About History: A Horse Of A Different Color


The academic historian lives or dies by -his accuracy. “Hc is a haunted man,” British biographer Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote a few years ago, “haunted by the fear of being caught out in a mistake.… There is always someone who knows. Armies of old gentlemen buried in remote country places spend their lives delving into subjects one might imagine could interest no human being.” The learned paraphernalia of the historical journal—the ibid. ’s, op. cit. ’s, loc. cit. ’s, passim ’s, etc.—are meant to be scientific proof against error, but sometimes they seem more like a witch doctor’s charms against evil spirits. They are also, to the general reader, formidably dull. Except for an occasional explanatory footnote, the editors of AMERICAN HERITAGE have elected not to publish all that apparatus. Nevertheless, we too arc haunted by the fear of error. Strenuous efforts go toward keeping our articles as accurate as possible, and the habitual procedure may be of interest to our readers.

Usually, it begins with an assignment, or a query from an author: Would we like to see (for instance) an article on the courtmartial of General Charles Lee after the Battle of Monmouth? We think we might. The subject is significant and the author has submitted a good outline that makes us feel he knows what he’s talking about. We send him an encouraging note, together with a reminder of basic requirements: no fictionalized history, a full list of the sources used, and some system of annotation so that all quotations and factual statements can be checked against sources.

Some articles, when they come in, are so badly written or clumsily put together that that’s the end of the matter except for a regretful rejection note. Let’s say, however, that our hypothetical article on Charles Lee turns out to be well done: novel in content, artful in construction, lively in style. At this point the manuscript may be sent to an expert in the field—possibly a member of our board of advisers - for his opinion as to its over-all caliber. If it passes that test, we buy it. But there still remains the problem of a detailed check for accuracy.

A good historical checker, we have discovered, is a fairly rare species. He has to have a solid general knowledge of American history, feel as much at home in a big university or city library as a termite in an old barn, and have an eye like a falcon. Some of our best checkers are graduate students, readily familiar with recent scholarship, who are working toward their doctoral degrees in American history. In a relatively few hours’ work the checker has to compare the source list the author submits with what the checker knows to be the best bibliography for the subject at hand; then he checks every statement and ([notation, word for word, against a published or documentary source. The checker has to evaluate the author’s use of various sources, deciding whether he chose the most reliable. Historical myths are exploded every year: has the author unwittingly been hoisted by someone else’s scholarly petard? Worse, has he unconsciously hewn too close, without giving due credit, to the thought or language of one or more of the books he has used—an unhappy lapse known as plagiarisms Beyond all this, where the question is one of interpretation rather than fact, the checker has to estimate whether the author’s interpretation is or is not reasonably supported by the known facts—an estimate, of course, subject to editorial confirmation.

The checker’s findings may cause us to go back to the author for substantial revisions of the article. Minor corrections and clarifications, naturally, are made when the article is edited for the typesetter; our watchful copy editors are on the alert for other slips both before and after the first proofs arc printed. Finally, just before the presses start rolling oft the three-hundied-and-forty-thousand-plus copies of the article as it will appear in our next issue, nearly the entire editorial stalf reads it through one last time, still looking for trouble.

Do we make errors anyway? Being human, we certainly do, though it continually shocks and grieves us. But even a single short passage of historical writing offers too many chances to go wrong. Take that passage on the Battle of Monmouth that opens this essay. Was Washington’s horse white? (The evidence is somewhat contradictory; apparently he changed horses that hot day.) Did Lee “mutter” incoherently? (His enemies said he did; his friends said he did not.) Did Washington actually curse? (He certainly used more violent language than was his custom; his exact words are not now known.) Was Monmouth, until that moment, a “rout” for the Americans? (In one of the coolest explanations in military history, Lee later called it “a retrograde maneuver.”)

For a full account of what is believed on good evidence about the Battle of Monmouth and Lee’s courtmartial, see the article that begins on page 12. We don’t guarantee its complete accuracy—for the summer of 1778 was already beyond full recall when the leaves fell that October. But we’ve done our best to bring it back alive nearly two centuries later.