I just — JUST — finished responding to readers’ comments about an essay I’ve written about accounts of what happened on November 25, 1863, at Orchard Knob during the battle of Chattanooga. Like many people, I once embraced the story of a soldiers’ charge to take the heights of Missionary Ridge. Now I find the story to be much more complex, involving issues of Grant’s intent (a two-stage assault, aimed first at taking the rifle pits at the base of the ridge, followed by orders to take the crest of the ridge … orders that were never actually issued), command confusion (various commanders report different versions of what they were told to do) that says something about how well the command system of the Army of the Cumberland functioned (it did not), and a lot of speculation about the role of George H. Thomas in that afternoon’s operation and his response to what was going on around him (here the speculation is rich but the actual evidence is largely lacking). The evolution of the various narratives resembles the debate over Lee, Longstreet, and July 2 at Gettysburg, in that questionable accounts manufactured long after the battle (and with the accounts of key players changing) were treated by some people as solid evidence.
When it comes to issues of evidence, I want to find out what happened. I proceed with the initial assumption that all accounts are equally suspect and yet all might well contain at least some truth in them. In this case I soon dismissed the accounts of several Thomas biographers, because they were exercises in speculation (how did Thomas feel? Was he smiling or smirking? What did he say in private conversations no one else heard? The lack of evidence did not prevent several people from offering rather richly-developed answers). The actual evidence concerning Thomas’s thinking and feeling is in fact sparse. After a while, one sees patterns develop and you see how some pieces of the puzzle fit together (such as the rather flawed way in which orders were transmitted to division and brigade commanders that afternoon, leading to vast disagreement over the objective of the operation). You also see how the various stories evolve over time, often to suit personal agendas. Early accounts had Grant far more confident and Thomas far more nervous about the assault than we have been led to believe; later accounts have an unhappy Grant snarling while Thomas watches quietly, either smirking, smiling, or shaking, depending on the account. One also learns to extent to which certain biographers are rather dependent upon secondary sources that simply echo their preexisting prejudices (Benson Bobrick’s embrace of Donn Piatt comes to mind … those people who have read Bobrick ought to read Piatt, whose book is available online).
Here’s one place where I have problems with the memory school of Civil War historiography. I admit that it is very useful to look at how stories develop and how various versions reflect certain agendas. In the end, however, describing for me how the debate over Longstreet at Gettysburg evolved doesn’t tell me what I want to know about Longstreet at Gettysburg (long before David Blight’s book became the most-cited book on this subject, there were historians such as Thomas Connelly and William G. Piston who dealt with the evolution of historical memory concerning Longstreet, as detailed here). I want to find out, as best I can, what happened. Then I can look at the hows and whys, and I can ponder why people told the stories they told.
In my essay on Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge, I explored the various stories about the assault, and I came away concluding that many participants had reshaped the narrative to serve various ends. Those people included Grant and Sherman, especially when it came to explaining the overall battle plan and the reasons Grant decided upon an assault on November 25. But they weren’t alone, and over time one could see Thomas’s subordinates and other observers fashioning their own accounts in self-serving ways (Thomas, who died in 1870, left very little on his role on this operation). I found earlier reports to be more reliable, precisely because they were not framed in response to various agendas, because those agendas had not yet developed (with the exception of Sherman, whose special pleading approaches the ridiculous). So, while my essay explored how different accounts evolved and weighs those explanations as evidence, it doesn’t pay as much attention as it might to why people told the stories they told. Sometimes the agenda’s very apparent: sometimes the motivation is not. For example, I don’t know why some people fall in love with George H. Thomas. The intensity with which they defend their hero tells me that something else is going on here than mere infatuation: the outrage with which they treat anything that contradicts their vision and the allegations they make about people who don’t agree with them approach the surreal. However, exploring that fandom (which, I should say, exceeds in intensity Trekkies and Harry Potter fandom combined) really doesn’t help me uncover what George H. Thomas did and didn’t do on November 25, 1863.
So it’s all fine and good to deconstruct accounts and offer explanations for them. However, I remain more interested in reconstructing the past, as best as I can do it, and finding out first what happened before I venture explanations as to how and why. I confess that that practice gives me much more satisfaction, and that approach has helped me in offering what I believe are sounder accounts of several critical episodes (especially in Grant’s life) than heretofore existed.
Yes, I expect the usual incoming comments from George H. Thomas’s adoring admirers. Ho hum.