(December 28, 2018) Typically academic presses that publish books on the Civil War and Reconstruction will decline manuscripts that rely primarily on secondary sources. As opposed to a primary source such as an era-specific letter, diary, or official document, secondary sources are usually books and articles that cite the primary sources within their narratives. There are, however, three exceptions to the academy’s avoidance of books chiefly documented with secondary sources.
First are books that denigrate the Confederacy or her leaders. One example is Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1991. In her review of the book for the New York Times historian, and former Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, admits that Nolan provides “no new or sensational facts.” Yet she applauds Nolan’s destruction of “the Lee tradition” because it “led Americans to embrace a racist view of the war.” This, Faust quotes Nolan as saying, “deprived . . . the nation of any high purpose for the war.” She shows no concern about whether Nolan’s revised portrayal of Lee is accurate or fundamentally changes his character. Instead she is satisfied that it provides an excuse to ignore Lee’s nobilities in order to pin America’s lingering racism on the losing side of the war while simultaneously sanctifying the winning side.
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Second are books that demonize white Southerners as “terrorists” obsessed with abusing blacks during Reconstruction and thereafter. Allen Guelzo’s Reconstruction: A Concise History, released earlier this year by the Oxford University Press, is a good example. Eighty-seven percent of Guelzo’s 141 sources are secondary ones.
Like Eric Foner’s much bigger text released thirty years ago, Guelzo idealizes the black community. Also like Foner, Guelzo is so lacking in sympathy for all Southern whites that their problems receive none of the analysis and sympathetic understanding given to issues that confronted blacks. Consequently, readers will likely fail to understand that most ex-Confederates were not involved in lynchings, terrorism, and Ku Klux Klan vigilantism. Instead they lived hardscrabble lives, attempting to restore a region devastated by war. The cover of Guelzo’s book alone emphasizes only the racial aspects of Reconstruction. Six of the seven images depict blacks in various activities empowering themselves such as voting and working as freedmen, or conversely being helplessly abused by Southern whites.
A third type of book mostly documented with secondary sources that the academy will publish are those authored by tenured professors. Dr. Michael Holt’s By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 is a good example. The University Press of Kansas released the Virginia professor’s book in 2008 even though Holt admits in his preface, “I make no claim to have exhaustively researched primary sources.” Instead, his objective was to analyze the implications of generally known facts, not to discover new ones. And he succeeds.
Contrary to popular belief, for example, a number of factors gave Hayes the election over Tilden aside from Reconstruction compromise. Among them were monetary policy, civil service reform and Colorado statehood. Without the admission of Republican-controlled Colorado as a state, for example, no amount of vote-count compromise with Southerners in the disputed states of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina could have put Hayes in the White House. Not the least of pivotal election factors was the GOP’s re-emphasis on waving the bloody shirt to put the blame for Civil War casualties on the Democrats. Unlike Nolan’s, however, Holt’s analysis is not a deliberate character assassination designed to destroy a good man’s reputation in order to create a scapegoat for protracted racism.