Ever since I first took an interest in history back in middle or high school, I’ve occasionally gone to the local library or bookstore and there confirm something that is, unfortunately, unsurprising: most American’s aren’t interested. A look at the shelves would turn up a few things on Greece or Rome, maybe the Cold War or China, and if you wanted to know about, say, the unification of Italy, you’re totally out of luck.
There are, however, a few exceptions. It’s easy to find Americans knowledgeable and passionate about the Kennedy assassination, and the Second World War certainly receives plenty of attention, to the extent that back when the History Channel had any history at all it was basically the “World War II Channel.” The one other major event of broad interest, especially in the South, is the War Between the States, and deservedly so, since this was such a pivotal moment in the American narrative. However, I don’t know as much about the events and people involved as I probably should, beyond what I remember from high school (which was, fortunately, better than many high school history courses) and Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.
Of course, one problem with all history books is determining which historians are trustworthy. One can have a passionate but reasonable argument about, say, who bears responsibility for starting the First World War; suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was less than a saintly martyr or more than a despicable tyrant, well, those are fightin’ words in many quarters. I don’t really expect authors to be completely free of bias; in fact, I generally trust those who are open about their opinions more than those who claim a distant objectivity. My general approach, then, is going to be to read a small handful of well-known modern historians, provided they don’t go full retard on whatever their ideological opinions are, but to stick primarily to primary sources when I can.
So, to begin this project, I read Noah Andre Trudeau’s biography Robert E. Lee. This is a fairly short (214 pages) overview of Lee’s life, with most of the book focusing on the war years; unsurprisingly, it’s about as much military history as biography. While I don’t value strict disinterestedness as much as many readers do, I do think that Trudeau does a good job treating his subject even-handedly; he obviously respects Lee, but avoids hagiography. He also avoids editorialising on the causes of the war or who was right or wrong. Rather, he focuses on what Lee himself said and did. In this, it reminds me of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, which I read recently, and which also avoided the temptation to signal ideological approval or disapproval (with a few exceptions), but instead approached the subject like a craftsman evaluating a peer’s work.
The book is short and straightforward, more of a sketch than a portrait, so those who have already read a good deal about the war or Lee himself can probably safely skip it, but it does serve as a decent introduction to the topic. That’s fine with me, of course, since this is basically an appetiser for the main course. Next, I’ll read Shelby Foote’s popular three-volume history to get an overview of the war as a whole, then I’ll try to stick to primary sources. I do have a recommendation for Raphael Semmes’s memoir. Of course, I’ll also continue to read other things between books on this subject.…