“Of all the frauds that ever have been perpetrated on our generation, this ‘psychography’ is the worst,” wrote Douglas Southall Freeman a few weeks before his death, adding, “How dare a man say what another man is thinking when he may not know what he himself is thinking!” This criticism is what the distinguished biographer of Robert E. Lee and George Washington strove to impart to the many aspiring historians and biographers who had over the years approached him for advice. One of them, Alf J. Mapp Jr., now long established as a formidable scholar of American history in his own right, has not by design sought to match Freeman’s famed exhaustive detail in the book at hand, which itself is a revised edition of a book originally published a quarter-century ago. He has, though, produced compelling and insightful short biographies of six military and political leaders who arose in the American South during the four-year existence of the Confederate States of America.
Respecting Freeman’s above-mentioned remarks, delivered before a meeting of the Chicago and Richmond Civil War Round Tables in 1953, Mapp has not written psychographics in Frock Coats and Epaulets, but instead lively, anecdotal biographies, striving throughout to let his six principals—Jefferson Davis, Judah P. Benjamin, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Joseph E. Johnston, and Lee—each tell his own story in his own words. Psychological guesswork, therefore, has no part in the book, with each of the portraits augmented by information culled from contemporary newspaper accounts, official Confederate war records, private family papers, the published reminiscences of the subjects’ relatives and of Confederate veterans, and important historical works published since that national conflagration which Jackson called the “Second War for Independence.”
As might be expected, these six studies at times overlap. “The man who is a mere spear carrier in one chapter, or perhaps is only a disembodied voice from the wings, may be the chief protagonist in the next,” writes Mapp in his foreword. Read as a single unit. Frock Coats and Epaulets thus provides a prismatic view of the subjects’ characters. The reader sees Johnston, for example, through the admiring eyes of Lee, the wary eyes of Jackson, and from the bitterly frustrated, fed-up-to-the-eyebrows perspective of Davis. A composite portrait slowly emerges, and with it a deeper understanding of the complex figures Mapp has chosen to examine.
Mapp’s primary concern, he writes, “is not with military or political strategy, but with individual character.” Considered as such, the Davis, Lee, and Stuart studies are especially well rendered. Davis, whose story opens the volume, stands revealed as the sort of man of whom legends are made; indeed, some of the episodes of his pre-presidential military service in Mexico and on the American middle border bring to mind excerpts from the legend of Davy Crockett. In “Robert E. Lee: Man of Disciplined Fire,” Mapp departs from Freeman’s perception of the great Virginian as a “simple man” and traces the influence wrought upon Lee’s contemporaries and the course of American history by the general’s levelheadedness and strong sense of patriotism and honor. Mapp offers convincing evidence that Lee’s code of noblesse oblige was construed as weakness by some subordinates, notably Longstreet, and contributed indirectly but significantly to the Confederate disaster at Gettysburg. Stuart emerges as a grand and romantic figure: the chivalrous self-styled “Knight of the Golden Spurs”; perhaps the world’s last major military figure who spoke, rode, sang, and fought like a figure from the works of Dumas or Malory. Fifty years after Stuart’s death at Yellow Tavern, the last of his like—if any existed—were cut to pieces, horses and all, by machine guns on the mechanized battlefields of Belgium and France.
Mapp’s knowledge of Civil War history is solid, and his handling of the material is sure. A few serious errors mar the text (Chickamauga was not a Confederate defeat; General McDougal’s first name was Irvin, not Charles), but they are to be noted but not dwelled upon, for Mapp has otherwise demonstrated a sure knowledge of his subjects, a fair-minded hesitancy to judge them, and great skill in the telling. “The creators of noble books about noble men are public benefactors,” wrote Dumas Malone of Freeman. For such portraits as he has rendered in his superb Frock Coats and Epaulets, Mapp has established himself, with his mentor, as a public benefactor.
[Frock Coats and Epaulets: Psychological Portraits of Confederate Military and Political Leaders, by Alf J. Mapp Jr.; Lanham, MD: Hamilton Press]