- These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory
Over the past decade, memory and mythology have become increasingly popular topics among Civil War historians. Recent works by Carol Reardon, Gary Gallagher, and David Blight, among others, have sharpened our understanding of the myth-making process and the lasting effects this romanticism has had on Americans' collective memory of the war. Today the Civil War remains shrouded in mythology, despite the fact that it is the most written about subject in American history.
Thomas Desjardin's new book adds to this growing trend by focusing on the war's greatest mythic battle: Gettysburg. Desjardin, a former National Park Service historian and guide, and an admitted Gettysburg aficionado, recounts several of the best known stories and "facts" associated with the battle, showing them to be pure fabrications. Desjardin is interested not just in proving that Union general G. K. Warren did not "save" Little Round Top, or that Lincoln did not scribble the Gettysburg address on an envelope en route to the ceremony. He wants to understand how such stories arose in the first place and who has been responsible for their longevity. Citing veterans, historians, presidents, novelists and moviemakers, he finds numerous culprits. No doubt, many who read this book will find themselves guilty of believing or even helping to spread Gettysburg folklore.
Desjardin also delves into the complicated process of human memory. He notes that immediately after the battle, few soldiers could make sense of the chaos and horrifying violence they had just endured. With time, however, survivors sought to construct a cohesive narrative of the experience. But romanticized corporal accounts often subsumed individual mundane [End Page 106] memories, even when some private recollections contradicted the more popularized versions. Years after the last veteran died, visitors to the battlefield also began to feel an emotional connection to the place. Their personal memories, needs, and expectations became intertwined with the lore. Gettysburg was no longer simply a bloody battle from the past, but an inspiring fable of American heroism and courage.
Desjardin's skills as a battlefield guide show not only in his encyclopedic knowledge of the battle but also in his breezy, anecdotal writing style. He likes to recount his own experiences leading visitors around the park and often writes as if he were addressing a group of tourists. Humor permeates the text and Desjardin is at his best when he exposes the falsity of specific stories. His extended discussion of landscape artist-turned-historian John Bachelder is especially enlightening.
But Desjardin falters when he tries to deal with broader, more complex issues of culture and society. He has a tendency to make sweeping, clichéd generalizations about human nature, history, and memory without any footnotes. While he methodically exposes the inaccuracy of specific battle details, he claims that the varying interpretations of what happened are merely a mix of "changing and varying opinions," none more right than others (126). "Society," he contends, "has merely chosen to focus more on the arguments of Jubal Early at one time, for example, and then James Longstreet at another" (126). Moreover, although he recognizes that cultural, social, and political forces affect popular perceptions of history, his explorations of these themes are limited. For example, Desjardin claims that mid-nineteenth-century Americans self-consciously sought a "heroic past," on par with Europe (45). But he fails to acknowledge other cultural and socioeconomic forces at work, including the dramatic effects of industrialism, urbanization, evangelical Christianity, slavery, and sectionalism. Americans were anxious at midcentury, but it was not purely because they believed they were inferior to Europe. Further, the author's treatment of the Lost Cause and Radical Republicans is simplistic and misleading. Desjardin labels wartime Radical Republicans as a "fierce and vengeful lot, being as antislavery, anti-South, and anti-Democrat as they could be" (67), and he explains the Lost Cause movement as essentially a way for ex-Confederates to rationalize defeat. What is disappointingly missing from this book...