Do You Trust Those Lost Causers?

Union Army Entering Petersburg, April 3, 1865

I recently offered some brief thoughts about Robert K. Krick’s concerns about historians, who are supposedly weary of Confederate memoirs.  While I focused my remarks on a specific claim made by Krick about how historians interpret Robert E. Lee’s wartime popularity, his broader point about postwar accounts is worth a brief mention as well.

The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that  Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors.  “Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.

It goes without saying, that I can’t think of one historian who dismisses out of hand an entire collection of sources simply on the grounds that they were written after the fact.  This is just another straw man argument.  That said, I do agree with Krick that veterans were motivated to tell a truthful story about their wartime experiences.  That, however, does not mean that their accounts were not influenced by other factors as well.  I assume that most of you will agree that it is the historians responsibility to interrogate all sources for their veracity.

In my own research on the Crater and historical memory I found it helpful to think about individual accounts as reflecting what he/she believed to be meaningful to record rather than what was believed to be truthful.  In the case of Confederate accounts, for example, the presence of black soldiers was a salient aspect of the battle that was included in the overwhelming number of letters and diaries.  That clearly changed during the postwar years and I do my best to explain why.

Soldiers and newspapers also praised General William Mahone for his role in helping to secure a Confederate victory on July 30, 1864.  No one questioned whether he was present on the battlefield or whether he issued the famous order for his Virginia brigade under the command of David Weisiger to commence with their famous counterattack at around mid-morning.  All that changed in the early 1880s as a result of Mahone’s entry into politics and the ascendancy of the Readjuster Party.  In what is best described as a 19th century case of “Swiftboating” Mahone’s war record came under direct assault by political opponents that included former comrades.  Men who served in Mahone’s old Virginia brigade, including Weisiger,  blasted away as they accused him of not being present on the battlefield or not having issuing the famous order.

Were these men attempting to be truthful in their accounts?  I believe they were just as I believe that most of us intend to be truthful when asked to give an account about our own past.  Of course, it does not necessarily mean that we are accurate nor does it mean that our accounts are not influenced by a broader agenda.  Anyone who approaches the accounts of Mahone’s former comrades written in the 1880s as simply about the Crater without any understanding of the bitter political feuds that ensued will have missed something crucial.

This morning I read an interview with Ken Noe about his most recent book on Confederates who joined the army after 1861.  In it he was asked to explain how he handles postwar sources:

I think it’s human nature to interpret the past with questions raised by the present. We all do it. So a memoir written in the 1880s or 1890s not only is a source that may reflect the war from an older man’s perspective but a memory of the war filtered through Reconstruction, Redemption, the rise of veterans groups and, especially, whatever else the author has read or heard in the meantime. Memoirs are useful for many things, but if you want to understand how men thought at a certain moment, you need to get as close to that moment as possible.

That seems quite reasonable to me and I suspect, in contrast with Krick’s characterization, it captures where most historians stand.

2 comments… add one

  • Michael Lynch Apr 2, 2012

    Right on. My thesis research convinced me that the history of how we remember an event or subject, in many cases, is almost as important as the history of the event or subject itself. You can’t separate sources from the context in which they were written and expect to produce valid interpretations.

    –ML

    • WD Apr 2, 2012

      Exactly Michael, that’s just good practice that *any* historian knows. Right on.

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