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About History: A Horse Of A Different Color

April 2021
6min read

Cantering up on his white charger, Washington stared at Lee with un expression so wrathful thai few of his aides would ever forget it.

”What is the meaning of this, Sir?” the red-faced commander-in-chief demanded.

Lee turned his glance aside and began to mutter something none of the witnesses could quite make out. Before he had finished, Washington whipped out his sword, waved it aloft, and with a violent curse, shouted to the retreating American troops to stand and fight. The rout was stemmed.

So reads one description of the dramatic climax of the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. How true is it?

That question—How true is it?—is one that bothers the editors of this magazine all the time. From the beginning, we have promised our readers history that will be both lively and accurate. We have stubbornly eschewed historical fiction, whether it be invented dialogue, colorful details without factual foundation, or episodes wholly devised by an imaginative contributor. We are committed to telling the truth about the past—yet if there is one motto embla/oned on our editorial ensign it is that good history should make the past come alive. We like the way it was put by a nineteenth-century American historian named James Handasyd Perkins:

I may listen with infinite tedium to one man’s account of a merry meeting, or a pitched battle, for he will hut give me the fact that men and women laughed, and danced, or that two parties fell to and fought; while to another, who shall paint me the very men and women, and how this one was dressed, and that one held her head, and the other stepped ofl with a partner having a cork leg, or who shall make me see the red-coated soldiers, and hear the swearing sergeants, and watch the cool yeomanry, holding their lire till they see the white of their enemies’ eyes—to this man I could listen if I had not slept for forty-eight hours.

The trouble is, of course, that when all is said and done the past is irretrievable. What happened to you yesterday? Nobody can give more than a faltering and partial account of his own recent past. The ordinary moments arc swept indifferently into history by the second hand on the clock, and even as they go, a haze of uncertainty rises around them. It grows denser as time goes by. As for the extraordinary moments—the surprising, disappointing, terrifying, or ecstatic moments that we will “never forget”—they are so meaningful to us that out of them we build our personal myths, and in a few weeks or months or years we no longer know what really happened; we only know how we tell the story.

This human bias is damnably apt to affect historians, too, and the best of them have always been skeptically aware of it. Herodotus, the father of history, liberally salted the opening chapter of his Persian Wars with “according to the Greeks” and “according to the Persians”; and a modern wit, brooding perhaps on that, came up with “One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.” Henry Steclc Commager argued in our pages not long ago that ideally the historian should not make moral judgments on the behavior of earlier générations; but he recognized that such detachment is almost beyond human capacity. The scholar who can write well ol the American or French or Russian Revolution without caring who won has yet to appear. Meanwhile, historians continue to give accounts of past events that veer toward their own prejudices, and this doesn’t do much to burn oil the log enveloping “what really happened.”

Truly, the task of the historian sometimes looks hopeless—yet it is a most vital human enterprise, and one we are all engaged in whether we know it or not. for the only thing that lets us make sense out of our experience, personal or communal, is that, broadly speaking, history docs repeat itself. The future is just a guess; the present instant, taken alone, is as meaningless as a single note isolated from a fugue. Time (lows continuously into the past, and if there is any distinguishable pattern, we can see it only by looking backward. It is when we contemplate the past, and adjust our anticipation of the future accordingly, that we live as human beings.

So we are all historians. One consequence is that there are many différent approaches, in art and science as well as in history proper, to making sense out of the past. We can be thankful that, before photography, most painters were not abstractionists I)Ut did their best to show things just as they appeared. Many diaries and journals occupy a fertile middle ground between literature and history: even the line between history and fiction is not always easy to draw. Henry yielding unabashedly called his extravagant novel The History of Tom Jones, a Founding , and there can be no doubt that it brilliantly illuminates for us the eighteenth-century English scene. Everybody knows what truth is stranger than, but it may be—so claim the artists—that fiction is sometimes truer than truth. Matthew Arnold spoke sourly of “that huge Mississippi of falsehood called History,” and if “truth” is stranger than fiction, one thing that tends to make it so is inaccuracy.

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.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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