Monday, February 12, 2007

Finding a niche

One of the difficulties facing a researcher or amateur historian in any field is finding a niche -- someplace where they can contribute something new to the field instead of simply reviewing areas already covered by others. This is even more difficult when dealing with the Civil War, as seemingly every aspect has been covered by someone over the last 140-odd years.

The cavalry should be an easier field than most to find such a niche, as there aren't all that many books out there dealing specifically with cavalry operations during the war. But what is out there covers the area pretty well at this point. From general works such as Starr's three volumes on The Union Cavalry in the Civil War and Longacre's Lincoln's Cavalrymen and Lee's Cavalrymen to specific works on individual regiments and battles, there's a lot of great information out there.

An amusing anecdote: as an undergraduate, I mentioned to one of my professors that I wanted to cover the evolution of the Union Cavalry during the early phases of the Civil War, culminating in the Battle of Brandy Station. He assured me that there was no point in covering such an obscure field and that there would be little material and less interest in such a work. So it was with considerable amusement as well as enjoyment that I consumed Eric Wittenberg's The Union Cavalry Comes of Age once I finally found it. I didn't know how to find it, but I felt vindicated in that there was sufficient material out there.

I still feel that there is a definitive book waiting to be written on Brandy Station, as every book-length work that I've come across seems to come up a bit short. Hopefully Bud Hall will finish his work on the battle and successfully publish.

Since I've been living and working in Williamsburg the last two years, I'd thought to perhaps explore cavalry operations during the Peninisula campaign, a la The Cavalry at Gettysburg and The Cavalry at Appomattox. If the articles in Blue&Gray are any indicator, however, Robert O'Neill (the magazine's at home, I apologioze if I misspelled your last name, Robert) has this topic well in hand.

So where to start carving out my own small corner of the cavalry? I think I will start with the regiments of the Regulars of the Reserve Brigade. Particularly the 2d Cavalry, since that's been an unfinished project for far too long now. Cursory research on Google and Amazon don't show anything, so perhaps there's an opening here. Rush's Lancers is in the on-deck circle on my reading shelf. If it proves as thorough as I suspect, it may be a history of the Reserve Brigade also, and it'll be back to the drawing board. But I think there's still a story to be told about the Regular cavalry regiments. So far as I've been able to determine, only one website, U.S. Regulars Archive, focuses on the Regular regiments, and it seems to focus more on the infantry and artillery regiments than the cavalry. One reason for this might be the difficulty of using Cornell University's internet searchable version of the Official Records to find info on the Regular regiments.

Work on a timeline covering various engagements at Kelly's Ford throughout the war for the Brandy Station Foundation continues, and might finally be completed before the summer. And since JD Petruzzi mentioned he's working on a magazine article about cavalry depots, my curiosity's been piqued about the Cavalry Bureau, how it was created, and why the Confederacy didn't create something similar.


Eric Wittenberg said...


First, please allow me to thank you for the kind words about The Union Cavalry Comes of Age, which represents 10 years of researching and writing.

Having fed primary source material to Bud Hall for twelve years (including as recently as last week), I know what he's got, and it's some incredible stuff. Trust me--this book will be well worth the wait.

Please allow me to suggest some ideas of topics that require coverage.

First, while my history of the Lancers has to touch on the Reserve Brigade, a modern history of the service of the Regulars in the Civil War is LONG overdue and would be an extremely welcome addition to the body of knowledge. The challenge will be finding primary source materials.

Second, there is plenty that requires a modern treatment. Cavalry operations in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign would make an excellent study. So, too, would be a REAL study of mounted operations during the Appomattox Campaign (the last one was REALLY disappointing).

Or what about cavalry operations during the Antietam Campaign? There are some interesting things there: brigade scale combat at Quebec Schoolhouse, the escape from Harpers Ferry, and so on. It needs some real attention paid to it.

Third, there is plenty of good stuff waiting for someone to tackle in the Western Theater, if that's of any interest to you. The Battle of Shelbyville, as just one example, screams for a detailed tactical treatment. So, too, do some of the actions involving Morgan and Wheeler in the west.

There's plenty out there. The beauty of it is that you have plenty of choices and can select something that would be of interest to you.

Whatever you decide, please feel free to ask for help, and I will be happy to help in any way I can.


Don said...

The first way to help will likely be in having patience with odd questions with a newcomer...
I'm going to start with the Regulars and we'll see where things go from there. Primary source material will indeed be a challenge, as not too many Regulars appear to have been too interested in publishing their memoirs after the war. On the positive side, they do appear from my readings of the OR to generally report frequently and in detail. It's definitely going to take some research at the National Archives and Carlisle, I'm going to need to find a researcher or two since I'll be moving back west this summer. Any other suggestions that you might have on where to look will be greatly appreciated.
I'm not sure what the end result will look like, as just a preliminary look shows its composition to change pretty often. I'd rather not take the individual regiment approach, though I'll start research with the 2nd US Cavalry since it's a unit I'm somewhat familiar with.
Brigade-size cavalry fight at Quebec Schoolhouse during Antietam campaign? Hmm. No, no, focus.

Eric Wittenberg said...


Ask away. I will be happy to help.