Curb your Enthusiasm
Historians are always on the lookout for new documents. Somewhere there’s something we have not seen before or not known about that might shed light on something we don’t know about. Sometimes these papers are within plain sight of us, if we’d only look. Case in point: when I was writing about Ulysses S. Grant, I was particularly interested in the role that James H. Wilson took in trying to construct a narrative of Grant’s supposed “Yazoo bender” in June, 1863 – perhaps the most-known tale of a Grant spree. That something happened was, to my mind, certain, bit what it was remained difficult to figure out. Postwar accounts by Sylvanus Cadwallader and Charles A. Dana (and Dana offered two different accounts) did not dovetail neatly. Wilson himself discovered this when Dana stated flatly that Cadwallader was not present during many of the acts he purported to describe. Wilson struggled and struggled to try to reconcile the accounts, without success. That in itself was amazing, since at the time of the incident Wilson was on Grant’s staff; what complicated matters even more was that John A. Rawlins wrote Grant a letter, dated the morning of the day when the “spree” commenced, chiding Grant about the temptations of alcohol … and many people decided that this letter described an event which followed it, a logical impossibility.
For me, perhaps the most useful document that had not been included in previous discussions was to be found in a manuscript draft of a book by Wilson. That manuscript sat in the boxes holding Wilson’s papers at the Library of Congress; in most cases historians pass over these manuscript drafts, believing that they are of little import, and in truth that’s usually the case. But it was in one of those drafts that Wilson admitted that Grant had been ailing for several days before the incident (an observation confirmed by other evidence, including the Rawlins letter) and that someone had told him that downing a stiff one would help (again confirmed as a pattern of treatment for Grant and others at the time). This is what Grant did, just before he headed off to inspect a part of his lines in his rear: he was responding to concerns about the approach of a relief column under Joseph Johnston (so much for the notion of a drunken joyride when there was nothing pending). Thus Grant became intoxicated as remedy became disaster, but that’s why Dana (who was present) decided not to report the incident to his superiors. In short, Wilson’s description, buried in a typescript, pulled several things together and confirmed other evidence.
Then there are discoveries which are not quite what some make of them, and this has been especially true when it’s come to Abraham Lincoln. Not too long ago archivists at several locations proclaimed that they had discovered a Lincoln letter endorsing the passage of a proposed Thirteenth Amendment that would have protected slavery. People, especially those with certain agendas, made much of this find, but the truth was much more mundane. That Lincoln had endorsed the proposed amendment is well known; the documents in question were simply cover letters transmitting the amendment to state legislatures. In short, no news.
Nearly the same thing can be said about yesterday’s news (well prepped by the National Archives) about the discovery of another Lincoln letter in a record group in the National Archives known as the Generals’ Papers. I must admit that when I read that I was chagrined that I had not looked at those particular parts of that particular record group when I was working on Grant, because perhaps I could have been celebrated as the discoverer. Ah, fame. But the announcement itself came as something of a disappointment, because historians already knew of the letter: its text appears in (ironically, given Ethan’s posts) The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade (volume 2, page 307) as well as the OR (Series I, volume 27, part one, page 83), embedded in a missive from Henry W. Halleck to Meade. At best, therefore, the actual letter simply confirmed the wording of the document, offering the original punctuation and spelling.
This said, the reaction to this find and the attention given to it seemed disproportionate to the scholarly value of the document. Even a fairly level-headed report that went outside the press conference for additional knowledge pressed a little too hard, and other releases and treatments sometimes lacked even this restraint. The reports are always formulaic in such instances: there’s an announcement, a reporter interviews the lucky discoverer (who bubbles over with enthusiasm), and sometimes we are assured more awaits discovery.
The result, to my mind, is a puzzling one. Oh, one might simply say that it’s Lincoln, especially as we approach the bicentennial of his birth. But if all these people claim that they are so interested in history, why did they not acknowledge that we already knew this story? Of course Lincoln pressed Meade to capitalize on Gettysburg. We knew that. We even knew of the letter in terms of the text: this was the discovery of an artifact that at most simply confirmed what we already knew (which had its own value, but let’s not go overboard). In some cases, however, what I see is a pretended interest in history without a matching interest in actually reading it or learning it. The way the National Archives handled the pre-press conference publicity is a compliment to someone’s public relations sense, but it’s a little embarrassing as scholarship.
One doesn’t want to dampen an enthusiasm for history, but if that’s all it is, then it doesn’t mean much.