Monday, October 13, 2008

A Seminal Moment In Civil War Research

I recently became a member of a fantastic organization known as The Society of Civil War Historians, and what a good move it was. Aside from filling up on the free quarterly newsletters (may I refer you to the summer 2008 newsletter where there is an article on how the Internet has influenced Civil War learning and teaching), I received three issues of the society's journal entitled "Civil War History."
You may recall in my review of "Bitterly Divided", I referenced an article by Joseph Glatthaar entitled "Everyman's War: A Rich and Poor Man's Fight in Lee's Army" from the September, 2008 issue of this outstanding publication as an example of the difference between using anecdotal evidence and some amount of statistical rigor to prove a hypothesis. Let's take a more thorough look at what could well be a seminal study that changes the way we look at a key component of Civil War history.
This article is the equivalent of what is known in the medical literature as a retrospective study, wherein the records of groups of individuals who are alike in many ways, but differ by a certain characteristic, are compared to look for a specific variable. In a well-designed study, the numbers can be a very powerful and convincing tool, far more so than any collection of anecdotes.
Dr. Glatthaar's study evaluates the question of whether the wealthy and slaveholding component of the Confederacy, after building the secession crisis and launching the war, stood by while the poorer strata of Southern society bore a disproportionate share of the warfighting. Thus, it compares a group of individuals (soldiers and officers in Gen. Lee's army) who are alike in many ways, but differ by a certain characteristic (wealth and/or slaveholding status) to look for a certain variable (did a disproportionate number of poor men serve in the army as opposed to wealthy men and/or slaveholders, remembering the key is proportionality, not absolute numbers, as the poor vastly outnumbered the wealthy).
The study is built around a stratified cluster sample of Lee's army, basically a data mining of a cross section of the service records and census data for troops in the various branches of the army, ie infantry, cavalry, artillery. This sample technique is extremely accurate based upon using 95% confidence intervals, and you can review the raw data if you wish to double check.
Without getting into too much detail (though I encourage anyone interested to read the study), Dr. Glatthaar successfully demonstrates that this was "a rich and a poor man's fight. Rich people were, in fact, greatly overrepresented in Lee's army, and not just at the officer level." He goes on to demonstrate with solid statistical accuracy that "troops in that army possessed powerful ties to slavery, and they came out in force to defend their precious institution. Slaveholders served in all ranks, deserted less frequently, suffered more injuries - in short, they risked it all for Confederate independence."
Please take a moment to let these two quotes sink in, because this is important, even groundbreaking stuff. Think of the number of places you've read, heard, or been taught that this war was started by the Southern rich, fought by the Southern poor, and slavery and slaveholding had nothing to do with it. This study debunks that theory, pervasive though it may be.
As we try to undo damage wreaked by decades of unchallenged assertions and reams of anecdotal or secondary evidence backing up the common understanding of the Civil War (again, the Lost Cause mythology being the primary example), we must bring modern investigative tools to bear. Dr. Glatthaar uses cutting edge research technology and advanced statistical methods to demonstrate how, as the author puts it "together, the rich, middle, and poor in Lee's army embraced the institution of slavery, and their tenacity in war indicates the broad strength of commitment to Confederate independence."
I know that for this to happen, this article and its findings need to reach a wider audience, as well as be disseminated as a reference in future investigations. One can only hope that in the same way Douglas Southall Freeman mined the perversely biased and inaccurate "Southern Historical Society Papers" in his research for what have been some of the primary texts on the war, this study and similar ones to come will form the backbone of a new and more accurate understanding of the Civil War.

1 comment:

Rea Andrew Redd said...

You are right. I am half way through the article and I am quite convinced that 'the world has turned upside down.'
How is this to get into popular culture? Through newstand Civil War magazines. Glatthaar's article needs to be condensed and illustrated with more soldiers' words.