Local author

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Brent Nosworthy, an independent scholar who lives in Providence, has utilized an array of contemporary accounts to present on-the-ground views of what it was like to fight in the American Civil War. This, claims Nosworthy, is a departure from his former books—The Anatomy of Victory (1992), With Musket, Canon, and Sword (1996), and The Bloody Crucible of Courage (2003)—in essence a trilogy “penned to chronicle the development of infantry, cavalry, and artillery tactics during the age of the musket [1688-1865].”

This book will appeal more to the armchair tactician than the reader who seeks a “soldier’s eye view” (for that you simply go to the primary sources, or edited versions of same), though it is still a valuable work. While reading it one wants a scale model of each battlefield with miniature soldiers to move around, just to grasp the tactical and strategic significance of what Nosworthy is attempting to convey. Civil War enthusiasts and those who delight in the minutae of military history will love it. The book is technical and analytical, rather than an evocative narrative, although the excerpts from contemporary accounts do bring the reader to the battlefield.

Nosworthy’s command of the subject is obvious, though ponderous at times, but the real value of Roll Call to Destiny is in its insistence on a rigorous re-examination of what actually happened on the ground in these battles (Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Fair Oaks, among others). Nosworthy challenges traditional claims about the use of specific weapons and tactics by citing contrary evidence and statistics from a vast literature—this is what real scholarship is all about.

In reviews of his previous books, critics have accused Nosworthy of ignoring manuscript archives, but I applaud his focus on contemporary published material—which is often overlooked and frankly more relevant to what he is trying to accomplish. In my experience, academic historians have an unreasonable prejudice against published sources, as if print is somehow less inherently legitimate as evidence than manuscript material—a methodological bias which is happily not universal.

I particularly enjoyed Nosworthy’s “Conclusion,” which examines Civil War historiography from 1862 to the present, and discusses the trends in writing about the war as veterans’ and survivors’ accounts emerged, as well as those of historical committees and federal commissions. (I can’t resist a plug here—thousands of these accounts are available for anyone to read in the Caleb Fiske Harris collection on the Civil War and Slavery, in the Providence Public Library). Nosworthy concludes that “a patient researcher can come up with a new, but justified interpretation of an already well-documented event,” and his latest book is convincing evidence that this is the case.
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