent years researching the topic in more than a score of repositories across the country.

I obtained copies of the mill's ledger books, daily operational records, uncovered hundreds of letters, and so much more. Once I thoroughly studied the mill's day-to-day operational records (I believe I am the first historian to have ever done so), and discovered the facility's extensive original colorized blue-prints jammed in drawers on a small museum's third floor, I extrapolated the information and determined to follow the evidence wherever it led.

And then I proceeded to pick myself up off the floor.

After years of careful study and in-depth discussion with a couple other historians I respected, I reached conclusions that ran wholly contrary to what everyone else had ever written about Civil War strategy, General Sherman, the Atlanta Campaign, his March to the Sea, and even the beginning of his 1865 Carolinas Campaign.

How could this be?

Take a look at the bibliographies and indexes of any books on this general or these topics and you will discover the answer--not by what is there, but by what is NOT there.

No other writer, historian, or author had ever bothered to engage in the due diligence required to utilize available archival records relating to Colonel Rains and the true significance of the role the Augusta's Powder Works played in the war--and then employ this information to objectively evaluate the impact of various decisions and their influence on the course of the Civil War.

Other than a few lectures (at which audience members routinely say to me, "My God, why have I never heard this before?!") and one article many years ago that touched on the subject, I kept this to myself because I wanted to conduct more research.


In the mid-2000s, I was asked by Chip Bragg, a Georgia MD and fellow Rains enthusiast, to team up with several others of various backgrounds (engineering, logistics, architecture, etc.) to publish Never for Want of Powder: The Confederate Powder Works in Augusta, Georgia (U of South Carolina Press, 2007). I didn't reveal much of my own research there, but contributed two lengthy sections on Rains and the Works. It is a fine book, but the press didn't spend much time marketing it. Few people read it, and Rains and his accomplishment remained in obscurity. 

The Straw that Broke the Camel's Back


The last straw was the publication of William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life (2016) by James Lee McDonough. This author is best known for a case of plagiarism so egregious that his former publisher pulled his Atlanta Campaign book off the shelves. His new Sherman book has been hailed as a masterly work of scholarship, the reviews are glowing, and sales appear brisk.

McDonough's 832-page homage to Sherman touts his genius, his impeccable strategy, his stellar generalship, and essentially claims his actions helped bring the war to a quicker close. To McDonough, Sherman's March to the Sea is--of course--a brilliant masterpiece.

(Understand I used to believe this, too. I have no dog in this fight and I always let the evidence lead me to logical, reasonable conclusions.)

But guess what? You won't find anything in McDonough's book about George Rains, the Augusta Powder Works, the importance of Augusta, etc. and Sherman's decision-making vis a vis the city and its ordnance complex.

A reasonable person might ask, "How did McDonough reach his conclusions?"

The dirty little secret is that most (not all, most) historians and writers are lazy. (Keep in mind I have been a publisher for more than 25 years. I know how the sausage is made.) They copy one another, add adjectives and sterling prose, slap a pretty dust jacket on the package, and then sell it to you. They repeat one another in a heady rush to heap encomiums upon
Sherman without engaging in original thinking and research.

In this manner, the bronze medal “March to the Sea” has been declared a brilliant far-sighted gold medal achievement for everyone to admire.

Pardon me while I disagree.

*     *     *

My essay, as noted above, is divided into two sections: Part 1 sets the foundational importance of Augusta and its war industries, and Part 2 combines the objective data balanced against Union decision-making).

My research forces me to disagree with essentially everyone else.

Sherman's mistakes (he made the same one over and over, and then lied about it after the war) were so egregious, so impactful, and so inexcusable that they lengthened the war and resulted in tens of thousands more deaths.

And I have the documentary evidence that proves it. It is not guess work; it is not a "revisionist" alternative reality theory. It is demonstrable beyond doubt.

Let's call it the smoking gun that has been sitting in plain sight for 150 years.

I know my conclusions will generate some hate-mail, argument, name-calling, and so forth. Good. People who know me well know I don't give a damn about any of that.

As a researcher, trained historian, author, attorney, and publisher, I sincerely hope that this interpretation/argument convinces those who come after me to, at the very least, fully examine ALL available archival materials and then--and ONLY then--write about the subjects at hand.

After all, isn't that what good history is supposed to be?

--tps





Friday, January 27, 2017

Author Fraud also Tars the Publisher

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I published an author one time. I will never publish him again.

Why?

He is a fraud.

Now, I have been associated with Savas Beatie, published widely under Savas Publishing, and have assisted many other agents, publishers, etc. so I am not sharing which outlet this man/woman wrote for, or the genre. I will refer to this author as a "he" for convenience sake. It may be a woman. But the gender is irrelevant. It is WHAT do you as an author that matters.

His work is barely mediocre but tends to sell. His writing is pretty awful, and needs to be rewritten from soup to nuts, and cut by about 40% to remove the repetitious filler and chaff to find the wheat. Sort of like taking a shovel to a pile of manure to find the pony hidden in there somewhere.

One publisher who had also released one of his books called him a "one-man editorial wrecking crew." I can vouch for that. One of my hired editors made it through three chapters before throwing up her hands to scream "no mas."

At that point I hired another, told him to completely rewrite and cut whatever, and he did. And the author never said a word. I don't even know that he read the galley proof. He really didn't give a damn as long as he had yet another book out with his name on it.

So you are are thinking, "What does the fraud part come into this?" right?

Another publisher who had suffered through one of his poorly written repetitive manuscripts to produce a book, demonstrated the perfidy to me some time ago. "This guy posts fake reviews on Amazon, either directly or through accounts of others. And I think he also hires fake reviewers, which is not hard to do. He has done it for several books."

Then my publishing acquaintance pointed out about half a dozen of these "reviews". We read them together on-line. They all had something in common, and you can find these commonalities here:

http://www.wikihow.com/Spot-a-Fake-Review-on-Amazon

The kicker for me was when I later discovered one "reviewer" who reviewed two of this author's books on the same day, writing almost entirely the same thing.

After I poured a gin and tonic and burned through a good cigar to relax, I called this author on it and told him that, as his publisher his fraud taints MY company. MY name is on the spine, copyright page, title page, etc. I made it clear he had 24 hours to remove the bullshit review on the book I had published, or I would report him publicly.

Of course he vigorously denied it. I told him the clock was running. The review remained. I published a comment to the review under my own name, called him out publicly, and apologized to anyone who had bought the book.

The review came down within hours.

The same author offered me other manuscripts to publish. Breathtaking, I know. I told him what I thought of that idea. He went elsewhere to peddle his junk.

BOTTOM LINE:

Your behavior as an author reflects upon your publisher.

As a man and a publisher who values his reputation (and the reputation of my partners--i.e, our authors), if you ever pull that stunt with me and I find out, I will name you to the world and tar and feather your behind to Kingdom Come. And trust me, Ted's will WILL be done.

Your work will stand or fall on its own merits. When you put yourself out there, you will get some bad reviews. It is the nature of the beast.

Learn to live with it.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

How I Came to Discover Douglas Southall Freeman....

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This appeared as a newspaper editorial some fourteen years ago. I thought readers of this blog might enjoy it. 

Happy New Year.

--tps
-------------------

A DIME WELL SPENT

(published El Dorado Hills Telegraph, 2002)


I don’t think there is a better way to spend an hour on a Saturday morning than with your children perusing old books at one of the sales at Oak Ridge High School.

My ardor for books is boundless. When I was a kid my friends carried around sports cards; I was a card-carrying member of the HBC (History Book Club). They went fishing; I went to the library. They hung around school lockers and talked; I ducked into empty classrooms to finish  reading (or writing) a short story. If there was a book sale within 50 miles, I was there. Naturally, one of my adult obsessions has been whether my kids would be as smitten with dusty old books as is their papa.

Whole trees fall to the ax to satisfy my 11-year old daughter Alex's unquenchable thirst for ink-based adventure. And my polar opposite 7-year old son Demetrious? He loves it when I read to him—but picking up a book on his own and losing himself in another world seemed a lost cause.

For two years I have taken him to every Oak Ridge book sale. Recently he spotted a sign announcing another and demanded we attend. “I’ll pay for my own books,” he informed me. Like a warrior on a mission he zeroed in on the children's table. After amassing a sufficient stack of titles, he presented them for check out. I stood well behind him.

A kind lady with a warm smile tallied up the damage. She held up one book suitable for a teenager and commented to my son, “This is for older kids. Can you read it?” Something gently tugged at the back of my mind. Demetri offered a shrug in response. She continued sorting until she came to a not-so-gently read Amelia Bedelia book.

“How about a dime for this one?” she asked.

“A dime.”

A flood of memories washed over me. Demetri began fishing in his pocket for money as my mind wandered some three decades into the past . . .

*     *     *

One summer day my grandfather brought me a pummeled rummage sale copy of the first volume of Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, by Douglas Southall Freeman. My grandpa charged me a dime and a kiss on his shiny bald head.

It was my first Civil War book. I was eleven or twelve. Who knew.

I read it aloud walking along the lilac-studded northern boundary of our Iowa property line. After a steady barrage of questions, my mother tired of the game and dropped a dictionary on a basswood stump. I got the message. Do your own research....

I spent the next week living with a cadre of men I would never meet, challenging myself as I flipped through Webster’s all while imagining another time and place. To this day I still smell pungently sweet lilac whenever someone mentions the Battle of Malvern Hill.

I remember how excited I was when I discovered there were three volumes in the series, and how the librarian with a freshly‑sharpened yellow pencil stuck deep into her beehive hairdo tried to discourage me from checking them out because I was “far too young to read and understand Freeman.”

I opened a book and read aloud. That convinced her.

With the second volume under my arm, I peddled my green Stingray bike (with the long cool banana seat) across town to the Union soldier’s memorial obelisk in Central Park, where I leaned against the sun‑warmed polished granite and devoured the stirring Introduction and first chapter.

I finished the book in the back of a Dodge station wagon on the way to New York City with the family, and the third installment on the stoop of an apartment complex in Brooklyn ten days later.

The colossal scope and breadth of books in general, and the Civil War in particular, finally began to dawn on me. My grandfather’s dime stirred a lifetime of passion. . . .

*     *     *

I stopped my son as he pulled a few coins from his pocket to pay for his books. “I’ve got it,” I told him with a smile he returned in kind. Before we arrived home, he had the torn paperback out of the sack and was reading for all he was worth.

“Wanna play some catch?” I asked, hoping I knew the answer.

“No, I want to read,” he replied without looking up.

Without another word, Demetri walked upstairs and flopped down on his bed. I walked into my library, pulled out that battered first volume of Lee's Lieutenants, trotted up the steps, and asked him to scoot over.

He smiled and wiggled closer to the wall. I dropped down next to him. And we read together. And then we fell asleep together . . . reading.

A dime well spent can still buy you everything that really matters.



Copyright 2002, Theodore P. Savas