Even for the Civil War Historian, Facts are Hard to Nail Down

As a fan of American Civil War history (for a while in my early 20’s I was unsure which direction in the field of history I would head), I have always found it interesting that, despite the high literacy of the troops and the amount of letters and correspondence we have from both armies, how incredibly complicated it is to narrow down ‘what happened’.  Even something such as figuring out how many Confederate casualties there had been during the Gettysburg Campaign seems to be a troubling challenge.  D. Scott Hartwig had this to say:

A further drain on the army’s manpower was the high number of desertions it experienced through July and into September. Using a variety of methods General Lee managed to staunch the flow of desertions that early fall. And in a testament to his administrative and organizational skills, he reorganized and rebuilt his army so that it was ready for the spring campaign of 1864. Yet good as that army was it never again approached the army Lee led to Gettysburg in size or offensive capability.

via “. . . in my opinion the army will never be made up of such material again” – Confederate Losses at Gettysburg | From the Fields of Gettysburg.

You’ll want to read the whole post to see why he says what he says.

4 Responses

  1. I enjoy Civil War history, although I can hardly claim even to have scratched the surface. One of the things that fascinates me is the difficulty in determining whether famous people actually said some of the things that they were credited with saying. For example, did Lee really complain about Longstreet being slow? Did Lincoln really say of Grant “I can’t spare the man, he fights.”? It floors me that anyone would think it possible to determine the authentic sayings of Jesus.

  2. Quite so! The next few days I’m going to be posting a lot on the Civil War, just because I think it is an important subject. At times I’ll relate it back to antiquity, but not always. Just an FYI. Would be great if some other bloggers in the US considered doing the same, just for the fun of it.

  3. I’m no classicist, but I can vouch for the extraordinary difficulty of figuring out exactly “what happened.” Misinformation; misunderstanding; missing, lost, destroyed source materials; personal and political agendas (of the original people involved, as well as those who write about them – and upon which later histories are based) – etc. etc. No wonder we’re still debating the Civil War! Like the Bible (no offense, and I’m not a scholar) – you can pretty much make the War and its sources say almost anything you want to – if you try hard enough, or just quit searching things out. I’m convinced that the most hard-core, authentic, authoritative, reliable “history” – is still just an approximation. But I also believe our mission is to still get it as close as we can to “truth” (whatever that is) – share the information, and like an archaeological dig in reverse, layer on increasing levels of specificity, detail – and one hopes, accuracy.

  4. I’ve noted on occasion the way that James Longstreet’s reputation suffered in the years after the Civil War because the narrative in the South was controlled by supporters of Robert E. Lee. Similarly, George Thomas probably didn’t get the credit he deserved in the North due to the influence of Grant and Sherman. I often wonder how much the Jesus narratives were shaped by similar political influences.

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