Saturday, March 29, 2008

General Orders Number Ten

I was reading James Robertson's excellent volume on Stonewall Jackson last night. Actually, it's the fourth time I've read it. Mr. Robertson is an excellent historian. He has given his readers a complete portrait of Jackson. I will let you know that Jackson was the first person I studied when I became interested in the Civil War. He's still my favorite. There is just something about that awkward, eccentric, Christian genius that I adore. He's the main character in my trilogy. I love to write him.

But I stumbled across something in Mr. Robertson's book that fired me up. On page 366, in the chapter about the Valley Campaign, Mr. Robertson writes, "Jackson doubtless cleared the operation with Lee, who must have felt some unspoken doubts." I have a problem with this sentence. It's Mr. Robertson's opinion and not fact. Now, reading the page, I know that it is opinion, but something very dangerous occurs when scholars begin to mix their opinion with history without qualifying their opinion. What is the danger? Opinion can very easily become fact in the mind of the readers.

Now, I am receiving a master's degree in Middle East History, and I have been taught that my job as an historian is to analyze and assess the object of my research. Mr. Robertson is doing that. But what I see, especially in this sentence, is the opportunity for Mr. Robertson's opinion to somehow find its way into the historiography as fact. Mr. Robertson offers no proof that Jackson cleared the operation with Lee. Neither does he cite any proof that Lee had unspoken doubts. Mr. Robertson arrived at the opinion due to the instincts he developed while researching Jackson. He is doing his job as an historian. He has analyzed and assessed, but it is still his opinion.

But in the book he doesn't qualify the statement as opinion. He leaves this statement sitting by itself, an innocuous but deadly time bomb. For Mr. Robertson's book will be the seminal work that new historians refer to when writng about Jackson, just like historians on Lee refer constantly to R.E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman. Mr. Freemans considerable opinions are constantly reproduced as fact in the Lee historiography and most of the battles' historiography as well.

It happens very easily. Consider this scenario: Scholar B reads in Robertson's book that Lee has doubts about Jackson's Valley Campaign and puts it in his new book about Jackson. Scholar C reads B's book and in his book about the Valley Campaign, he cites B's quote citing Robertson's sentence about Lee having doubts. Now, Scholar D reads both B's and C's books and writes that Lee had doubts about Jackson's Valley Campaign in his biography about Richard Ewell.

Mr. Robertson's opinion now appears in four books. And for the Civil War enthusiast, who devours all new books coming on the market, they read in B's, C's, and D's books about Lee's doubts. When the Valley Campaign is discussed between enthusiasts whether face-to-face or on-line, B, C, and D will be cited that Lee had doubts. This doubt, nothing more than Robertson's opinion, has become fact. And those who researched this doubt and found it nothing more than Robertson's opinion will be ignored. In fact those who argue against the new and prevailing understanding will be scoffed at and asked: "Are you saying that you know more than exalted historian B, C, and D?" No, what I'm saying is that I can trace where B, C, and D got this "fact," which wasn't fact at all but opinion.

Yikes... that's why I urge all enthusiasts to be their own historians. To read the books, but let your own research determine what is true and what is not. Too many times, enthusiasts trot out the old chestnut, "I read it in Scholar E's book" as if that settles the question. I would urge the enthusiast to have more curiousity than that about the events and men we all read about. Much of the primary sources are available to us on the Internet, giving all of us the capability to test whether the historians are accurate. It is my hope that more historians and enthusiasts will rely less on the historiography and more on their own research.

Well, I can hope!