Monday, May 12, 2008

Choosing Sides & The Question of Historical Objectivity

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"So, what side are you on?"
It's a question I get asked frequently at the park. Just the other day, after my afternoon Orientation Talk, a young man--maybe twelve or so years old-and his father sat down on the benches across from the front desk. The two had been at my program, and I can tell that they had questions. . .well at least the father did. From the corner of my eye, I could see the man urging his son to come over and ask me something. Finally, and with a little reservation, the young man came over and asked: "What side are you on? North or South?"
Being asked this question many a time, I was ready with my standard reply. With a little lightheartedness I said, "Well, the war has been over for a long time and I don't have a side." Rarely does this answer satisfy the visitor. In this case, the father came over and followed up his--or, rather his son's query-- "We heard your presentation and it was very good, but it seems to me you're a Yankee." A little more lightheartedness follows with me saying, "Well, I am from Pennsylvania." But then I am always quick to point out that it is not my job to "choose sides."
As a ranger and as a historian, my job is to remain as objective as possible; to interpret the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and, most importantly, to stress why it is we should remember the battle.
I am not there to condemn or celebrate, just to explain and, perhaps, help commemorate.
I have always strived to present a balanced, objective view of both the war and the battle. To this end, I point out some of the more questionable decisions made by the commanders of both armies, which, unfortunately, sometimes get misconstrued as criticism. Knowing this, I will sometime deliver a bit of a disclaimer in my programs, stating: "It's much easier for me, with 140+ years of hindsight, to fight this battle than it was for either McClellan or Lee," or "This is simply my interpretation of the battle." Still, I hear some criticisms. . . "You were much too easy on McClellan. If I were Lincoln I would have had him shot!"
More typically, however, it is my interpretation of Lee's motivations and decisions that garner the most criticism. In my programs I do, indeed, argue that the battle was a decisive Union victory and a significant loss for the Confederacy. If not in the tactical sense, then in the larger, more strategic picture of the war. Lee's decision to fight at Antietam, with his army backed up against the Potomac, outnumbered two to one, and with no real possibility of achieving his objectives for the campaign following the battle of South Mountain, has been brought into question. And not just by modern historians of the battle, but some of Lee's own troops as well. In my summary of the battle, I invariably mention Confederate artillerist E.P. Alexander's comment that fighting at Antietam was one of the two greatest mistakes Lee made during the war. (The other was his attack on the third day at Gettysburg). . .that it was a battle that should never have been fought. To some, questioning the generalship of Robert E. Lee is simply taboo. As the kids say, you just don't go there. So when I mention that Lee was very lucky he did not meet with sheer destruction, or even when I state that Lee "retreated" on the night of September 18, I raise some eyebrows and hear some grumblings. "Lee did not retreat, sir, he made a strategic withdrawal," or, "There was no way Lee could have lost to McClellan," are just some of the comments I receive. In my defense, I will state my opinion that McClellan was neither the incompetent general nor the great villain he is often made out to be, and that Lee sometimes did make grave mistakes. But then I will usually follow it up with, "There is still a lot of debate. That's what makes history so interesting."
In the end, it comes down to the great question historians have been asking for centuries: Is it possible to be truly objective in our interpretation of the past? With our own individual backgrounds, upbringing and education, biases and prejudices, I will say the answer to that question is no. However, with that being said, I think it is possible that we strive as much as possible toward objectivity. And because of this, I do not "choose sides." I simply explain the battle as best--and as balanced--as I can, and help visitors understand the reasons why it is so important that we learn about and remember the battle.


Anonymous said...

Musicians for the band wanted-That's how they got me.

I had to choose sides the other day. Which was more important, Gettysburg or Antietam? I gave a diplomatic answer with plenty of evidence.

John C. Nicholas

John David Hoptak said...

a "diplomatic answer with plenty of evidence" to that question is another way of saying, "I told them the truth."
But don't worry. . .I won't tell your boss.


Anonymous said...

Which regiment was the Manhattan Rifles?