Independent scholar Thomas P. Lowry has written a nice piece on a major Civil War research scandal, while absolving errant historians from any blame in the matter. The scandal he describes is recounted at length in a Mark Neely book, Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism.
After the war, examination of Southern prison records showed almost no civilian or political prisoners. Thus, the matter stood for 140 years. The evidence seemed to be with Jefferson Davis: the North arrested and held political prisoners, the South did not ...
Here is his absolution of the guilty: "There was, indeed, a problem. But it lay in the Confederate filing system, not in a lack of diligence on the part of historians."
What if the historians did indeed lack diligence?
Over 4,000 Confederate civilians were arrested, examined and held by a system entirely separate from both the Confederate military and the Confederate judicial system. The records of these Star Chamber proceedings were filed under "Letters Received by the Confederate Secretary of War."
You wouldn't expect Civil War historians to plunge willy nilly through all sort of records ...what kind of history would that be? And if some biographer of the secretary of war happened upon records of over 4,000 detainees, how on earth could he possibly know the significance of it?
To further confuse any researcher, the letters are filed alphabetically, not by the name of the political prisoner, but by the name of the "Habeas Corpus Commissioner" who had handled the case. Since the very existence of such commissioners was virtually unknown, it followed that little research had been done on their functioning. Since the likelihood of anyone browsing, purely for recreation, the 150 reels of National Archives microfilm filed in Record Group 109, section M437, approaches zero, the habeas corpus commissioners remained lost to sight until just four years ago.
On the contrary: someone photographed 150 reels of microfilm. Someone selected the material to be photographed because it was significant. Someone indexed the microfilm and made its abstracted content accessible to scholars. Sales staff sold the microfilm itself or the microfilming project to the archives based on their understanding of the historical significance of the material.
So we have the usual suspects on the loose, writing their usual "histories" in the shadow of this mountain of indexed, classified, publicly accessible, but ignored information.
Here is the upshot:
The records show that Jefferson Davis was fully aware of this system of control and endorsed it without reserve, even though in his speeches and postwar memoirs he not only omitted any references to it, but flatly denied that the South had ever failed to uphold its own constitutional guarantees. Davis' biographers have taken him at his word and were either ignorant of the habeas commissioner system or chose to overlook it.
Lowry says, "The painstaking excavation of the evidence in those 150 reels of microfilm has unleashed a torrent of fresh information that further shows the vast complexity of the Civil War."
As I have mentioned before, independent scholar Russel Beatie is rewriting the history of the Army of the Potomac based on mounds of publicly accessble primary material that has not been used before. Nor was this material even "misfiled."
To the Civil War soldier, the expression, "seeing the elephant," meant seeing combat. To the reader of Civil War histories, "seeing the elephant" means noting through personal observation the jumbo sized stack of primary material omitted from the current read.
Have you seen the elephant yet?