Saturday, December 21, 2019

Civil War historian William S. McFeely died 11 December 2019

The Washington Post noted the death of William S. McFeely who was an undergraduate advisor to Henry Louis Gates Jr. at Yale University.
McFeely had a New Jersey connection (a graduate of Ramsey High School) and, of course, had a Civil War connection, through various books, including a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, of which the Washington Post wrote:

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, the Grant biography received the Francis Parkman Prize, an annual award from the Society of American Historians for a historical study of exceptional literary merit.

Although not mentioned by the Washington Post, the McNeely biography was critical of Grant, especially as to his military abilities, which view was in contrast to earlier historians such as Bruce Catton.

James M. McPherson (Princeton University) in Civil War History, Volume 27, Number 4, December 1981, pp. 362-366, cataloged various factual errors of McFeely:

The large number of careless errors that have found their way into this book raise doubts
about McFeely's understanding of this history. Most of these errors,
standing alone, would be of small consequence and not worth mentioning,
but their cumulative impact is distressing: It is not true that by
August 10, 1861, Union forces "had yet to achieve a victory" (p. 88);
Sherman was not the senior general under Grant at Shiloh (p. Ill); Memphis
was captured by the Union river navy, not by General Pope's
army (p. 120); Sherman had four divisions, not three regiments, for his
attack on Chickasaw Bluffs (p. 125); this attack occurred on December
29, 1862, not New Year's Day (p. 126); after the failure of this attack,
Sherman and McClemand did not order their troops into winter
quarters, but took them up the Arkansas River to capture the fort at
Arkansas Post (p. 126); the final day of the battle of Gettysburg wasJuly 3,
not July 4 (p. 137); the statement that the capture of Vicksburg "was
not achieved through a battle at all" is false (p. 137); Burnside did not
replace Buell as commander of the Army of the Ohio (p. 147); it is not
true that "Grant never forgave Thomas for the fact that the men of the
Army of the Cumberland" carried the assault on Missionary Ridge (p. 148);
Jeb Stuart's cavalry was not at the James River at the beginning
of the battle of the Wilderness (p. 167); Upton's assault at Spotsylvania
on May 10 is confused with the gruesome day-long fighting at the
Bloody Angle on May 12 (p. 169); at the battle of the Crater, Burnside's
troops had to cut their way through abatis in front of their own lines, not
wire (p. 179); George Crook commanded the Eighth Corps at Fisher's
Hill, not the cavalry, and more than eight of his men were killed there
(p. 185); Joseph Johnston was not in command of Confederate forces in
Georgia during Sherman's march from Atlanta to the sea (p. 191); the
battle of Nashville was not the "last great battle" of the war (p. 195)—
both in terms of casualties and import, the fighting at Five Forks and
Petersburg on April 1-2, 1865, constituted a larger battle; there was no
"final assault on Richmond" (p. 214)—Confederate troops evacuated
the city and Union troops entered without resistance; Lee surrendered
approximately 27,000 men at Appomattox, not 8,000 (p. 220); the
Reconstruction Act of March 2, 1867, created five military districts for
ten southern states, not five states (p. 259); Oliver O. Howard was not
the highest-ranking general in the army in 1870 (p. 377); and Georges Clemenceau
did not cover the war, but rather Reconstruction, as a
reporter for a French newspaper (p. 464).

Ethan S. Rafuse, in Still a Mystery? General Grant and the Historians, 1981 to 2006
within The Journal of Military History, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), pp. 849-874,

For the most part, ;historians] have portrayed
Grant as a great general and good man, dissenting strongly with the
highly negative portrayal of Grant contained in William S. McFeely's
1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning study. This essay traces the evolution
of Grant scholarship since 1981 (...)

Rafuse references a review by Current:

Richard N. Current advised readers of Reviews in American History to look elsewhere
for insights into Grant's generalship, as McFeely's work offered "nothing
about the genius of a Civil War general" and, in its accounts of Grant's
campaigns, gave readers "no indication that the man's presence made
any difference."

One surmises that MacKinlay Kantor (Pulitzer Prize winner for Andersonville) might have disagreed with
Grant as a fungible general. In If the South Had Won the Civil War, a 1961 alternate history book by Kantor,
the outcome of Vicksburg is reversed simply by having Grant die in a fall from a horse.

The Washington Post recounts an interesting exchange:

While teaching at Yale, Dr. McFeely often toured the South,
seeking to recruit promising African American students and professors.
In the classroom, he was sometimes challenged by students, Gates later recalled,
who questioned his authority to teach black history.

“At the end of each lecture,” Gates said in a 2013 forum at the Brookings Institution,
“somebody black would stand up and give him a hard time for being white.
And they would just be very abusive and very rude . . . how dare he teach this course?
And he said he was working hard to hire a black man, but until then, shut up and take your notes and pass your exam.”

link to Washington Post article:

Link to Kantor's "If the South..."

As a small comment, there has been some discussion of Grant at Paducah, Kentucky in December 1862 (specifically General Order No. 11 issued on December 17, 1862 ). Grant and Lew Wallace met in Paducah, KY.

As an undergraduate at Yale, Gates majored in history. His Ph.D. from Cambridge is in English literature [topic: the critical reception of black literature during the Enlightenment]



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