Is the 'Golden' Age of Civil War Publishing Now?

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