Civil War News Review

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Monday, October 5, 2015

Determining the Accuracy of Primary Sources

Very recently, I received some criticism over the reliability of several primary sources which I used in one of my battle books concerning occurrences where the Army of Northern Virginia flew U.S. flags and/or wore Federal blue uniforms in battle. The criticism hinged on using recollections from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, the only citation in the Official Records citing both happening at Antietam, and citing George H. Gordon’s statement regarding Confederates donning captured U.S. uniforms at Manassas Junction, all of which appeared in my previous blog. The 16th Connecticut’s reunion booklet said nothing about rebels in blue uniforms.

The arguments against those sources were as follows:

1.     Ezra Carmen knew more about Antietam than anyone else and therefore was the best authority on the subject and he cited Major Comly’s after action report about rebels in blue uniforms and carrying the U.S. flag.

2.      The 16th Connecticut account said nothing about the enemy wearing blue uniforms.

3.      The Confederate account from Battles and Leaders could not be trusted because soldiers’ memories got worse with time and the series itself was unreliable.

4.      Comly (23rd Ohio) was too far back to see the Confederates carrying Union flags and wearing blue uniforms.

5.      Brigadier General George H. Gordon was in the XII Corps and was not at 2nd Manassas.
The historian’s job is to collect as much primary evidence as possible and separate the wheat from the chaff – the honest recollection from the lie or the exaggeration.

1.      The argument that recollections written decades after the War cannot be trusted is nonsense. Having been raised around veterans most of my early life and having been involved in a life threatening experience when I was young, I learned that often it takes years, sometimes decades, to openly talk about the incidents and sometimes longer to commit them to paper. I know what it is like to remember horror and how painful it was to write about it. I can still vividly remember the incident in detail as if it had happened five minutes ago, and it still hurts and it always will. Veterans all through history have experienced the same thing.

2.      When the Civil War veterans wrote about what they saw, they, generally, were not lying. When they waxed eloquent and rambled on about things they could not have seen and their important role in the event, that is when they tended to embellish or fabricate the truth.

3.      The recent trend to discount everything a veteran wrote because a part of it is inaccurate is not the smart thing to do. For instance John B. Gordon did lie about his encounter with Francis Barlow at Gettysburg because Barlow specifically remembered the Confederate officer who assisted him on the battlefield and it was not Gordon. Gordon’s description of Barlow’s wound is inaccurate also, yet when Gordon wrote about a Private Vickers and a dying father who cradled his dead son in his arms in Antietam’s Bloody Lane, he did not lie. I was able to positively identify all three of those individuals.

4.      Why would the Army War College still be collecting recollections of World War II and Vietnam War veterans if they would be inaccurate due to the length of time between the events and the dates they were recorded? Skilled historians should be able to separate the nonsense from the truth. It is their job to identify the witnesses and not to rationalize the veterans’ motivations behind what made them preserve their memories and experiences for posterity. It is not difficult to visualize a Civil War veteran sitting down, fighting back the tears streaming down his face, blankly staring into the past, and vividly recollecting what he experienced. I have witnessed World War II veterans doing it and I have done it.

5.      The argument that what the rebels called wearing blue uniforms was only wearing parts of them does not make sense. When the men wrote about wearing parts of Union uniforms, they more often than not identified the specific items of clothing they used. When Union men talked about the Confederates wearing blue uniforms they did not specifically mention that they only wore parts of uniforms. Wearing a blue uniform meant wearing the entire uniform.

6.      The fact that a person was not there does not invalidate what hey said happened during an event. George Gordon was not at 2nd Manassas and he did not footnote his book but that does not mean he did not carefully research his project. Similarly, Ezra Carman, while he served at Antietam, did not footnote every incident in his manuscript, nor did he participate in every part of the battle. He relied heavily upon the writings of veterans which he collected decades after the war. The fact that he knew more than anybody about Antietam does not make him the sole authority upon the battle. Where would we Civil War historians be if our books were dismissed because we did not witness the events about which we wrote?

7.      The fact that only one officer officially reported the Confederates wearing blue uniforms and carrying U.S. flags at Antietam in an after action report does not mean it did not happen. A lot of incidents occurred throughout the war which did not get into the OR’s. We take the writings of Caesar, Herodotus, Josephus, and Thucydides as fact. They did not footnote. They did not see everything about which they wrote. Why should we not trust a sole account from a Civil War veteran even if it does not make any sense to us because it does not fit our perceptions of what occurred. Because no one else mentioned it, does not mean that it did not happen. It means that for reasons unknown to us, no one else reported it.

8.      When interpreting history the researcher has to lay aside preconceived ideas of what transpired upon the field and follow the evidence. In battle, men do horrific things, which defy reason and logic. In the West Woods at Antietam, Confederates bayoneted and shot wounded Union soldiers. Asa Fletcher (Andrews Sharpshooters, 15th Massachusetts) wrote about it in Four Brothers in Blue. I found it mentioned nowhere else. The 5th New Hampshire in overrunning the Bloody Lane shot down Confederates who attempted to surrender. That is not in the OR’s.

9.      To repeat an old cliché,, “Where there is smoke there is fire.” The role of the historian is to piece together a crime scene based upon the evidence and investigate every lead to recreate what happened as accurately as possible. Sometimes only one witness saw a particular aspect of an incident. The researcher has to have a solid knowledge of human behavior and has to have a thorough understanding of how individuals can and will react under stress. No two individuals involved in the same incident will necessarily see or remember it the same way.

10.   On May 14, 2002, when a student kicked me unconscious, I remembered certain specifics of the incident but I had to ask witnesses to describe what they saw to help me piece together what happened. They each saw something different but with their information I have a very good but not totally accurate idea about what actually transpired.

History is an art, not a science. It is not 100% accurate but it is all we have to preserve our memories, our heritage, our stories. To refuse to believe something because it does not fit into our belief of what occurred or because there was only one person who reported or witnessed an incident makes no sense to me.