A Few Thoughts on Becoming a Historian, or Lessons Learned Along the Way…Plus a Possible New Focus Statement

After doing some careful soul searching and thinking about the direction in which my current research is leading me, I have come to the conclusion that I am not just a student of military history. Due to the ideas and theories being taught in my course work here at Virginia Tech, I am becoming a more well rounded historian and therefore feel that I am constantly learning.

I feel that I am working in not only the field of military history, I am becoming more of a social historian and am looking at history with a turn towards the spatial aspect of the past. This is a journey, and while I have learned so much along the way, I feel that I am learning so much more than just how to become a historian.

For my research project and my other areas of interest, i.e. passions in other time periods in history, I find myself increasingly stepping out of my comfort zone and willing to delve into other areas of examining the past.  I find myself still wanting to position myself in American military history, but, as I mentioned earlier, I am starting to find myself looking at these various time periods within our military past with new lenses. For example, I find I want to know more about the social, cultural, even political and spatial aspects, which will allow me to get a better idea of why things happened the way that they did in our past.

As far as where I see myself falling along the “fault lines” of historical methods as an author, I know that I face a challenge due to the fact that I tend to want to write in a very narrative style or provide too much detail on certain things, so I must focus on my writing style to help me in writing a solid thesis proposal, and ultimately, a solid thesis.

The methodology I plan to use in my thesis will be one of examining the social  aspects of the impact of supplying the Confederacy. This was a real surprise for me when we discussed this last week in class and I still wish to look deeper into how this will have an impact upon my research project/thesis overall.

After looking at the feedback on my thesis idea and talking with several faculty and staff, I am refocusing my research topic and trying to create a more thesis question driven research question. I hope that the question/idea that I am focusing on, will start to really shape itself into a workable thesis question, thus allowing me to move forward with research and writing on my project.

There is an oft overlooked portion of history when it comes to the American Civil War; Logistics and Supply within the Confederate States of America. There have been some historians that have written on the topic, yet new evidence has come to light in recent years and new technology has been made available, which allows us to re-examine previous evidence, and re-interpret previous theories/ideas.

New Focus Statement:
I wish to look at Supplying the Army of Northern Virginia: How was the Confederacy able to supply these soldiers from 1861 – 1865? The South, being a largely agrarian society, did not have the manufacturing based economy like the North did, and therefore had to find other ways to provide the supplies necessary to fight a war. These supplies included, but were not limited to, uniforms, shoes, small arms, artillery, horse equipment, ammunition, and accoutrements. Much of these supplies came from foreign sources, and as such, these supplies had an incredible impact on the Confederacy’s ability to wage war. In my thesis, I will argue that the South was able to get much of the supplies they needed to fight the war, from foreign imports, however, the inability to provision the army with adequate food supplies was a much larger issue.

How I Advanced My Research Over Spring Break

Because of the fact that I am an idiot…I somehow posted this original post on one of my old undergraduate blogs. Had Dr. Winling not pointed this out, I would never have thought to look there to find it, as I was frantically looking for it. I am posting this for my fellow cohort members to peruse….

Over Spring Break, I was able to advance my research by reading through many of the books and articles which I have been collecting over the last few weeks. I have been able to dig many different sources up, especially in the field of imported items into the Confederacy. The ability to uniform, arm, and equip the soldiers of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, (the specific army on which I am doing my research) more aptly than previously understood, makes for quite a compelling argument for the capabilities of the Confederate States of America’s Quartermaster system, as well as for the Confederate logistical system.

The research that I have been able to uncover shows a significant increase in imported uniforms, shoes, accoutrements, weapons, including small arms, artillery, and edged weapons. What was the main source of the downfall with the Confederacy, was not the shortage of uniforms, weapons, and equipment, not the fewer numbers of fighting men, not even the overarching agenda of slavery, reprehensible as it was, it was due mainly to political infighting, the argument between states, over state’s rights vs. a central government, and the lack of being able to properly feed the men in the field.

In doing all of the reading on my sources and digging deeper into how I am going to frame my argument, ask my questions, and attempt to redefine my focus statement, I am suddenly aware of a new direction I wish to take my research. I feel that to try to engage with the idea of dispelling the myth of the “ragged” rebel, I will be unable to tackle the myth, the material culture aspect of an argument, and the origin/longevity of the myth in one paper, and still be able to meet the assignment parameters in a timely fashion.

I therefore wish to examine the evolution of the Confederate supply system and the way that the importation of foreign military goods helped to allow the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to fight on for four years.  This will allow me to examine ship manifests, ordnance records, diaries, journals, quartermaster reports, inspector general reports and analyses, as well as much of the secondary research into various aspects of material culture, which in turn, will help to help paint the picture of how the importation of foreign goods aided the Confederacy in its fight for Southern Independence.

The source which I chose to investigate for this blog post is an article by Leslie Jensen, in which he examines extant Confederate uniforms in particular. His ability to differentiate the various depot patterns, the changes over time, the origins of the patterns for the item, the construction techniques, i.e. hand sewn vs. machine, etc., and the artifact’s significance to the field of material culture is evident in his research into the field. In his article, Jensen breaks down several different surviving uniforms, and attempts to formulate a sort of typing system for these items.

The author uses extensive research into original sources materials, not only the uniforms themselves, but quartermaster records, requisition forms, journals, diaries, and goes into great detail in secondary sources. His methodology utilizes the lenses of material culture, cultural, social, political, and economic studies. The way that he examines these items alone, is material culture. As for the cultural and social aspects of researching the topic(s), this includes a look at Southern homefront ways of meeting the challenge of supplying the soldiers in a “stop gap” way of filling the need for outfitting the soldiers until foreign goods could be secured. This includes who would have been working on these items at the time, be it women, or men that were not fighting at the front. The political and economic lenses examine the Confederacy’s trade and purchasing operations abroad from foreign supporters, or military goods companies.

My research interests and my lenses of examination will follow Jensen’s model and will look more closely at the way that the Confederate supply system evolved and how the foreign partners in supplying the Confederacy’s war efforts made the Confederate cause last longer than it should have been able to on its own.

European Suppliers to the Confederacy, Major Caleb Huse’s Reminiscences

In my recent research, I found a short history of the experiences and reminiscences of Major Caleb Huse,  the purchasing agent for the Confederate States of America. This was a great source of information and it helped to bolster my belief that there were still yet new resources to investigate, even after 150 years. The significance of this source is that these are the personal recollections of the  purchasing agent for the Confederacy in England, and other European countries. This is important because it shows that foreign goods were making it through the Union navy’s blockade of Confederate ports and thus making a difference in how efficiently the war was fought by Southern troops.

  • Why did you choose this particular item as representative of the archive you’ve created at this point in the research process? I chose to use this source as my primary source this week because it was a recent find and it was written by the Confederate officer, Major Caleb Huse. He was the Purchasing Agent for the Confederate States of America. His main job was to procure military arms, equipment, uniforms, ammunition, and other supplies for waging the war against the North. This source includes his recollections and personal insight, which provides a rare view into this important aspect of supplying the Confederacy’s military.
  • How did you discover the source? Where is it located? This source was one that I ran across during a database mining search on Worldcat and I also found it on the America’s History and Life site.
  • How does the source help you locate an answer to your research question? What can this type of source tell you? When researching the Confederate States of America’s quartermaster supply/logistics system, I have been finding multiple references to English army cloth uniforms, Austrian rifles, English accouterments, imported shoes, and various other items necessary for fighting the war. This source gives Major Huse’s unique perspective on his experiences in acquiring the aforementioned goods. When you take these reminiscences into account, and compare them with surviving ship manifests of Confederate and foreign blockade runners,  you begin to gain a better picture of the supplies making to the front line soldiers. These supplies were instrumental in keeping the Confederate fighting men equipped and surprisingly well equipped at that, during the latter part of the war.
  • How will you interrogate the source-what methodology will you employ? I plan on interrogating this source using the methodological approach of material culture, military, political, and economic lenses.
  • What are the problems with this category of sources/what can’t you learn, what are the biases? Even though this is a primary source, it was written forty + years after the events and are told from a definite pro-Confederate point of view. The information that could be missing are various ship’s manifests and possible Confederate government records, as thousands of documents were destroyed in the last few days of the Confederacy’s existence, especially in the evacuation of the capital in Richmond, Virginia. Some of the biases that need to be overcome are preconceived notions of the Confederate soldier’s lack of supplies and the image that many people have conjured up in their own minds of “what” a Confederate soldier should look like.
  • What sorts of sources will you need to confirm/ complete/ complement this source? This source will be used to corroborate surviving ship’s manifests and will also be compared to the Library of Congress holdings of surviving quartermaster records and inspector general’s reports, showing actual issuance of uniforms, equipment, shoes, supplies, weapons, and ammunition. Surviving photographs and actual material culture items will also complement this source.

I believe that this source will be of great value to my overall research and end research proposal. I am excited about finding this source and look forward to investigating this source along with the possible implications of what it could bring to future historians studying this subject.