Eric Wittenberg wrote a post a couple days ago on his blog regarding a letter I received (addressed to both of us) from another historian. The letter concerned our jointly-written article about the June 29, 1863 cavalry fight at Westminster MD that appeared in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times magazine. This particular historian is well known in and around Westminster, and has been studying the event for quite some time. He is also one of the founders of the “Maryland and the Civil War” Conference, at which Eric and I will be the keynote speakers next month (I previously posted about the event here).
The letter by this historian accused Eric and I of plagiarism in our article. Since other bloggers have picked up on this issue, such as Brian Dirck and Dimitri Rotov, and folks have asked us questions about the situation, I decided to put some detail about the letter and our reponse here.
Dated January 29, the letter arrived at my office this past Friday. I recognized the name on the return address on the envelope, and thought perhaps this Westminster historian was sending along some appreciative comments about our book or the CWT article adapted from Chapter 3. When I began reading the letter, however, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The historian started right off by saying that he was “disappointed” in the CWT article, and that he was “offended” by it because, according to him, we must have plagiarized his unpublished 2004 manuscript about Westminster in order to present the obscure primary sources that we used in the article.
Having no clue what this fellow was talking about, and having never seen (or even heard of) his manuscript, I read the rest of the letter – which repeated his plagiarism accusations over and over. Our CWT article was submitted to editor Chris Lewis fully footnoted (it was taken and revised from our original footnoted manuscript of Chapter 3 of the book) but CWT does not publish footnotes in its magazine. Our accuser, then, never saw our footnotes – showing our original sources and their location – and simply assumed that we must have stolen his manuscript material. According to his way of thinking, the only way we could have come up with such obscure sources was to have taken it from him. Apparently, we couldn’t find them on our own.
The example our accuser states in his letter concerns the writings of A.H. Huber, postmaster of the town in 1863. The originals of his recollections about the fight are in the Delaware Public Archives in Dover. Eric and I found copies of them while researching in the Gettysburg National Military Park Library one day, and our good friend NPS Ranger John Heiser got us the contact information to use the sources. We then got written permission from Dover to use the material. Since our quotes from Huber in the CWT article aren’t footnoted, our accuser figured that we must have stolen the quotes from him – instead of getting copies of them ourselves. Had this clown simply looked at the 40 pages of footnotes in our book (he eludes to knowing of its existence, although it’s unclear if he’s read it) and the bibliography, he would have recognized immediately that we had the sources ourselves.
This fellow, in his letter, also makes a statement that blew Eric and I away, even more so than the libelous accusations of plagiarism. He stated that he “knows very well the sources of all the written word on the subject” of Westminster, as if he knows anything and everything about it – and as if there’s nothing out there he’s not aware of or nothing left to discover. He makes it very clear, thoughout his letter, that he’s of the opinion that no one else deserves the right to write or speak about Westminster, and that no one else besides him is qualified enough to do so. Amidst his ridiculous accusations, and as mad as his letter made me, I find myself feeling very sorry for him, and pity for his attitude. It’s very clear, then, the feelings of self-importance and superiority that motivated his letter.
Eric and I composed a four-page response to him, which makes it very clear that we never have seen his 2004 unpublished manuscript, nor even knew of its existence until now. We’ve determined that he submitted his manuscript to the Carroll County (MD) Historical Society for publication, but that for whatever reason they chose not to publish it. Therefore he took back “the original and all copies” from the Society, yet he insists that in the meantime we must have used it without credit to him. Perhaps his motivation is also one of jealousy, since his paper never saw the light of day, yet our book was published and there are now two resulting articles from it. Eric and I think that having the limelight on Westminster swing away from him and his “40 years” of studying the event just galls him. Sad.
In our response, we also advise our accuser, in addition to reading our book, to get a copy of our Gettysburg Magazine article (January 2007) on Westminster, which is also fully footnoted. We include in that article two additions – a great deal of biographical information on Maj. N.B. Knight (commander of the 1st DE Cavalry detachment that day) that has never appeared in print before, and some terrific quotes from a recently-discovered diary of a 1st DE Cavalry trooper – also never used in print before. Despite our accuser’s insistence that he knows everything about the event and all sources about it, we suspect even he will learn a great deal from this article.
Finally, our accuser wrote that he’s one of the founders of the Maryland Conference that we’re speaking at next month, and that Eric and I “owe” him an explanation about his accusations. To address this, Eric and I concluded by saying that we’re willing to give him a few private moments before or after the event to talk to him, but that’s it. If he plans of making some type of public scene, he’s going to bring a great deal of embarassment upon himself, which Eric and I absolutely want to avoid. This fellow has a misunderstanding on his part (which could have been solved had he simply looked at our book) and Eric and I have no desire whatsoever to get into this situation publicly with him. As we tell him in the letter, all of we historians need to assist and work with each other. Accusing another of theft because you don’t know the facts, and telling others that they don’t deserve to receive accolades about “your” subject regardless of their level of study and research, only leads to one or another getting hurt. We want our response to end this matter, and to not have to publicly embarass this historian who admittedly has worked hard studying this event for decades.
It’s solely up to him, however. Eric and I will take the lead from him from here on in. He will get any further response commesurate with his future actions. We sent a copy of his letter and our response to the Historical Society (sponsor of the speaking event) so that they are fully aware of the situation. Lord only knows what he’s said to them, so Eric and I had to make sure that everyone involved has the truth and facts, and not just his unfortunate and easily-disproven accusations.
Time will only tell if the situation is over, or if he brings any public embarassment upon himself. Here’s hoping he makes the right decision upon reading our response.