A Question for Readers

The 1st Maine Cavalry’s Committee on History adopted a policy “that no unpleasant thing should appear relating to the personal record of any comrade,” in the regimental history prepared by Edward Tobie.  Other regimental historians may have followed suit, though I am not aware of another history in which this intention is so clearly stated.  Noble Preston appears to have followed such a policy in preparing his history of the 10th New York Cavalry.  For example, his brief biography of Col. Henry Avery fails to mention that Avery was court-martialed several times, once for sabering and crippling one of his soldiers in a drunken-rage.  Preston also fails to mention that Capt. Aaron Bliss was, along with eight other officers, cashiered from the army for submitting a fraudulent pay voucher.  Bliss was one of the first of the men returned to duty, and almost certainly dismissed in error.  All of the men were eventually returned to duty, though several were almost certainly guilty to some degree.  Bliss moved to Michigan after the war and is credited with preparing the regimental rosters mentioned in my previous post.

The policy adopted by the 1st Maine’s Committee on History is both admirable and understandable.  I doubt anyone would readily agree to have his or her transgressions made public, especially those made under the stress of combat, but the policy also limits our ability to fully understand the history of these regiments, and the men who fought under their banners, as my previous story demonstrated.

I am not looking to enter into a broad debate on the right to privacy, but I am curious how the readers feel about this specific policy,  and the degree to which such a policy limits our knowledge of these soldiers, their units and their times.  I am also interested in learning how official unit historians are charged with handling such matters today.

6 thoughts on “A Question for Readers

  1. Interesting consideration, Bob. We value regimental histories as they represent the voices of the soldiers, second only to letters and diaries for a description of their personal experiences. However, as so many were written for regimental committees, they are really autobiographies or memoirs of the units, and thus are both selective in what they contain and mannered according to the stylistic conventions of their day. As you mention, some of the big, thick ones we rely upon, such as the 1st MA, 1st ME, 10th NY, and 3rd PA, have lots of detail but likely leave out detail in the way you mention. (Most of those also contain numerous photos depicting the soldiers and suggesting how they were uniformed and equipped—although the 3rd PA history seems to have been written for the officers as it depicts none of the enlisted men.) For us who are writing history, the autobiography or memoir—whether of man or regiment—is a valuable source but must be evaluated like any other source, and augmented with negative facts gleaned from other sources when those facts help convey the character, morale, or situation of a regiment. So to me, the regimental history is an “autobiography,” with all of the selectivity that term implies, and what we now do is to produce a “biography” of a unit, drawing upon all the sources necessary to give it “life” in all of its dimensions.

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    • Andy,
      Thanks for the very thoughtful reply, and I agree completely with your assessment of regimentals completed by the veterans, as well as your description of regimentals completed by the historians of today.
      But I also wonder about what should and should not have been included in rosters, though again your distinctions apply. In the case of Samuel Severns, 1st Michigan – there is no regimental history, where someone might expect to find a discussion of the soldiers’ riot. The published roster is not the place for it, but the idea that his fate is hidden behind the comment, “No further information,” is, to me, a bit troubling. The compiler knew he had been killed, as that is on his muster cards. His name is not mentioned in the court-martial and the newspapers, as was their habit, spelled his name wrong in every instance. Severns also had an aka, which was rather common and not, to me, indicative that he may have been a troublesome soldier. But for a bit of work and a bit of luck his fate might be lost forever.

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  2. We had a red-headed fellow in my unit–let’s call him “Omar” (real name)–who was a superb issue of what good Marines called a “shitbird.” Omar, a constant malingerer and cut-up, was caught one night (by me) curled up in his sleeping bag and smoking a cigarette, at night, on watch, endangering the lives of his mates. I sought his court martial, but considering military courts were rare in I Corps, he was instead made a cook–and was later killed in a mortar attack when the cook’s tent was flattened. When learning of this, one wag responded, “Just desserts.” Well, this story was all too rich to ignore and one of our Marines wrote a story after the war about the rise and demise of “Omar the Tentmaker,” as the account was called. He circulated this colorful account among the survivors of “Delta Company, 1st Bn., 9th Marines,” and was then sharply criticized by many for relating this story! And why was the story withdrawn before it got to “Leatherneck magazine?”
    The simplest explanation was offered by a taciturn machine gunner from Texas who wrote, “You know, Omar had a mother, too.”

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  3. Words come from the voice of those with an opinion. Nothing more and nothing less. What gives up pause is the writer’s character and unique position to be in the know. Every researcher climbs into the head of those who held the pen looking for their axe to grind. Unfortunately, truth is like taffy, it can be pulled and twisted to accommodate. Perhaps, accepting the words on a page as they are written is all that one should expect. They divulge a rich thought process in the moment, important enough for someone to write it down. It makes them even more unique if they are far far-flung from what someone else said about the same situation. Words give us a rich tapestry to reconnoiter about what went on here. Viewing words through a history lens can soften hurtful retorts and lead us through a mind field of opinions. That is a good thing. The right to privacy is the right not to say it and leave history in the lurch.

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