Summer has Arrived!

It is warm and sunny (not today, but most days now) and so I will not be blogging here as often.  In fact, I have been spending more time at my second blog (American History and Ancestry)–that is probably where I’ll be most of the summer. So if you want to keep up with my musings, and for a slight change of scenery, you can saunter on over to that blog and follow me there (and I recommend it).  Lots of postings already to keep the reader occupied.  I’ve been posting up daily journals from the Continental Congress, for example, and will continue to do so.  Also I’ve been tackling some political misuse of American History and those sorts of posts always generate discussion (which is welcome).  Finally, for those who enjoy doing fun things like genealogical research or venturing out to reenactments, I will be posting tons of content related to both.

Rest assured, when my Fall Semester starts, I shall return here to continue on with my real passion (ancient history).


Recognizing Fiction in History: “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!”

As I delve further into the background narrative of the Revolutionary War in America, I’m learning a great deal more about the power of rhetoric and fiction in the development of this nation.  The most powerful part about this research are the similarities I have had in my own work on the ancient past.

For example, the famous Patrick Henry speech containing the words ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ may have not been Patrick Henry’s at all.  Much like the figure of Jesus, it seems, the next generation of followers (or believers, or patriots in this instance) may have fabricated most–if not all–of Henry’s rousing words.  Certainly, we know he said something, but what that ‘something’ is seems to have been completely forgotten by those individuals who were eyewitnesses.  Jefferson remarked in one instance that he had been persuaded by Henry’s words but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember what he had said–not even following the speech!

The words we now know seem to have come from a nineteenth century retelling of the events a few years following Henry’s death (1817).  The author of this retelling (or should we say, reworking) of the speech is one William Wirt (who would have been about 3 years old when Henry delivered his speech).  With eyewitnesses in short supply, and with not many capable of remembering what was said, Wirt seems to have taken liberties with the reconstruction–likely he kept the tone correct, but the words?  Is it possible that ‘Give me liberty, or give me death’ had been Wirt’s and not Henry’s?

Why would someone wholly or even partially invent a speech?  This is not a new phenomena.  The very first ‘historian’ Thucydides invented speeches for his own agendas–idolizing Pericles and portraying him as the ultimate pro-democracy, Athenian statesman in his funeral oration.  Many after Thucydides, including Cicero, accepted his portrayal of the speeches as historically valid, whether they were or not (even though Dionysius of Halicarnassus didn’t much care for it, he stilled suggested it be emulated).

Thucydides wasn’t necessarily being dishonest; he believes he is doing something valuable for humanity.  In fact he appears to have had the same problem faced by Wirt; those who were there just couldn’t get the story straight in their recounting of the events (assuming here that he is telling the truth and not just using this as a rhetorical means to gain forgiveness from his reader for fabricating the speech in the first place).

What I find perhaps most interesting is that no one challenged his portrayal.  No one wrote accounts that his fabrication was a fabrication; no direct attestation from someone who had been there exists, to my knowledge, stating that Wirt’s presentation of Henry is inaccurate.  That, to me, is very telling of the state of usefulness of fabrications; that is to say, they are just as useful as the real thing.

During the time Wirt was writing, his generation started to realize that the veterans of the first war of American Independence had started to die off.  There was a rush, especially before and directly after the Civil War, to create biographies, histories, and lineage notes about various communities, families, and individuals of the Revolution.   Wirt undoubtedly was a part of that national push, especially by elites of society, to develop a cultural history of the time before all the veterans were gone.  In this way, we cannot necessarily fault Wirt for his portrayal of Henry and this famous quote, but we must still–as much as we don’t like it–be suspicious of it.

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.

Jeff Daniels (as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain) Recites Some of Lucan’s ‘Pharsalia’

Combining two of my favorite subjects: the American Civil War and Classics.

%d bloggers like this: