Lost continents of understanding - part 1

When James McPherson's Gettysburg anniversary tour guide came out - he is in fact a private Gettysburg tour guide - a number of reviewers were surprised at his fit of pique about mythbusting:
It is obvious from his treatment of these subjects that McPherson strongly dislikes the idea that these myths (which he apparently has repeated on his tours) are now being challenged by more recent research.
The case for shoes at Gettysburg being a myth has been nicely covered by author and Gettysburg specialist Tom Desjardin in this interview on Civil War Talk Radio. Here are McPherson's own comments on the matter:
Generations of historians--and battlefield guides--have said that the advance brigade of Heth's division was heading to Gettysburg to find a rumored supply of shoes in town. Young people especially are captivated by the story that the battle of Gettysburg started because of shoes. Recently, however, some historians have debunked this anecdote as a myth. There was no shoe factory or warehouse in Gettysburg, they point out; the twenty-two shoemakers listed in the 1860 census as living in Gettysburg were barely sufficient to make or repair the footwear worn by county residents. And if there had been a surplus of shoes in town, they would have been cleaned out by Brigadier General John Gordon's brigade of Major General Jubal Early's division when they came through Gettysburg five days earlier.

The shoe story, claim these historians, was concocted by General Heth (pronounced Heath) to explain why he blundered into a firefight contrary to Lee's orders not to bring on a battle until the army was concentrated. Heth said that he thought the Union pickets he encountered on the Chambersburg Pike were merely local militia who could be brushed aside, so he kept going to "get those shoes."

The revisionists have made one good point: there were no shoes in Gettysburg except those worn by the inhabitants still in town (many had fled). But that does not necessarily discredit the shoe story. The Confederates may well have thought there were shoes; several of them later said so. In any case, the anecdote serves an important purpose in that it illustrates that the battle of Gettysburg began as a "meeting engagement," or "encounter engagement." Neither commander intended to fight at Gettysburg; the battle built up step by step from that first encounter on the Chambersburg Pike. Let us concede that the shoe story can neither be proved nor disproved; let us follow the current fashion and call Heth's advance a "reconnaissance in force" to probe toward the enemy; the end result was the same.
If you listen to Desjardin's summary of the shoe story revision, it does not match McPherson's recap. Desjardin says that the only source for any shoe theory is the one remark made by Heth and that the remark is quoted out of context; that the "revisionists" (researchers?) have searched for evidence of Rebel comments about shoes or beliefs about shoes and drilled only dry holes. He says that a certain pop historian took on an out-of-context Heth quote and in the retelling among pop historians using that secondary source, the tale ballooned.

So, on the one hand, McPherson has appeared to trim the revisionists case down to a size where he can declare "draw."

On the other hand, his underlying point is terifically important: "The Confederates may well have thought there were shoes..." Ah, belief is being given a little credence here. Odd for McPherson, but welcome.

Modern Civil War historians, led by McPherson himself, have gone to extroadinary lengths to suppress from the record what the actors believed. If what they believed was not true; why include it? If true, then put it in! That seems to be the rule and it presents a wickedly distorted picture of the Civil War by drowing context and motivation.

Beliefs, misinformation, these are the lost continents of Civil War history.

A Centennial historian, an avid defender of that doctrine, once cautioned me against reading Civil War newspapers. Filled with misinformation, he said, as if this were a revelation. At the same time, this fellow knew and fully credited the notion that Robert E. Lee's best intelligence came from Northern newspapers.

We see the same selective or dual consciousness in McPherson's misguided attack on shoe revisionism. For in the shoe revisionism, at least as summarized by Desjardin, we see exactly the correct way in which to explore a lost continent:

They searched, not only for the shoes, and then the absence of shoes, they searched for a belief in shoes. And when all three searches failed, then and only then did they proclaim the shoe story a myth.

More lost continents tomorrow.