Sifting Through the Truths

In the midst of our daily routine how many of us find ourselves forgetting some of the details of our day? Sometimes after a busy day at the office, I have been known to forget what I had for lunch. Fortunately, the relative comfort and convenience of twentieth-century life allows us to record, save, and later recall almost any moment of our lives. The men and women of the Civil War era had no such luxury. In the nineteenth century, very often the only details that could be saved where those that could be remembered perhaps hours, days, or even weeks after an event, when there was an opportunity to stop and put pen to paper.

For the Civil War combatant, trying to recall events that occurred in the maelstrom of battle often further complicated the process of recollection. So much was happening so quickly that soldiers could not be expected to remember everything. A Confederate veteran of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne's division should be forgiven if he could not remember exactly how far his unit charged toward the Carter House as more than six thousand of his comrades fell during the 1864 Battle of Franklin. Nor can we expect a Union survivor of Brig. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher's brigade to remember if he had dressed to the left or right before futilely charging Marye's Heights during the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.

Yet these battles were so important to their participants that they could never entirely be forgotten. After an engagement and as soon as opportunity presented itself, thousands of soldiers wrote of what they had seen and heard in an effort to preserve the memory of what they had endured. Others locked away their experiences in their minds, only to recount them over and over again in the years after the war.

When veterans sought to memorialize their wartime achievements, the memory of an event, either written or recalled, was often used to inform a historian writing a book or to assist an artist constructing a monument. With so many men, however, who recalled so much, there was no way to be absolutely sure if everything a particular veteran remembered was exactly as it had occurred. Before the war was even over, conflicting accounts of battles resulted in some of them being refought. Often good-naturedly, but sometimes acrimoniously, the veterans of Blue and Gray repeatedly refought their battles at reunions, meetings, and in print--with all the combatants trying to provide the "true" account of an event and in the process secure their legacy. These contentious recollections had to be sifted through by those seeking an accurate picture of an event because no two men, no matter what side they fought on, could be expected to remember everything exactly the same.

Fortunately for those of us with an interest in the Civil War, these battles continue to be fought, now between scholars. Much like the veterans who originally started these arguments, students of military history continue to sift through the divergent records of past events to arrive at what they believe is the correct account.

Among the stories in this issue, Glenn LaFantasie describes one of the more acrimonious battles for memory, the fight between Joshua Chamberlain and William Oates for what would become the accepted account of the July 2, 1863, action fought on the slope of Little Round Top. And Christopher Stowe describes Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade's struggle to defend his memory of events at Gettysburg and his legacy from those who wanted to deprive him of any credit for the Union victory in Pennsylvania. Both of these stories illustrate the tricks that memory can play on us all and the importance of historians' sifting through all the various recollections to arrive closer to the truth and to strengthen the historical record.

After successfully fending off the attacks of his detractors following the Battle of Gettysburg, the irascible George Meade wrote to his wife, "I don't believe the truth will ever be known and I have a great contempt for history." Meade may have been at least partially correct; all of the truths of the Civil War may never be known, but we will do our best to explore as many of them as possible in future issues of Columbiad.


Other Travel Tips: