Honor the source

How hard can it be to honor the source?

Brian Downey explores his own reaction to seeing a drawing of McClellan riding the line at Antietam - drawn from life. A lesser man would dismiss the artifact in light of his own research. Brian is buckling down to do more research - did the ride happen and when?

The norm in Civil War history is to discount or rationalize away documentary evidence or testimony that breaks up the master narrative, archetypes, or general interpretations of various sorts. We preserve our literary crockery, folks. Another gambit is to work new discoveries into the master narrative; find a way to make stuff fit.

Maybe this is human nature. I notice this story today about a black panther chasing an expert observer - a forester - across the South Carolina border. He ran for his life to gain this prize analysis of his experience: "Black panthers are not native to the southeastern United States, meaning Fletcher might have seen a river otter or a bobcat, state wildlife officials in Georgia and South Carolina said." Maybe it was a vole chasing him!

Meanwhile, Harry Smeltzer is wrestling with a book in which the editor hastens to contradict his source whenever that source praises McClellan or causes some other offense against public decency. (Zero tolerance for violations of Centennial dogma! Demand no less, dear reader.)

This is a bit more extreme than what I see almost everywhere at all times. Generally, someone presents the study of a regiment or person but feels uneasy letting that story tell itself on its own terms. Thinking context is needed, these authors resort to shopworn memes, obsolete narrative superstructures, and odious archtypes to better "inform" their readers of the "larger picture."

But history, like today's Dow Jones Industrial Average, is the composite of many individual events; the primary sources are infinitely more powerful than dime-story rehashes offered from 50,000 feet. In Civil War history can we please begin to learn how to honor the source?