Fortenbaugh 2015: The Historian’s Biggest Fear: A Numerical Approach to the Past

By Jules Sippel ’18

Every November 19, the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture is presented in honor of a late Gettysburg College professor. Each year, a distinguished scholar gives a presentation with the goal of offering a lecture that is understandable to the general public while maintaining its historical integrity.

Joining the likes of Kenneth Stampp, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Elizabeth Fox Genovese, Joseph T. Glatthaar of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill delivered this year’s 54th annual Fortenbaugh Lecture. “When I think of the incredible historians that have given this lecture, I’m absolutely honored,” he said of the distinction.

Joseph Glatthaaredited
Dr. Joseph T. Glatthaar.

“I put a lot of time into this lecture because it’s supposed to be published,” said Dr. Glatthaar. However, his work went beyond the archival research typical of a historian. “Manuscript collections don’t always provide us with what we need…. Historians get scared by numbers,” he explained. Nevertheless, he argued, it is an excellent approach to military history.

“What I’m going to argue is that you can use statistics to help understand the formation of an army culture: every organization has a culture…. The cultures that developed in the Army of Northern Virginia and in the Army of the Potomac were very different cultures, which have to do with the very different backgrounds of the soldiers: something you would only get if you did statistics.”

When introducing Glatthaar, Director of the Civil War Institute Peter Carmichael noted that the speaker began his “lifelong interest in the common soldier” when he “appropriated his older brother’s copy of The Golden Book of the Civil War,” like many other historians.

Dr. Carmichael further described Glatthaar’s “revolutionary” scholarship, works “not poached from secondary” sources, but developed with reference to letters, manuscripts, and more, highlighting the individual soldier and his agency. His most recent book, “General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse,” includes more than 20 pages of citations for manuscript collections that he consulted. Glatthaar later expanded his search to include the Army of the Potomac, and the combination of his work with each army became the basis of this lecture.

“The culture of an army is important because it determines proper and improper conduct of its personnel, how it reacts to crises, how it behaves on the march and in camp, and how it fights, among other things.” By analyzing statistically opposing factors such as slaveholding, occupation, economic status, desertion rates, and more, Glatthaar revealed a cultural division that truly can’t be revealed by manuscripts alone (and, yes, he probably scared a few of the audience’s historians with his many numbers).

“Through the combined use of quantitative and qualitative evidence, and its analysis, we have insight into the motivations of soldiers, the cultures that developed within these armies, the way they fought, and how the outcome unfurled.” His atypical methodology allows an interdisciplinary glimpse into the world of history, one rarely seen in archives.

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