Monday, November 8, 2021

Booknotes: Myths of the Civil War

New Arrival:
Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories by Scott Hippensteel (Stackpole Bks, 2021).

In Ken Burns's classic television series The Civil War, Shelby Foote told the story of a southern gentleman who was so confident that there would be no war that he offered to wipe up all the blood spilled over secession with his handkerchief. Of course, the man proved to be gravely mistaken, and Foote thought it would be an interesting exercise for someone to calculate how many handkerchiefs it would have taken to absorb the war's true toll in blood. As far as I know, no one has answered the bell on that one, but Scott Hippensteel's Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories employs a scientific approach to arrive at a quantitative assessment of a different group of traditional Civil War observations, claims, and assumptions.

As mentioned before on this site, the book has undergone a title change (the discarded one being The Myth of the Civil War Sniper) that better represents the true breadth of topics examined. From the description: "In the spirit of Robert Adair’s cult classic The Physics of Baseball, here is a book that tackles the long-cherished myths of Civil War history—and ultimately shatters them, based on physics and mathematics. At what range was a Civil War sniper lethal? Did bullets ever “rain like hail”? Could one ever step across a battlefield by stepping only on bodies and never hard ground? How effective were Civil War muskets and rifles? How accurate are photographs and paintings?"

Seven chapters examine the above Civil War tropes and more in three stages of analysis. First, the "oft-repeated historical claim" is defined and detailed. Second, "the background scientific principles are introduced and explained in a nontechnical manner." The third and final section brings the other two together, "studying and discussing the potential reality of the antiquated trope and suggesting alternative and more realistic scenarios" (pg. 5). Count me in.

With this book and his earlier one Rocks and Rifles: The Influence of Geology on Combat and Tactics during the American Civil War (2019), it's clear Hippensteel enjoys using his scientific background to present Civil War history in fresh and very unusual ways. I liked Rocks and Rifles quite a bit and am looking forward to reading this one.

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