Monday, June 26, 2006

Detzer: "Dissonance: The Turbulent Days Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run"

Dissonance: The Turbulent Days Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run is the concluding (yet chronologically middle) volume of David Detzer's early war trilogy. If you've read Donnybrook and Allegiance, then you know what to expect from Dissonance. Detzer's curious but lively writing style, ranging from folksy charm to brutally abrupt characterization of people and events, is unpredictable and fun to read as he doesn't shy away from chipping away at accepted history.

From my reading of the series, Detzer seems most interested in the middle-ranked "man on the spot" decision-makers. The character and actions of men like Baltimore police marshal George Kane and Gosport Navy Yard commandant Charles McCauley are placed front and center in his narrative. History by top-down management of events is deemphasized here, and historical "big men" like Lincoln and Davis are mostly peripheral to the story (however, a critic could reasonably cite this as a common weakness in the series; for instance, in Dissonance, Jefferson Davis is almost ignored while in the earlier Allegiance, the focus is so much on Robert Anderson that Lincoln's crucial actions are largely undeveloped).

A notable aspect of Detzer's writing is his apparent desire to reexamine the actions of individuals long ago consigned (unfairly by his assessment) to places of infamy and/or incompetence in our historical memory and give them prominent places in his narrative. In Dissonance, Detzer credits George Kane with saving the lives of hundreds of Federal troops passing through the Baltimore riots. Similarly, the much maligned Capt. McCauley mentioned above is more a victim of Lincoln's early blundering than a man bearing the heaviest of responsibilities for the Gosport debacle. According to Detzer, they were honorable and competent men doing their best in very trying circumstances, yet are generally wronged by history (also note the measured treatment of Robert Patterson in Donnybrook). That's not to say the author merely reassigns blame; but rather he attempts a more nuanced assessment of individuals dropped into a maelstrom of which they could have no prior experience or training. Of course, in the very next paragraph he can be bluntly, even cruelly, dismissive of the character or capacity of another unfortunate person. That's just part of the fun of reading David Detzer, equal parts satisfying and infuriating.

The centerpiece of Dissonance is the author's wonderfully constructed narrative describing the passage of northern troops through the streets of Baltimore. I feel my understanding of the events before, during, and after the riots has been enhanced considerably. The confusion regarding the defense and ultimate abandonment and partial destruction of the important Gosport Navy Yard near Norfolk, Virginia is also given a prominent position in Detzer's story. Other people and events covered in some detail include: Henry Wise's efforts to ensure Virginia's secession, the capture of Harper's Ferry, and Ben Butler's (and 7th NY Col. Lefferts') efforts to get northern regiments across Maryland and to the nation's capital. The book ends on May 23, 1861 with the passage of Virginia's referendum approving secession.

The problems I have with the book are relatively few. A few more maps--and more readable street maps--would have been nice. My most significant complaint is with the citation methodology employed. The notes are far too few in number, often spaced several pages apart leaving numerous quoted passages and long stretches of text needing attribution to a single citation! It is needlessly burdensome and all too often impossible for the reader to find exactly what source (or pages from that source) was used for any given quote or piece of text.

Methodological issues aside, Dissonance closes out the Dezter trilogy with another entertaining and informative volume. The writing style, with all its descriptive power and boldness, is a prime example of accessible historical writing. The style isn't for everyone, but readers of all levels can gain from reading Detzer's books. With engaging narrative history like this, individuals new to the study of the Civil War might be inspired to delve deeper and experienced readers will be forced to reconsider previously entrenched interpretations of many important events that occurred during the first few months of the conflict.

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