The ‘Specials’ at Gettysburg, more from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and a little learning wherever we can: newsletter, July 16, 2021

July 18, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, Civil War, history, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,303) on Friday, July 16, 2021.


This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,313) on Friday, July 16, 2021.

More and more, the sentiment showing in mainstream news outlets is that online learning during our year of Covid was a bust and we ought to abandon it as quickly as possible for the glorious education environment of the in-person classroom. To that, I would say: Not so fast.

I hope that sentiment does not seep too deeply into the popular thinking.

It is far too early in the life of online education to declare it a success or failure. And, in fact, neither declaration is helpful or particularly relevant. Online education is here to stay, and our job for the immediate future is to try to assure that it works and to make it available to more people. Our technological environment is too new and too filled with potential to say that online learning is inferior to other types of educational experiences.

We should teach our children to learn whenever they can, whatever they can, and with whatever tools are available. We should also practice what we teach.

Have a great weekend.

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Two ‘Specials’—combat artistsat Gettysburg

The Fourth of July always seems to slip by before I can remember that the first week in July was a seminal time in American history.

Two great battles of the Civil War concluded just as America was about to celebrate her 87th birthday: Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

Of these two, Vicksburg was probably the more important one militarily, but it is Gettysburg that most people remember. Gettysburg was Robert E. Lee’s last-gasp invasion of the Northern states, leading his rebel army on a campaign that he hoped would break the American spirit and force the Union to sue for peace. Gettysburg was a set-piece battle that took place over three days and involved the classic movements of armies, while Vicksburg was a seven-week-long siege.

Gettysburg was much closer to the media centers of Washington, Philadelphia, and most importantly New York, and newspapers and magazines of the time could cover that battle more thoroughly.

Another reason we are more likely to think about Gettysburg than Vicksburg is because of the “Specials.”

The Specials were special correspondents sent out by newspapers and magazines— mostly from the North—to draw scenes from the battles they witnessed. They were artists rather than traditional reporters. Their job was to draw and sketch anything they saw from camp life, to troop movements, to picket-line skirmishes, to full-blown battles.

Today, many of the original sketches made by these Specials are housed in the Library of Congress.

As it happened, there were no Specials at Vicksburg, but there were two, Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes, at Gettysburg.

Waud (photo) was an Englishman who had immigrated to America in 1850. He had trained as an artist and worked for a time in Boston before coming to New York. There, he was hired by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and when war broke out between the North and the South, he was sent to the Virginia theater to cover the conflict. He produced some of the only images we have of the Battle of Bull Run, the first major encounter between Union and Confederate forces.

Waud’s work was so impressive that he was hired away by Harper’s Weekly during the first six months of the war.

Waud found that he loved the war, he loved the Army, and he loved drawing on location. He enjoyed being in the Army camp and making friends with the soldiers. Whenever he heard cannon fire, he jumped onto his horse and rode in that direction. The drawings he produced are quick, vivid images that place the viewer in the center of the action—the place that Waud enjoyed being.

Forbes was of a different temperament. Forbes pictured himself sitting on a hillside overlooking a battle and serenely sketching the scenes of lines of troops as they clashed into one another. He found the real battlefield to be quite different. Rarely did he get a panoramic view. More often, he found the lines of battle shifting every few minutes, and often they were heading toward him. Forbes learned that the safest place to view a battle was from behind the lines, and the best time to view it was after it was over.

Still, Forbes was a first-rate artist, and the scenes that he drew for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper are realistic and accurate—sometimes to the point of being heart-breaking.

The drawings of these two men at Gettysburg were gathered together in a book I published several years ago. Below is a press release about the book:

Battlelines: Gettysburg: Civil War Sketch Artists and the First Draft of War, a book of many never-before-published drawings by Civil War combat artists, has just been released by First Inning Press.

This first volume features the drawings of Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes, the two artists present at the battle of Gettysburg. Waud worked for Harper’s Weekly, and Forbes drew for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The book contains more than 70 drawings, many of which were executed on the spot as the battle was in progress or in the evenings during the lulls in the fighting.

Many of the drawings have never been published before.

The book’s author is Jim Stovall, a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee.

“These drawings are rarely viewed, except when a few are used as illustrations for magazine articles of books,” Stovall said.

“That is an oversight among those interested in the Civil War that I hope we can correct with the series Battlelines.”

Stovall said these drawings constitute an extraordinary form of journalism for the time and a one-of-a-kind record to some of the most important events in American history. During the Civil War, the public craved news of the fighting, but oddly—because of a lack of space and march of events—few of these drawings were converted for publication.

“As the events of the war moved on—and then as the war ended—these drawings were largely forgotten,” Stovall said. “Many of these were unfortunately discarded. We are very lucky that a few people recognized their value and made efforts to preserve them.”

About 3,000 of these drawings have been collected in the Library of Congress. A few more are scattered in library collections around the United States.

During the war, the publications referred to their artists as Special Artists, and they became known as the Specials.

This first volume covers the drawings made during the Gettysburg campaign, beginning with Robert E. Lee’s move northward in the summer of 1863 and ending with his retreat back across the Potomac River in mid-July. The focus of the book, however, is on the three days of the battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863.

The high cost of hanging onto erroneous opinions

How often are you wrong? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month?

And, more importantly, how often do you admit it—first to yourself and then to others?

We are wrong far more often than we think we are, and we are willing to admit our errors far less often than we should. In not admitting that we are wrong—clinging to the opinions we hold in the face of opposition and evidence—prevents us from achieving the happiness and peace of mind that we seek.

That’s the argument of Arthur Brooks in a recent article in The Atlantic:

. . . being closed off to being proved wrong or to having our beliefs challenged has huge costs. Leaders who surround themselves with yes-men have been shown to make costly—and sometimes catastrophic—mistakes. One classic example is the Bay of Pigs debacle, in which President John F. Kennedy’s insular cabinet failed to challenge his misguided instincts. Or consider the political punditocracy that assumed Donald Trump couldn’t possibly be a serious threat to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and never revised those assumptions. If your goal is to find the truth, admitting you are wrong and changing your beliefs based on new facts makes you better off in the end. This is a primary feature of what philosophers call “epistemic humility.” Source: How to Get Better at Admitting You’re Wrong – The Atlantic

So, how can we avoid the high costs of defending erroneous beliefs?

Brooks has practical suggestions that can help you achieve the humility that will increase your psychological well-being.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Edward Gibbon: giving voice to the Enlightenment view of history (part 2)

If you read any part of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—and you should if you have never done so—prepare to slow your reading speed down and enjoy the scenery. With just about every sentence, you will be on a journey through Gibbon’s intellect, his massive research, and his unique writing style.

Gibbon constructs sentences that begin in one location, dip in and out of opinions and conclusions, travel around theories and hypotheses, recede to the past and look toward the future, and then end often with a punchline.

Here’s a sample:

A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigor from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the Cross on the ruins of the Capitol. Nor was the influence of Christianity confined to the period or to the limits of the Roman empire. After a revolution of thirteen or fourteen centuries, that religion is still professed by the nations of Europe, the most distinguished portion of human kind in arts and learning as well as in arms. By the industry and zeal of the Europeans, it has been widely diffused to the most distant shores of Asia and Africa; and by the means of their colonies has been firmly established from Canada to Chili, in a world unknown to the ancients.

But this inquiry, however useful or entertaining, is attended with two peculiar difficulties. The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church. The great law of impartiality too often obliges us to reveal the imperfections of the uninspired teachers and believers of the gospel; and, to a careless observer, their faults may seem to cast a shade on the faith which they professed. But the scandal of the pious Christian, and the fallacious triumph of the Infidel, should cease as soon as they recollect not only by whom, but likewise to whom, the Divine Revelation was given. The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

See what I mean?

The above passage constitutes the first two paragraphs of the infamous Chapter 15 of volume 1, which, along with Chapter 16, traced the rise of Christianity within the Roman empire in secular and not very complimentary terms. (You can read both of these chapters at this link:

Reaction to the publication of the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776 was generally favorable from the critics and enthusiastic from the reading public. It became an “instant best-seller,” in modern jargon. The publisher had to authorize additional print runs, and Gibbon ended up making a lot of money.

One group of readers was definitely not enthusiastic. Those within the Church of England had closely committed to an idealized version of the early church and its development attacked Gibbon with particular vehemence. Gibbon, they argued, had disparaged Christianity. Gibbon initially ignored these attacks but finally, in 1779, issued a tract that defended his scholarship and its conclusions. The tract, A Vindication … of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was his final word on the topic until later in life when he began writing his unfinished memoirs.

Volumes 2 and 3 of Gibbon’s tome were published in 1781, and the last three volumes were in print by 1789.

On the whole, Gibbon seemed to be saying that the Roman empire fell because of a decline of civic virtue and that the rise of Christianity, in an odd way, precipitated that decline. But Gibbon’s conclusions are rarely conclusive. They are always qualified, and Gibbon always seems open to new evidence should it come along.

Gibbon spent the last years of writing his history in Switzerland, largely because it was cheaper to live there than in England. He never married and died in 1794, barely five years after the last volume was published. He was 56 years old.

The Devil’s Dictionary (continued)

A few weeks ago, we took a look at The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a book you should know more about. Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more of the dictionary’s entries:

HANDKERCHIEF, n. A small square of silk or linen, used in various ignoble offices about the face and especially serviceable at funerals to conceal the lack of tears. The handkerchief is of recent invention; our ancestors knew nothing of it and intrusted its duties to the sleeve. Shakespeare’s introducing it into the play of Othello is an anachronism: Desdemona dried her nose with her skirt, as Dr. Mary Walker and other reformers have done with their coattails in our own day—an evidence that revolutions sometimes go backward.


Check out last week’s newsletter

Sarah W.: I agree with you that there is a prevalence in the media towards portraying teenagers as sullen, angry, and disinterested, and it’s a shame because many young people aren’t this way.  Everyone has their moments, but teenagers seem to get a bad rap on the whole and lumped into a “difficult” category simply because of their age.  I wonder if this is because it’s an easy out for screenwriters and directors to cast a stock character “sullen teenager,” but it does a disservice to young people. They are the ones who will grow up to be leaders and creators in the world, and if the media keeps portraying them as negative and angry, what does that say about our hope for their future and our faith in them?  Many young people are engaging and interesting, and young people deserve to see some positive images and examples of themselves in the media because “teenager” is not a one-size fits all category.  

I read a lot of young adult fiction, and the portrayal of teenagers is better there since the authors write specifically for that target audience.  And since the authors want readers to connect with the characters, there is more depth paid to these teenage main characters for readers to see themselves in, and empathize with.  Maybe directors and screenwriters should take a page out of the young adult authors’ books to see how varied, intelligent, and caring young people can be.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor:  European cup


Best quote of the week:

We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and writer (1933-2015)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The voice of Enlightenment history, the Manhattan swap, and more from the Devil’s Dictionary: newsletter, July 9, 2021



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