Monday, January 12, 2009

The forest for the trees

My father (who is basking in sunny Florida at the moment, the bum!) forwarded the following pictures to me. They're some of those illusions - the kind in which you see different things depending how you look at them. At first glance, some people see one thing, others see something different. When told what different items can appear in each one depending on your perspective, you may then see something completely different.

Like this one:

At first glance, did you see a face or the word "liar"? Look it over again.

Seeing pictures such as this made me think of something that we researchers and writers often go through. Many times, we look at evidence with a pre-conceived conclusion. For instance, if we believe that Jeb Stuart's 8-day ride to the Gettysburg battlefield from Virginia was a blatant derelict of duty and disobedient of Lee's orders to him, then we will classify the primary evidence as indicating that conclusion. If we feel that his ride was all that he could have done under the circumstances, then we will read the primary evidence as indicating that.

I have a friend - quite a Gettysburg afficianado - who often has views quite contrary to the "accepted" notions. Such a view can be quite healthy, however. That attitude can make you look at primary sources with a critical eye, instead of accepting what "most" historians and students think. However, regardless of your opinions, you must be open to what the evidence tells you. Everyone will look at evidence differently. At some point, after weighing everything, we either reach a conclusion or - as is often the case - no conclusion at all. But the sources and facts speak to us as only they can, and it's up to us as students and historians to make the best judgment of the evidence.

Check this one out:

How many horses do you see in this picture? Can you find seven all together? I know - drives you nuts, doesn't it? Click on it and any of the pictures to enlarge them.

My friend with the always-contrary views sometimes seems like the person who typically sees only three or four horses in the picture above, and insists there aren't any more. Or, at least, resists the fact there are more. Sometimes the answer in the evidence isn't so clear. We have to be open to different interpretations. Writing a book in which you tackle controversial subjects is very much like showing a picture like this, and then pointing out where the other horses are. Even then, sometimes folks still can't see them. In the end, though, sometimes you have to let folks figure it out for themselves - and either see the horses, or at least give them enough to look at to form their own conclusions.

The two books that Eric Wittenberg and I did together (the second with Mike Nugent) are very much like these pictures. In Plenty of Blame to Go Around, Eric and I took on the oft-volatile subject of Stuart's ride to Gettysburg. The majority of folks come down on one side or the other of the issue. Either the events of Stuart's ride were justified, or they were not. A minority of folks are in the middle ground, feeling that some things could have been done differently, but that several events occured that were beyond Stuart's control. The fact that we called it "Plenty of Blame" indicates that Eric and I were intent on showing a picture like these to our readers, while giving them all the information they could, and then allow them the opportunity to see what they see.

In our Conclusion to the book, Eric and I did not hesitate to throw blame where we felt it was justified, but also to point out possible exculpatory evidence when justified. We have often said that if we don't change anyone's opinion with the book, that's fine with us. If a reader feels more sure of his/her opinion (regardless of what it is) after reading the book, then that's fine too. And for the reader who did not previously have enough information to have an opinion, we hope we gave him/her enough to think about to feel comfortable in forming one.

What do you see in this one?

Do you see three ships and the rest arches, or all ships?

Like I try to convince my contrary friend, it's important to look everything over and weigh all the evidence. One sentence in an Official Report does not a complete story make. The next sentence may be contradictory to what you believe, but you can't discount it.
In our second book, written with Mike Nugent - One Continuous Fight - we tackled the story of the armies' retreat from Gettysburg. Army of the Potomac commander George Meade is often castigated for his "slow and too cautious" pursuit of Lee's army after the battle. Perhaps the criticism is justified. Perhaps the evidence deserves a closer look. But like the first book, we set out to give the reader all the information possible about what happened over those days from July 4-14, 1863 like never before. Then, in our Conclusion, we set out to cast blame where deserved, and credit as well. It needs to be told, for instance, what Federal cavalry commander Alfred Pleasonton did and did not do during the retreat. And it also needs to be told what Stuart accomplished. In the end, it takes a lot of evidence and facts to form a conclusion - or, in other words, to see the whole picture.

Like this one:

At first glance, did you see a baby in this one? Look at the whole picture at once, and then the elements within it.

The next book that Eric and I are penning together is a narrative of the events following the Gettysburg retreat, from July 15 through August 1. We have been uncovering a veritable mountain on material on the period, to the time that the armies assumed nearly the very same positions that they had at the start of the Gettysburg Campaign. If Meade was reticent to aggressively attack Lee during the retreat, it's quite a different story over the ensuing weeks. We intend to tell that story (which is heretofore a large gap in the scholarship of 1863), give our readers enough to form their own opinion, and help them see the whole picture.

In the end, sometimes it's enough to spin your head, and we realize that. Look at this picture:

Now, like it says, focus on the dot in the center, then slowly move your head back and forth (closer then further away) and see what the outside circles do. Sometimes we look at this picture for what it seems to be, then it changes when our perspective changes. Likewise, evidence seems to tell us one thing, then what we "see" changes with our perspective - looking closely and then stepping back for a bit.

Sorry if I gave you a headache. But sometimes that's the job of researchers and writers. Take two aspirin and read my next book.


  1. Thanks J.D.,

    After seeing the photos I am officially brain dead. :) I feel like Mr. Pitt from "Seinfeld" fame.

    Hope all is well.


  2. J.D.

    I will say that I gained a different perspective on the events after reading PoBtGA. Not that I went into the book with some axe to grind, but I'd leaned toward the pro-Longstreet interpretation (mostly from studies in Grad School).

    What I found refreshing in the book's approach was the "let's lay out the facts first, then discuss later" tone of the text. I didn't agree with every conclusion made at the end, but a good many of them. But at least I knew those conclusions I disagreed with were made with feet planted firmly on source material.

    As for OCF, I scarcely found conclusions made that I would object to! In fact, my copy has a lot of what I'd call "right on!" notations in the margins.

    In reading both books, I at times felt overwhelmed with information. But that is exactly what I want! Books that spoon feed the reader with select details and then lead to conclusions are for those without intellectual curiosity.

    That said, if the next book follows the same formula, I know at least one person who'll be reading it!


    PS: And I still think there is some missing account that details at least a day lost as the ANV navigated through New Franklin on the retreat! Twice now that intersection has "burned" me!

  3. Craig,

    LOL - whoever permitted a 5-way intersection like the one in New Franklin should be summarily flogged! I believe that's why Meade couldn't catch up - the AOP kept going around in circles for three days there! :)

    We appreciate your comments so much about the books. The info can get overwhelming at times, but we err on the side of more rather than less - as long as we're judicial about its use.

    We do hope the next one tickles folks' thoughts and imaginations as much.

    Thanks again!


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  5. Dear Mr. Petruzzi,
    are you and Eric still planning on doing a 3 volume series on the cavalry in the Gettysburg campaign or will your new book on the actions from July 15 until August 1, coupled with your previous 2 books, Plenty of Blame... and One Continuous Fight, supplant this effort? I would really enjoy seeing you guys still tackle the entire campaign as I think there is a gap in documenting the battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville from mid-June 1963.

  6. We're definitely still doing the 3-volume study, because its focus will still be quite different than the POB, OCF, and "For Want of a Nail" trilogy. There is indeed an enormous amount of cavalry narrative to tell, which isn't covered in the other volumes. A-M-U are definitely to be covered, as well as all other cavalry actions and movements beginning in early June up to Gettysburg - the subject of the first volume.
    Stay tuned here for more on them!

  7. Thanks. I look forward to it. Any idea of a rough time frame for publication?