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A Maddening Debate

Robert McGlone’s feature in the October 2009 Civil War Times, titled “The ‘Madness’ of John Brown” (the word madness enclosed in quotes suggests from the outset that the charge may be false), raises a few questions in my own mind. Does a sane man hack to death five helpless people abducted from their homes at random with broadswords, as John Brown did at Pottawatomie Creek? Does a sane man have 1,000 medieval pikes made to arm slaves about whom he knows nothing to wage a guerrilla-style war in a part of the country about which he knows nothing? And what are we to think of someone who punishes his son’s misbehavior by commanding the son to whip him? Was this a budding martyrdom?

McGlone notes that Brown “displayed few signs or symptoms that modern psychiatrists could identify as being linked to a mental disorder.” How many serial killers blend into modern-day society unnoticed until all the bodies start piling up?

And finally there is McGlone’s repulsive and disgusting term “righteous violence,” by which he proposes to justify any form of slaughter, without regard to age, gender or even relevance, as long as it is done in pursuit of a personal obsession. There certainly seem to be enough acts of righteous violence around the world today to enlist the defense of McGlone.

Wayne Binning

Prairieville, La.

John Brown’s behavior toward the end of his life suggests that he meets the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for a narcissistic personality disorder. Brown’s grandiosity, preoccupation with a fantasy of freeing the slaves, need for admiration, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy toward opponents and arrogance are all criteria for this diagnosis.

Besides, even if an attorney had been able to raise a defense of insanity in Brown’s case, a tribunal could have easily ignored the defense.

Joe Roberts, psychologist

Jackson, Miss.

Why would anyone contest John Brown’s sanity? If anyone or anything was insane, it was the slaveowners and overseers—part of the social order around him. Just because most people at the time were inured to slavery did not make it right or sane.

Brown fought for a noble and just cause—to free the slaves. Historians may dismiss his story, but Brown played a vital part in ending slavery. In my opinion, he is a hero.

Darrell Ramzy

Whittier, Calif.

Celebrity Historian

I am surprised that you printed the tripe written by John Keegan about Civil War generalship (“A Brit Rates Our Generals,” December 2009).

I hope your readers will raise the hue and cry against Keegan’s ill-researched, thinly thought out evaluations. Let me dissect one offending paragraph (P. 59) on Philip H. Sheridan. Keegan calls Sheridan “Grant’s cavalry commander in the East during the last year of the war”—which is true enough. Keegan then says Sheridan proved himself as a quartermaster and “owed much to Grant’s sponsorship….” Keegan does mention Sheridan’s generalship in the Valley Campaign of 1864 as an example of his sterling generalship, overlooking the Battle of Cedar Creek.

Of course, this sketch ignores a few crucial Sheridan experiences free of Grant’s influence and observation. Sheridan’s quartermaster service was the de facto G-4 for Henry Halleck’s post-Shiloh march on Corinth. “Little Phil” then lobbied for and received command of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry and then a cavalry brigade, which raided in Missouri. His competence and aggressiveness led to command of an infantry division in the Army of the Cumberland, a division that fought with distinction at Perryville, Stones River and Chickamauga, however briefly in the latter battle. In November 1863, Sheridan’s division stormed Missionary Ridge, for the first time under Grant’s observation.

Hold Keegan and other celebrity historians to the same standards you expect of your traditional authors.

Allan R. Millett

Ambrose Professor of History

New Orleans, La.

Unsubstantiated Insubordination?

I was surprised by the article in the December 2009 issue indicting General William T. Sherman for insubordination on a level that would eclipse the actions of George McClellan and Douglas MacArthur. Michael Fellman’s findings of “profound insubordination” are wholly unsubstantiated by Sherman’s record. As the article notes, no previous Sherman biography has ever noted this “major collision of military and civilian authority.” The premise is based on a telegram that conveys exactly what Sherman intended and no more; it is neither defiant nor insubordinate. Sherman’s views on black soldiers were not dissimilar from those of other theater commanders of the time, including Henry Halleck and George McClellan. Abraham Lincoln himself resisted using black soldiers in the war despite repeated requests from Generals John C. Frémont and David Hunter. It wasn’t until late in 1862, as a military necessity, that Lincoln finally relented.


Springfield, Va.

Michael Fellman responds: After the Peninsula Campaign, Henry Halleck was no longer a major player in the war. He was relegated to the status of glorified administrative clerk and was a general in name only, if you will. In regards to George McClellan, his resistance to using black soldiers antedates the Eman cipation Proclamation. Sherman, however, was explicitly and entirely insubordinate and defiant, as his many letters and official orders on the subject—a representative few of which I quote—make perfectly clear.


In the sidebar “More Than Meets the Eye” (P. 33) of the December 2009 article “A Promise Fulfilled,” Attorney General Edward Bates was misidentified as Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith. Smith is standing directly to Montgomery Blair’s right in Francis Carpenter’s featured painting.

In the same issue we inadvertently identified a photo of Alexander Hays as a young Ulysses S. Grant in our “Quiz: Grant Goes to West Point.”


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here