Waiting for Lee

Published:June 24, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


The exciting news around these parts is that our Robert E. Lee entry came in last week (we’ve been waiting) and is currently being edited. Our Civil War section has been in progress for more than a year now, but you may have noticed that we still haven’t posted Lee or Stonewall Jackson or J. E. B. Stuart.

WHY’S IT TAKING SO LONG? Part of the reason is that we want to get a feel for the section before we assign the most important entries. We want to get a sense of how we want the Civil War entries to read and how they’re working together. We want to make a few mistakes and learn from them before we jump into writing about dudes like Robert E. Lee.

WHAT KIND OF MISTAKES? One mistake we’ve learned from so far: many of the entries were assigned at too few words. Even some of the obscure generals have great stories, and it’s very difficult—deceptively difficult—to write a good short entry. But we also don’t want to run every entry at two thousand words. The entry’s length, after all, is one clue about the person’s or event’s importance. (Henry Wise is more important than Walter Taylor, for instance.) So editing a section requires thinking about how to strike that balance. (The Wilderness is a good short entry, by the way.)

WHAT ELSE HAVE YOU LEARNED? You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Civil War scholar—okay, technically we already knew that—which means that there is a lot of scholarship out there, which, in turn, means that a large part of the Civil War story is the telling of the Civil War story (the historiography, in other words). Where appropriate, our entries acknowledge the different ways historians have approached their subjects over the years, the arguments they’ve had and continue to have, and where things stand now. That strikes us as especially important when it comes to Lee. (Read our entry on George B. McClellan for an example of historiography.)

WHY SHOULD LEE BE DIFFERENT FROM OTHER ENTRIES? Well, in a lot of ways it’s not. The thing about Lee, though, is that everybody’s going to read that entry. Our site’s traffic is boosted by Google searchers, and there are a lot of people looking for Lee, and they’re going to bring to the entry all sorts of assumptions and agendas and then judge the encyclopedia as a whole based on what we say about this one man. Which is fine. But we want to get it right.

WHY MAKE LEE PART OF A SECTION? If entries like Lee—and Thomas Jefferson, certainly, and George Washington—are likely to drive a lot of traffic to the site, then maybe it would make sense for us to just do them first. And we’ve thought about that, but it makes better sense to approach him in terms of the Civil War section.

WHAT’S THE UPSIDE OF SECTIONS? For one, we can employ scholars like Peter Carmichael of West Virginia University, to devise a topic list that allows us to think about the material in a broader scope. (The Civil War is not just Lee and Jackson. It’s religion and revivals; it’s battlefield preservation and controversial legislation.) Then, as we edit, we begin to think about how all the discreet entries begin to work together; they’re like puzzle pieces that fit together, telling a larger story. And Pete is there vetting the scholarship, making sure the encyclopedia is getting it right. Lee the icon may stand outside that story, but Lee the man does not.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR LEE? Speaking of icons, we’ve come to realize that you can’t get all of Lee into one entry. So we’re thinking about how to arrange for an additional entry on Lee in southern memory. In the meantime, the excellent entry we have will be edited in-house; then it’ll go to Pete; then off to fact checkers and copy editors. We’ll have it live on the site as soon as we can, but it’ll be a couple of months at the earliest.

So for now, check out the rest of the Civil War section and let us know what you think.

IMAGE: Thanks to stencil artist Matthew Rochon for giving us permission to reproduce his take on Robert E. Lee. Now go check out his blog, Uncanny Stencils.