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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

To Thine Own Self Be True

            It is never easy to admit an error, even if it was not mine but having written what I did last week, I found myself having to follow my own advice. Very recently, a discussion developed about whether or not General James Longstreet and his staff also helped a battery along the Harpers Ferry Road at Antietam as well as at the Piper orchard on September 17, 1862. Since the argument hinged upon three citations I used in Antietam: the Soldiers’ Battle (1989), I had to revisit my research.

I acquired a copy of the Latrobe Diary from the Virginia Historical Society in the hopes of refuting the argument against me. When I reexamined the document, I discovered that I based my conclusion upon an addenda, which Latrobe attached to his diary about what he believed happened along the Harpers Ferry Road. H.H. Penny wrote the article, which Latrobe inserted in his diary in which Penny describes Longstreet actually firing the guns against Ambrose Burnside’s soldiers.

I searched records, which were not available to me in 1989 and found three men in the Army of Northern Virginia with that name. One H.H. Penny served in the 8th Georgia (G.T. Anderson’s Brigade) and would have been nowhere close to either the Harpers Ferry Road or Piper’s farm. The other two, W. H. Penny and William H, Penny served in Carter’s Virginia Battery and in Armistead’s Brigade, both of which were at Piper’s while the Union counterattack from the Bloody Lane surged toward the orchard and barn.

Very often “W.” in script appeared in a typed transcription as “H.” I have seen it repeatedly, a case of which I will relate toward the end of this entry. The H. H. Penny in Latrobe’s diary mistook the men of the Federal II Corps as IX Corps soldiers. Latrobe erred in taking the document at face value and I erred in believing Latrobe.

Consequently, I wrote the historian who noted the error in my book and thanked him for bringing it to my attention and that upon revisiting my source, I realized that Latrobe had erred citing the article.
The historian, a true gentleman, wrote back that at the time I did my work I did not have access to the materials he had found while researching his books. 

I genuinely appreciate his reply and his sincerity. We both ended up in following the advice in my last blog though I have no reason to believe that he read it. He is not only an excellent historian but also a real professional.

Concerning transcription. In my book, Into the Fight: Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg (White Mane, 1998) I wrote that “Boney” Smith (7th Tennessee, Archer’s Brigade) carried the regimental flag after the color bearer went down. Rumor also had it that the 14th had a black color bearer. Writers have assumed, as my source did, that “Boney” was that individual.

In Robert Mockbee’s typed, Historical Sketch of the 14th Tennessee,” he mentions Smith as the “colored” bearer of the flag. I found a photocopy of Mockbee’s work and discovered that the color bearer as “Barney” Smith. When the transcriber copied the handwritten manuscript, he mistakenly wrote “Barney” as “Boney” and “color bearer” as “colored bearer.” While not uncommon transcription errors, they contributed to the rumor that “Boney” was the African-American color bearer of the regimental flag.   

An historian does not often have access to the original manuscripts but has to rely on typed copies. When I revised Antietam: The soldiers’ Battle, I found and corrected quite a few names that were copied incorrectly and consequently, changed them.


Thank goodness for the rosters, which are now available, and for the National Park Service Battlefield Libraries. It just proves that nothing is static in historical research. Something new will always provide material to make our work more accurate. 

1 comment:

  1. Still a great historian. It's amazing how technology has changed research and access to records from the late 80s to the present. A modern day impact not too far off from the impact of the printing press on Europe.

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