Scholar examines disparities within Civil War accounts
In a collaborative effort as part of a series known as the Lemon Cake Lectures, the Office of the Dean of Arts and Science, the Humanities Fellows and European Cultural Studies programs sponsored “‘But the little I can recognize’: Challenges of Writing the Civil War” yesterday.
Elizabeth D. Samet, professor of English at the U.S. Military academy, expressed the challenges of writing about the Civil War, with a focus on the long and much-studied history of the war’s most famous general-turned-president, Ulysses S. Grant. Samet discussed Grant’s life, from his peak in popularity in the late 19th century to his low popularity point in the 1930s. Samet detailed the impact that Grant’s memoirs had on her early academic career, noting that it was “ironic, where [others] are sentimental” in its descriptions of the war.
With this shift in perspective, Samet explained that the memoirs taught her a new way of looking at historical battles. She outlined 13 distinct ways in which battles can be viewed, including “Official, Unofficial [and] Academic,” among others.
Samet focused on one specific battle, the Battle of Shiloh, which she described as the “most controversial battle of the war.” According to Samet, the battle has no more than 220 “official” records, and countless more unofficial ones, leading to a great volume of misinformation on matters such as casualties, size of enemy armies and decisive actions taken in that battle.
This, Samet posits, creates a sense that a seemingly objective, numerical view of the battle’s history is not as infallible as it may appear, as records are wrought with hyperbole and rumor. Samet cited an instance in which a general stated that one of his comrades reported that seven hundred of his eight hundred soldiers had died, but academic investigation revealed that all seven hundred had sheltered themselves in a riverbed and survived.
Moving from military accounts to journalistic ones, Samet recited a grisly account from famous writer Ambrose Bierce, noting that while detailed accounts written in a flowery, verbose style served a great purpose in giving readers a visceral sense of what a battle was like, it also allowed the writer to depict whatever they personally remembered as fact. According to Samet, this is how writers on the Confederate side were able to use depictions of battle to downplay their loss, claiming that “[t]he loser’s account of battle is always one of ‘ifs.’”
The death of Confederate general Albert Johnston during Shiloh has different accounts claiming that he was the reason the battle was lost or that he had no effect at all on the outcome, Samet said. Samet used this point as an example of how the narrative of war shifts based on who is telling it, bringing up the famous “Great Man” theory of history, which suggests that the course of history is determined by the actions of a few notable figures.
After providing more perspectives in the battle from people on different sides, Samet noted that each general’s account conveniently overstates the role their army played on the battle, perhaps a morbid desire to become famous as the general who lost many men, or who slew many.
Samet closed by discussing the misunderstanding surrounding the infallibility of personal experience, stating that not even firsthand witnesses can truly convey the full story, as perspectives differ between every person present. However, firsthand accounts continue to be lauded as the only true accounts.
When asked by a student about the similarities between different accounts, Samet stated, “The commonality is this idea of setting the record straight, and the North and South had different motivations for setting that record straight.” Samet elaborated on her reference to the “Great Man” theory: “We are still smitten with heroes — we’re still compelled to find the truth among differing accounts.”