Monday, December 20, 2021

Review - "Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories" by Scott Hippensteel

[Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories by Scott Hippensteel (Stackpole Books, 2021). Hardcover, photos, tables, illustrations, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:v,263. ISBN:978-0-8117-3997-9. $29.95]

Many Civil War stories and expressions have become so entrenched in both the published literature and popular imagination that they're often repeated without much in the way of reflection. Employing a variety of methods, Scott Hippensteel's Myths of the Civil War: The Fact, Fiction, and Science behind the Civil War’s Most-Told Stories employs a quantitative approach that reexamines a number of those popular Civil War assumptions, claims, and phrases. Seven chapters examine such "tropes," and they do so in three stages. First, the "oft-repeated historical claim" is defined as narrowly as possible and meticulously detailed. To counter arguments that the author might be stacking the deck against the myth, Hippensteel to his credit attempts to formulate often nebulous assumptions in a way that is as favorable to the myth as possible while remaining within the parameters of evidence found in the literature (anecdotal as it may be). Some readers might find the often high number of examples provided to be repetitive and a bit tedious, but it's largely necessary to establish the trope. Second, "the background scientific principles are introduced and explained in a nontechnical manner." In each case, the author develops a quantitative method to examine the myth. The third and final section is reserved for "analysis and evaluation" of the claim and the science employed for testing it. In addition to "studying and discussing the potential reality of the antiquated trope," this section also suggests "alternative and more realistic scenarios" for the rejected historical claim (pg. 5). Both stages two and three are well stocked with photographs, contemporary illustrations, figures, and tables that augment and/or visually illustrate the analytical process in a very clear manner.

Civil War sharpshooting has received increased attention of late (with some excellent published work from Fred Ray and a number of other writers and historians), and much of it is incorporated into Hippensteel's focused examination of three famous (or infamous) sniping episodes from two major battles. Though 'impossible' and 'highly improbable' are used a bit too interchangeably in the discussion of assumptions and results, the volume's rational and well-illustrated approach to sniping mythology offers a really excellent treatise on the extreme difficulties involved in achieving a first-shot kill beyond 500 yards under battlefield conditions while using even the best long-range rifles and crude scopes of the period.

Every Civil War reader has encountered countless quotes or passages that create a mental picture of the aftermath of fighting over a particular patch of ground (often large open fields) using colorful phrases like a "carpet of death" or describe the ability of a person to fully traverse a corpse-stewn part of a battlefield without touching the ground. In another example, the volume of enemy fire is very often described as a "hailstorm" of lead. In rethinking those tropes, Hippensteel uses novel spatial and meteorological analysis to completely discount such scenarios having any basis in reality (though for the former, it is conceded that corpses can conceivably be concentrated enough within the most tightly confined spaces). Though cognizant that such widespread use of the same words and phrases can be indicative of period lexicon not meant to be taken literally (and most readers and writers are surely aware of that as well), the author still insists that too many authors remain credulous and those that aren't too often pass them on to their audience without qualifying statements.

The post-battle collection of thousands of abandoned rifles that contained multiple loads in their barrels has attracted several explanations, the most popular of which involve poor user training and the stresses of battle. The fact that this phenomenon continued throughout the war among veteran armies and keeping in mind that the technology itself was subject to relatively frequent misfires, Hippensteel suggests a better explanation. The scenario is as follows: (1) a misfired weapon (for whatever reason) is discarded for another dropped by a killed, wounded, or fleeing comrade, (2) another soldier needing a replacement weapon picks up the inoperable rifle, assumes it has been fired already, loads it, and pulls the trigger, (3) that soldier then discards the rifle when it obviously doesn't fire. This process is then repeated any number of times leading to thousands of weapons with three or more loads in the barrel. Though others have surely independently arrived at the same possibility, this is a scenario that is far more convincing than the ones most commonly raised in the literature.

A large volume of ink has been spilled debating the merits of Civil War rifle-musket superiority over older technology and whether it had a revolutionary impact on the battlefield. Hippensteel's analysis agrees with that of Earl Hess, Paddy Griffith, and others, arguing that the Springfield and Enfield rifle-muskets in the hands of Civil War soldiers had only a marginal (not revolutionary) impact on Civil War battlefield tactics and casualties.

Through the pioneering work of William Frassanito and others, it has been demonstrated that Civil War photography was frequently staged, altered, or given fraudulent captions by practitioners more concerned with appealing composition and profits than in creating an authentic historical visual record. Using knowledge of the photographic process, forensic techniques, and geology (the author's own professional expertise), Hippensteel establishes a useful "hierarchy of manipulation" that he employs in the book to quantitatively assess fraud, finding that one-third or more Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg images show clear evidence of manipulation. Thus, Civil War photography did not at all possess the fabled journalistic and historical truthfulness so often extolled at the time. This has been revealed for some time already, but arriving at a numerical evaluation of its scale is insightful.

The book ends with a "realism vs. romanticism" examination of popular Civil War art. Rather than getting into arcane arguments involving uniform and weaponry minutiae, Hippensteel selects three readily quantifiable elements of "realism" for his comparison. These are (1) the ratio of firing to reloading soldiers, (2) the amount and quality of smoke in the frame, and (3) the presence and extent of muzzle and vent flash. Using those metrics, the author determines that the popular art of the 1980s and 90s (exemplified by the prodigious output of leading lights such as Dale Gallon, Don Troiani, Keith Rocco, and Mort Küntsler) is indeed, as claimed, generally more 'realistic' than that produced by previous generations of painters and illustrators.

Of course, readers can come up with a host of additional tropes that could easily fill up another volume, and many solid candidates are mentioned in the book's conclusion. In the series of topics addressed in the appendix section, Hippensteel offers more information on means available for comparing rifle knockdown power, looks at how effective hand-held revolvers were in Civil War combat, discusses common 'farbiness' in reenacting, and reflects on how poorly Civil War projectile ballistics and wounds are portrayed in cinema and on television.

Some of the topics covered by Myths of the Civil War aren't myths by the strict definition of the word or are really quite harmless to any quest aimed at obtaining a mature understanding of the war, but the ways in which Hippensteel applies math and science to test the range or limits of reality when it comes to popular figures of speech, feats of sharpshooting, the alleged firearms revolution, and Civil War art are unique and fresh. Its contributions to ongoing debates about Civil War rifled shoulder arms and ballistics are arguably the volume's most important contributions. The book usefully reminds us that it is always good to periodically step back and more objectively question long-held assumptions, and the author creatively demonstrates a host of relatively simple tools and methods one might employ in doing so. Scott Hippensteel is two for two now when it comes to creating books that approach the Civil War in fascinating ways we've never quite seen before (see also 2019's Rocks and Rifles), and one can only hope that his authorial aspirations will continue on in this distinctive vein.

1 comment:

  1. Drew: Another fine review and I fully concur. I would only add that the author brings a sense of humor to this excellent work with the occasional word/phrase that has a line through it followed by more "serious" text. Unlike his first book, this one is priced to be affordable.

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