I, like so many Civil war enthusiasts, grew up on the tremendous stories of the Civil war and the individuals who fought it. As a boy, growing up in Virginia in the 1950’s, I knew full well that the Confederacy won the “War” and that the Yankees had distorted the truth about it. Robert E. Lee walked on water and U.S. Grant, “the Butcher” won because of overwhelming manpower and resources. The “damned Yankee tariff” and states rights caused the conflict and slavery really had nothing to do with it. John Singleton Mosby won the war by himself and Sherman brutally and needlessly destroyed private property. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
All too often theses stories, which have gotten better over time, are nothing more than that. This applies also to interpretations of battles. I am constantly amazed how so many people view a battle as a chess game where the general commanding wrote an omniscient battle plan, relayed that information to his generals and then personally manipulated the maneuvers upon the fields to achieve his preconceived objectives. When it failed, the obvious blame fell upon subordinates who either did not understand the commanding general’s orders or who deliberately executed their own plan because they did not agree with their superior’s plan. Sickles’s unauthorized advance to the Emmitsburg Road and Longstreet’s deliberate late arrival on the southern end of the field immediately come to mind.
What does the evidence say? How should the historian interpret the evidence? Who was right? Who was wrong? What lessons can be learned from their “mistakes”? Are the traditional, oft told accounts of their actions accurate? Those are tough questions, which I hope to address in future blogs.
Before getting there, however, I think it is important to examine how I approach the interpretation of those events. Understand, I am speaking for myself and my methodology and no one else’s and that I am referring to a battle-book on regimental and battalion level and not a work about grand strategy or the battle from a particular general’s perspective.
1. Do not approach any project with a particular thesis in mind other than to see the event as the participants experienced it
2. Collect as much primary material as you can, knowing that you will never find all of it and that in some areas, you might discover very little.
3. Primary sources include after-action reports, maps, letters, diaries, reminiscences, recollections, and magazine articles written by the veterans about the veterans.
4. Verify the identity and service record of every contributor, and, if at all possible, include those listed as “anonymous” or those who used pen names.
5. In recent years, some historians have argued that one can only use material produced during the war because post war reminiscences are too often self-serving, riddled with inaccuracies, and too far removed from the war to be accurate. Dismiss those arguments off-hand. Often, it takes years for anyone who has gone through a trauma to write or talk about the incident. Their recollections about the event are generally as clear as if it had just occurred.
I know this from personal experience as a boy who had close call with death. It took me over 20 years to write and talk about it. I remember the veterans among whom I grew up with the “thousand yard stare,” painfully and vividly remembering their experiences. They did not exaggerate what they saw but they did embellish the importance of what they saw or waxed eloquent about strategy in which they played no role. Generally, the historian has to rely on common sense to separate the fact from the garbage. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.