As I struggle to write what I hope to be a series of articles focused on some of the larger, enduring myths surrounding the American Civil War, I am reminded of the little details which have been allowed to perpetuate in the history books.
For example, what comes to mind when we mention the Battle of Little Big Horn? What’s the name that comes first to your mind, or more precisely his rank. For too many, I believe, it was George Armstrong Custer, General George Custer, the boy general. Yes, George Custer did achieve the rank of General in 1863. This promotion, however, was brevet a promotion due to it being a battlefield promotion and he was serving in a volunteer unit at the time. But during that infamous day in 1876, he wore the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col). In the end, it made very little difference.
The famous warfare changing naval engagement that took place at Hampton Roads, Virginia in March of 1862 between two iron clads; care to name them? If you said the USS Monitor and CSS Merrimack you would be mostly right except that the Merrimack was what the Confederate ship was called when it was being built in the Norfolk Naval yard. The ship that had been the Merrimack was scuttled when the federal forces withdrew and when salvaged by the nascent Confederate Navy, she was rechristened the CSS Virginia. Some history books reflect this reality while others do not, and like the above, the overall effect on history could be considered nominal just like the battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution. But of course as you have guessed, the battle actually took place on Breeds Hill. Even when the history books have it correct, the false narrative endures.
All of history is full of such little details. I can name a good dozen more, from “the British are coming” being shouted by whom, to the actual signal displayed from the church in question, and to Gen. George Patton’s pistols, or George Washington’s teeth, all of which would have little bearing on our view of the people or the events involved. So why should it be concerning?
I used to liken this mindset to when someone made a minor correction to my grammar or pronunciation. In a tiff, I would point out that the purpose of spoken language is to convey information or a point and if the information was understood then it served it’s purpose. I often became indignant, beside myself, when I was told to do a better job of polishing my boots back in my army days. When challenging the futility of it, I was told it instilled discipline, the discipline to do what was needed on your own. But I eventually came to realize I was missing the real point.
The important point is, as they say, ‘the devils in the details.’ If one can’t be trusted to get the little things correct, things that are easily checked and broker little debate, how then can we hope to get the larger things correct, especially if these are a little vaguer and more open to interpretation? This is why we as a country need to press our state and local school boards to ensure that textbooks reflect the most accurate facts as we know them to be at the time. We must also develop some good old American skepticism in regards to what the government is teaching our youth in regards to history, government, and economics.
Once we get the little things correct, we will then at least be starting from the same basic understanding when we start to debate the larger issues of today. After all, its hard to come to a mutual understanding or a compromise if we don’t even start at the same place.
By Cade Logue