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Andersonville Book Was Too Familiar To Reviewer Historian William Marvel

Kathryn Jorgensen

(Feb/Mar 2007) Independent scholar William Marvel doesn't review a lot of books. He's busy researching and writing his own and, as he points out, he's a slow reader and book reviews consume a lot of time.

But he was a natural for George Historical Quarterly Book Editor Dr. Stan Deaton to ask to review a new book about Andersonville Prison. After all, Marvel wrote what many consider the definitive work, Andersonville: The Last Depot (University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

Marvel started his book in 1990 and, except for a three-month break, worked on it continuously for nearly three years, logging some 18,000 miles of travel. With those credentials, he agreed to review Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison: A Reappraisal by R. Fred Ruhlman (University of Tennessee Press, 2006).

Deaton says Marvel wrote him that "he didn't feel he could review the book because it drew too heavily on his book."

Deaton urged Marvel to do it anyway, pointing out that if he didn't review the book, no one else could be found to. Deaton thought it was important to do the review because historians are in a self-policing profession.

Marvel was persuaded, but in the meantime he contacted the University of Tennessee Press, which withdrew the book from publication and told Marvel they would destroy all remaining copies after "legal review." The Press also took the book off its Web site.

Deaton was one of those who received a Press notice saying the book had errors and asking for its return. It didn't take long for newspapers, Web sites and blogs to take up the story of the dreaded "P" word, plagiarism.

All the publicity confirmed to Deaton that "we really needed to go ahead and do this." The review will be published in the Quarterly's spring issue due out in March with a disclaimer that the book has been withdrawn.

Deaton says this is the first plagiarism experience he's had in his seven years as book editor. "No one can probably know how widespread this is," he says. "No one else knows your work like you do." A Civil War scholar could vet a book and not know it was plagiarized.

Marvel agrees. "Plagiarism is difficult to detect unless you either wrote the stolen work yourself or happen to be shifting between different books that deal with the same topic." He readily admits that similarities are inevitable when authors write about the same subject.

He leaves no doubt that he thought the Ruhlman book plagiarized his. He compiled paired passages, noting, "After 24 pages I stopped looking, so I don't know how much more extensive it is, although I'm convinced there must be quite a bit more."

The Ruhlman book even has a footnote citation that is identical to the only one in which Marvel made an error in his book, a bibliographic citation of a National Archives Record Group.

Among the examples Marvel cites:

Marvel, p. 34: "March began with the last gap in the palisade nearly closed, and on the fifth of the month Winder let his impressed laborers go, but none of the necessary hardware had arrived." // Ruhlman, p. 73: "The beginning of March 1864 found the stockade walls nearly completed, but the hardware and locks for the gates had yet to arrive. Winder released the remaining impressed labor on 5 March..."

Marvel, p. 36: "Though she could not read or write, Mrs. Wolf was a perfectly respectable Methodist lady whose husband had recently died, leaving her with two small girls." // Ruhlman, p. 77: "She was a respectable Methodist lady whose husband had recently died, leaving her with two daughters to raise. Unable to read or write...."

Marvel, p. 36: "All his life Wirz had wanted to be a doctor, and in 1854 he joined Dr. Webber as an apprentice,...." // Ruhlman, p. 77: "Wirz had wanted to be a doctor all his life, and in 1854 he joined Webber...as his apprentice."

When asked if the Ruhlman book appropriated his interpretation and conclusions or showed scholarship, Marvel says he was struck by the similarity of their views and says, "I was able to find Ruhlman presenting no new documentation except four letters from a Confederate surgeon."

Marvel's Andersonville: The Last Depot disagreed with long-held beliefs about the prison. "After reading every reliably original diary I could find, and spending weeks with prison records at the National Archives, I concluded that the impression of deliberate Confederate attrition at Andersonville was largely the invention of Federal prosecutors, political partisans and the more bitter or mercenary of the former prisoners."

Because Marvel's research is almost exclusively in primary source materials he says, "chances of even unconsciously plagiarizing another author is vastly reduced." Scholars who rely on secondary sources run a greater risk of plagiarism "as well as the risk of perpetuating or amplifying any flaws in that earlier source."

Marvel says that publishers must rely on the readers they ask to evaluate manuscripts. He says he was disappointed that the readers of Ruhlman's book "did not at least examine the existing literature and notice that Ruhlman had not presented anything that was really new. I think they failed UT Press."

Ruhlman Responds

Fred Ruhlman, a first-time author who knows his career as a published historian is probably over, speaks of his long interest in and study of Andersonville. He wanted to write an overview and balanced reappraisal.

He acknowledges his use of Marvel's book, saying he has read it probably eight or nine times, and notes that his bibliography was pretty evenly spread between primary and secondary sources.

"It was quite painful to see over six years' worth of work evaporated," he says, but he agreed the book "no longer met the standard" for a work being marketed as a scholarly book and had to be withdrawn.

"The bottom line is my name was on the front of the book and I am responsible for it. I wish it hadn't happened."

Ruhlman speaks of the humiliation and embarrassment he felt and the bashing he received on blog sites. "I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out how that happened," he says of the similar paragraphs. He agrees they were loosely paraphrased, but close enough that they should have been cited.

He submitted the book to University of Tennessee in 2005, he says. The press was receptive and helpful. The manuscript went through numerous peer reviews. Ruhlman says several rewrites were requested, a chapter was omitted and he had to reformat the manuscript so that footnotes were at the end.

He says the book was well received when it was published late last summer, then "the allegations came forward."

"I can emphatically say it was unintentional," Ruhlman says. He speculates on how the plagiarism occurred. He mentions his inexperience as a writer, the fact that he doesn't type and handwrote everything, and that his typist was not familiar with manuscripts. Or "whether I inculcated that work [Marvel's book] and was so familiar with it that I unconsciously adopted it."

He says he will write for his own pleasure and this summer plans to go through his book line by line and reconstruct it so that he will have completed the project he set out to do. He continues teaching world history as an adjunct professor at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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