Fallacies of abundance

In our historic fallacies thread, we noticed Thomas H. Carpenter making faces at Robert Graves.

Carpenter is someone who looks at Greek pottery, mosaics, and all sorts of ancient bric a brac, in order to see how mythological story elements are depicted; by going beyond the standard texts this way he ends up with a much broader view of the content of mythic narratives.

He reads a study of myth by Robert Graves and finds with dismay that Graves has tied up all loose ends and filled in all gaps; Carpenter accurately notes that this activity seals off the reader from the truth.

In Civil War history the surest way to know you are in the presence of a Gravesian storyteller is to note the neatly tied knots and completely filled in gaps.

Consider the question of whether Robert E. Lee knew during the Maryland campaign that McClellan had found Lee's SO 191 ("the Lost Dispatch"). There are few sources that directly address the question. First, there is a report that Lee learned of the Union find the very evening of the discovery thanks to a tattling civilian. Second, there are reports that Lee learned of the find through McClellan's published Report at the latest or through his Congressional testimony publicized after the campaign.

These items are irreconcilable without additional evidence ... and the historian is in no way obliged to reconcile them. The adventurous can weigh the sources and set them against circumstantial considerations, but the prudent course here is to not know whether Lee knew.

Now, the storytelling of Stephen W. Sears admits of few loose ends and Sears has taken sides on this matter in every book he has ever published that touches on Maryland. Sears feels that Lee did not know and that the campaign could not have unfolded as it did if Lee knew.

When you attach this kind of unnecessary scaffolding to an available and solid factual structure, when you rivet it onto the narrative, that might be called a fallacy of abundance. It arises from a feeling that there are not enough facts and that we can make something like facts through well-founded speculation.

Why manufacture facts?

Because the historical personalities in Sears' books have not simply been demoted to dramatic characters, they are made method actors, whose motivation and psychology must constantly be in view to be understood by Sears' readers: Why is Lee behaving this way? What is McClellan's motivation at this point? Etc.

By supplying construed motives flowing from sweeping personality judgements, Sears presents Gravesian myths, all tidied up, all blocking our way to truth. He supplies abundances of speculative, unnecessary, pseudo-historical information in order to advance a narrative and heighten drama.

Another fallacy of abundance: both Sears and Bruce Catton, his editorial mentor at American Heritage magazine, make a great deal out of Lee reading the enemy's newspapers. In the information-starved front lines, everyone would read any newspapers available, of course, but Sears and Catton mention Lee's readings as noteworthy. In the role of Wise and Cunning Adversary, the Lee character is gaining Significant Advantage over his enemies through this Apparently Simple but Effective measure. The business of Lee reading newspapers is nothing but misplaced emphasis to create another story-advancing "fact." It is a fallacy of abundance.

A few years ago in the Savas periodical, Civil War Regiments, a discovery was announced in volume six, number two dedicated to the Maryland Campaign. Sears had already published an article in the glossies: "Last Words on the Lost Order." In "Last Words," anthologized in his Controversies and Commanders, Sears strongly defended his speculations about this business. ("It has to be" and "I cannot imagine otherwise" convey the tone of the material.)

In the Savas publication, attorney Scott Sherlock presented "The Lost Order and the Press," announcing that the Lost Dispatch was reported in Union hands on the second page of the Washington Star newspaper on September 15, 1862. On the next day, the Star's item was picked up and run verbatim by the Baltimore Sun.

Knowing what Sears has invested in this, familiar with the Catton/Sears Lee-reads-newspapers factoid, Sherlock spends the bulk of his article anticipating the bad effects of his find on Sears' storylines instead of analyzing historic consequences and meaning.

Sherlock spends hundreds of words actually downplaying his own discovery to dissuade readers, trained in Lee's newspaper habits, from concluding Lee read the Star or Sun before Antietam. Sherlock observes: "As Stephen Sears pointed out, if General Lee had been aware his orders were in the hands of the federals, he never would have fought at Antietam."

Abundantly clear, Scott. Sears has spoken on this; you wish his to be the last word.

To justify discovering and publishing this information in defiance of conclusions already reached, Sherlock invites us to savor a literary delicacy - irony. "... the newspaper reading public of Washington and Baltimore knew critical information about a Federal intelligence coup profoundly pertinent to the Confederate military leadership that General Lee was not aware of as he prepared for battle..."

Sears' vigorously defended, extra-historical notions are not disturbed, and we get a tidbit that enriches a story we love. A point of historic interest is converted to emotionally satisfying fluff. Another loose end is dealt with. The reading public is served.

Postscript: A reader has brought to my attention since this was posted that Sears wrote another article on the Lost Order in 2002 slightly modifying earlier positions. I plan a review of his position on the matter of Lee knowing.