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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.

Comments (7) to “Curb your Enthusiasm”

  1. Prof. Simpson:

    I enjoyed your thoughtful post (as I always do with your work) especially the discussion of your research on Grant’s famed Yazoo bender. And I agree that the media attention was a fountain of overkill–broad, glittery and shallow. And yet, and yet . . . for me as an amateur, though I recognize the scholarly value of the “discovery” is limited, I really enjoyed seeing Lincoln’s prodding of Meade scrawled in his own handwriting instead of recounted in the OR or transcribed by Halleck or Meade. Ain’t nothing like the real thing. Also, I must say, in an era when the “top story” each night is either a local motel fire, Angelina’s baby, or an heiress sent to jail for a traffic violation, I find myself appreciating any coverage at all of history. Enthusiasm and relatively uninformed interest may not be worth much, but it sure beats inattention and indifference.

    Many thanks, and kind regards,
    Russell Bonds
    Marietta, Georgia

  2. Mr. Bonds–

    I think the artifact is a wonderful find as an artifact, and that’s how it should have been treated. “Archivist finds missing Lincoln letter” would have been sufficient.

    As for what passes for local news … sigh.

  3. I congratulate you on your disposing of another Civil War Myth.

    There are so many extant that “I” think a book devoted to this exercise is really necessary.

    One myth I think needs exploring is the hole left by Wood when ordered by Rosecrans to support Brannon.

    Another is Grangers supposed “slowness” in going to Knoxville after the victory at Missionary Ridge.

    And a third would be Thomas’ alleged slowness.


  4. Don — There’s nothing at all to prevent you from writing such a book. That’s one of the salient feaures of Civil War military history … all interested parties are welcome.

  5. Brooks–

    I know the limits of my abilities.

    I may be able to enter into discussions like this but to attempt a readible, saleable, intelligent book is beyond my capabilities.


  6. You fellows seem to assume that the finding of a heretofore unseen Lincoln letter should or would be of interest only to professional and amateur historians who are well aware of it’s contents. I think that the general public, especially in view of the upcoming anniversary and the long time since it’s writing, may well find it interesting that “lost” Lincoln letters continue to turn up regardless of the issue of content. It also strikes me that you may also be guilty of the same dismissive attitude that you ascribe to Mr. Gallagher for his comments on micro-tactics.

  7. Gary– I think you make several assumptions in your haste to ascribe assumptions to me. I simply placed the finding of this document in context in terms of what information it offers, and suggested that in terms of adding new information, the find didn’t add much. If people value the artifact as artifact, that’s a different matter, and that’s perfectly understandable. But it’s the second time in a year that people made much more of a fuss about a document than was warranted by the information it contained. I don’t believe in misleading the general public.

    Obviously the letter was not “unseen,” because Halleck saw it.

    How this fits into the Gallagher affair is less than clear, and I haven’t ascribed anything to what Gary said. But your comment seems to reinforce the resentment manifested in some of the comments on other blogs about that incident. Thankfully I doubt the principal players share your assumptions. And, of course, a study of Stuart’s ride during the Gettysburg campaign is really not a study in micro-tactics, although I appreciate the work that goes into rendering an accurate account of any battle.

    So I’d observe that your assumptions reflect more about your perceptions and attitudes than anything else. Thanks for sharing.