The Washington Post

Gettysburg and the Historian’s Original Sin

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was writing a Gettysburg story. Here it is. It’s hopelessly inadequate, of course — unequal to the subject matter, but still a big whack at a large topic. [I should have mentioned: Please check out our latest Civil War special section. Early buzz is that it’s the best yet.] There are some textbookish passages, but eventually the story takes a step back and ponders the nature of history, or maybe the word I want is historiography. With limited information and imperfect understanding, and driven by biases of which we may not even be fully aware, we craft our narratives. From the story:

“History isn’t the thing itself, but rather a story we tell, and the story changes, new elements are added, others forgotten, myths invented, causes imagined, facts debunked. History is a process of imposing order on a chaotic process, inventing causality and finding meaning in something that others might argue was senseless.”

Did I get too postmodern there? Maybe. But it seems to me that the original sin of the history textbooks is to imply that life moved forward inexorably and deterministically, with clear air and good sightlines, and that everyone behaved according to plan. In retrospect, human events look fairly predictable. The lived reality is more fraught with contingency.

Look at Gettysburg: an improvised battle of epic scale that got underway almost by accident, with the commanding generals far away. Lee is figuratively blind, because Stuart has vanished with his cavalry, and weeks after the battle he tries to resign, telling Jefferson Davis that he can’t figure out what’s going on most of the time: “I am so dull in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled.” Sure, it’s your basic fog of war, but it’s more than that. Lee was making it up as he went, improvising, in unfamiliar terrain, destination unclear, and when the big clash came he did what he usually did, which was attack, and keep attacking, until finally he’d shredded a third of his army.

Maybe it was inevitable, and even a bit predictable. But if you are a student dipping into history you should remember that life is lived forward into the unknown, that events could have played out differently with modest changes in initial conditions.

And there is nothing automatic and inexorable about the world we are currently creating. If a future historian could get in a time machine and come back to 2013, she’d be astonished at how little we understand about what’s really happening around us. She’d learn that we don’t know the names of the important people alive today. She would realize we don’t even known the name of the era we’re living in. We think it’s the Information Age. Ha! Absurd! The historian would know that it’s actually the very tail end of The Stupid Years. We’re clueless! And yet we stumble and lurch onward, knowing that, someday, smart people will make sense of it all.

[I’ve got more to say on all this but think I’m rambled enough for the moment!]


Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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Joel Achenbach · April 26, 2013

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