- Historic Sites
Memory As History
Seeking the truth of an event in the memories of the people who lived it can be a maddening task—and an exhilarating one
November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
The chords of memory may be mystic, as Abraham Lincoln described them, but how accurate and reliable they are as evidence is a dilemma every historian must face. From the time Herodotus walked through Asia Minor two thousand years ago, asking questions, tapping the recollections of hundreds of eyewitnesses, historians have depended on the retentive faculty of the human mind for information about the past, and they have learned that such reliance has its minuses as well as pluses.
I first encountered the negative side of how much to lean on an eyewitness’s memory when I was doing research for the book Decisive Day, about the battle for Bunker Hill.
Considering the number of people who saw that 1775 engagement, as either participants or onlookers (most of the latter on the housetops of Boston a mere third of a mile away), it is astonishing that so few credible contemporary accounts have survived. The best of these are British; from the American side one of the most complete chronicles is a document prepared shortly after the battle by three clergymen and submitted to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety for transmittal to Great Britain, obviously for the propaganda impact it would have. But this is not what you’d call a historian’s delight, since the young pastor who did most of the writing saw only snatches of the engagement from an unsatisfactory vantage point on the Malden side of the Mystic River.
Given these circumstances, it was essential to look to other sources, and one that appeared promising at first blush demonstrates the potential risk of depending on memory. In 1825, fifty years after the battle, when the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument was laid, some 190 survivors of the Revolutionary army attended the festivities. Of these, 40 had been, or claimed to have been, present on the fateful seventeenth of June, 1775, when the British stormed the rebel redoubt. The directors of the Monument Association, hoping to obtain a full picture of the events of that day and clear up disputed points about what happened, decided to tap this lode by collecting depositions from the battle veterans.
For reasons that are unclear, the results lay fallow for seventeen years. Then, in 1842, three volumes containing these depositions were donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and a committee of three was appointed to report on the nature and historical value of the acquisition. The committee’s findings were dispiriting, to say the least—so much so that the volumes were ordered sealed and “deposited in the Cabinet as curiosities.” The explanation given for such short shrift appeared in a report by the historian George Ellis, a committee member who had examined the testimonials with care. His remarks are worth quoting.
The contents of the three books, he observed with a mixture of shock and anger, were “most extraordinary; many of the testimonies extravagant, boastful, inconsistent, and utterly untrue; mixtures of old men’s broken memories and fond imaginings with the love of the marvelous. Some of those who gave in affidavits about the battle could not have been in it, nor even in its neighborhood. They had got so used to telling the story for the wonderment of village listeners as grandfathers’ tales, and as petted representatives of ‘the spirit of ’76,’ that they did not distinguish between what they had seen and done and what they had read, heard, or dreamed. The decision of the committee was that much of the contents of the volumes was wholly worthless for history, and some of it discreditable, as misleading and false.”
Happily, not all old men’s memories are knit from the same yarn as those of the Bunker Hill “veterans.” After all, what inspired Bruce Catton to the writing of history was listening to “men to whom nothing but memories mattered any more” in his hometown of Benzonia, Michigan. As he put it, “I began my work on the Civil War by trying to figure out what made the old veterans tick when they were young men. It was as simple as that.” Mind, he did not say the men’s memories were flawed, only that the former soldiers were living in the past.
Every normal person knows some history,” Carl Becker observed, and he defined his chosen discipline by stating, “History is the memory of things said and done.” What makes it worth recording, he argued, is the way the pattern of remembered events that constitute history enlarges and enriches the present.
Some while ago I found myself relying heavily on the memories of my own contemporaries and elders while gathering material for a book. Off and on over a period of eighteen years, I interviewed—usually in person but also through correspondence—survivors of the Depression and pre-World War II period for what became The Borrowed Years, 1938-1941: America on the Way to War. These recollections were, of course, supplemented by a broad spectrum of other original source materials, but nothing else had quite the same quality of spontaneity or surprise, the potential to reveal personality, as the information that emerged from conversations with participants in the events of that critical period.
As Robin Winks, author of The Historian as Detective, writes, however we may view the past—however improbable or unbelievable it may strike us—it was real to the people who lived it. In order to get at the truth as other people knew it, we need to collect beliefs, as well as facts, since myths that become sufficiently popular have a way of becoming accepted as the truth.