Sunday, October 30, 2005

Apocryphal History

After posting the article "The Heart of a Soldier", I received comments properly cautioning a certain wariness concerning Sallie Pickett’s writings suggesting that they lack a certain degree of historical accuracy. Perhaps this is so. Several of the Late Unpleasantness’ most visible participants have had such accusations levied towards them. Certainly, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Brown Gordon reside high on the ledger of those so charged.

Notably, despite their storied accomplishments, neither man entered the conflict as a professional soldier yet neither failed to meet the colossal challenges which lay in wait. Both would suffer grievous wounds expected to prove mortal. Both would return to again lead their men.

John B. Gordon would suffer first at Antietam in what to most has become a familiar story. As the then Colonel Gordon commanded the 6th Alabama along the northern end of the Bloody Lane, he swore to General Lee that “These men are going to stay here, General, till the sun goes down or victory is won.” Later as minnie balls swarmed like angry hornets, Colonel Gordon, who had escaped injury in previous engagements, found himself walking his lines with blood flowing from where three bullets had found him.

The Georgian would later describe, “A fourth ball ripped through my shoulder, leaving its base and a wad of clothing in its track. I could still stand and walk, although the shocks and loss of blood had left but little of my normal strength. I remembered the pledge to the commander that we would stay there till the battle ended or night came. I looked at the sun. It moved very slowly; in fact, it seemed to stand still…I had gone but a short distance when I was shot down by a fifth ball, which struck me squarely in the face, and passed out, barely missing the jugular vein.”

Gordon was far from the only soldier to face such a grim fate in that Bloody Lane. As one soldier would later describe, “In this road there lay so many dead rebels that there formed a line which one might have walked on as far as I could see, many of whom had been killed by the most horrible wounds of shot and shell and they lay just as they had been killed apparently amid the blood which was soaking the earth.”

Colonel and later Major General Chamberlain would suffer likewise in a war that shattered the lives of so many formerly whole and vigorous men. Wounded in several prior engagements, his most threatening would come during the war’s 3rd year. On June 18, 1864, outside of Petersburg Virginia, a Confederate bullet tore through both of Chamberlain’s hips breaking his pelvis, severing arteries, and nicking his bladder. Expected to die as would most at the time with such wounds, he recovered to lead his men once again, suffering an additional wound in the process.

Understanding why and how these men faced then escaped death’s indifferent grasp only to willingly re-enter the same arena remains an integral part of the study of this time in our history. To pursue these questions, we inevitably search for insight within the text of the participants' own words. In doing so, we recognizing the factors that impact objectivity while attaching equal importance to the question of why each wrote what they did. We pursue the motivations these men possessed which allowed them to both endure and achieve and then choose how to recall and record their experiences. The same certainly applies to Sallie Pickett who suffered during this war in her own right. Along with enduring the daily perils and uncertainties of war, her husband, Major General George Pickett would become famous not from glorious victories but from the disastrous assault at Gettysburg which would ever after bare his name. The Southern General would also suffer strained relations with General Robert E. Lee, a potentially insupportable impiety.

The question becomes then why Sallie wrote what she did, seeking her reasons within the context of her times. Instead then of banishing her writings from the canon of our shared history, Sallie’s writings serve as an integral part of that history offering a window into the motives and actions that formed the nation in which we live today. If in part she pursued the elevation of her husband's wartime image, we can ask why she focused on the perceptions of Northerners as opposed to his Southern brethren. The previous article noted Sallie Pickett’s underscoring of his friendship with Lincoln, certainly a nod to the victors as opposed to the vanquished in this great and bloody conflict. Labeling her intentions as wholly self-serving perhaps approaches the truth but likely ignores other no less explanatory motives.

While answering the above, we note that these men and women were not substantially different than those of today. Ordinary people throughout the centuries have risen to great heights to commit deeds of valor and courage. Some too exerted their energies for motives far less worthy of admiration and praise. Understanding that we possess the same potential for greatness while harboring the same for narcissistic self-serving provides one of the great benefits of the study of our both glorious and sometimes shameful past. Learning from these lessons to better our future proves far nobler still.



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References for this article:

  1. Documenting the South
  2. e-history: Ohio State University

1 comment:

Novus Livy said...

While any recounting of events and dialogue from the civil war, indeed, from history in general, must take care for fear of distortions and mistruths caused by many motivations, there is also much to be gained by recounting even the apocryphal ones. Men such as Chamberlain, Gordon, et al., when they did embellish the truth, or flat out invent stories, did not do so with any malicious intent. Indeed, such stories, as long as it is understood that historically they have no known basis on fact, do provide a good historical picture of the men themselves, and what type they were. Examine, for example, the story of Barlow and Gordon at Gettysburg. While the encounter between them during the battle probably did not occur, the story of their later meeting and friendship probably did, and we must examine what Gordon was trying to do with this story. Frankly, though self-serving on the surface, there are strong elements of reconciliation between the two sides there: 'once enemies, now great friends'. We must look at the apochrypha, and we must ask ourselves, "Who is harmed here? And, who gains from this story?" Keeping in mind the apochrypahl nature of the stories, there is indeed much to be learned about the character of the men who invented them.