Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“Sympathies and antipathies are disabilities in an historian.”

Posted in Leadership, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on September 3, 2010

Archibald Gracie IV (1859-1912, left) is today remembered primarily as a survivor of the Titanic disaster, who wrote one of the better first-person accounts of the sinking. Gracie, who had attended (but not graduated from) West Point, was an energetic amateur historian, and was particularly obsessed with the Battle of Chickamauga, in which his father, Archibald Gracie III (1832-1864), had served as a Confederate brigade commander. The younger Gracie spent years researching the battle, work which culminated in his December 1911 publication, The Truth About Chickamauga. Gracie took an extended trip to Europe after completing the volume, booking return passage on the soon-to-be-infamous White Star liner. He apparently hadn’t quite gotten Chickamauga out of his system for, as the late Walter Lord wrote in The Night Lives On, “he cornered Isidor Straus, on whom he had foisted a copy of The Truth About Chickamauga. The book strikes one reader as 462 pages of labored minutiae, but Mr. Straus was famous for his tact; he assured the colonel that he had read it with ‘intense interest.'”

Also not a fan of The Truth About Chickamauga: Ambrose Bierce. The famous writer had served at Chickamauga on the staff of Brigadier General William Babcock Hazen (1830-1887), personally witnessed several key events in the battle, had published several pieces on the action, and apparently gave Gracie at least one face-to-face interview. But Bierce found Gracie’s efforts at telling the truth about Chickamauga to be badly and willfully biased. Here is the opening paragraph of a letter Bierce wrote to Gracie in March 1911, several months before the latter’s book went to press:

March 9, 1911

From the trouble that you took to consult me regarding certain phases of the battle of Chickamauga I infer that you are really desirous of the truth, and that your book is not to belong to that unhappily too large class of books written by “bad losers” for disparagement of antagonists. Sympathies and antipathies are disabilities in an historian that are hard to overcome. That you believe yourself devoid of this disability I do not doubt; yet your strange views of Thomas, Granger and Brannan, and some of the events in which they figured, are (to me) so obviously erroneous that I find myself unable to account for them on the hypothesis of an entirely open mind. All defeated peoples are “bad losers” – history supplies no examples to the contrary, though there are always individual exceptions. (General D. H. Hill is an example of the “good loser,” and, with reference to the battle of Chickamauga, the good winner. I assume your familiarity with his account of that action, and his fine tribute of admiration to some of the men whom he fought — Thomas and others.) The historians who have found, and will indubitably continue to find, general acceptance are those who have most generously affirmed the good faith and valor of their enemies. All this, however, you have of course considered. But consider it again.

Ouch.

______________________

Letter from Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce (Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster, eds.)

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3 Responses

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  1. Dick Stanley said, on September 3, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Bierce is so cool, especially when it came to writing about the war.

  2. Dave Powell said, on September 4, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Gracie’s “Truth” is so convoluted that it’s very hard to follow. It is also riddled with errors, major ones, regarding the positions of the Union troops. I can understand Bierce’s dislike of the work. I tried to read the thing early on in my study of Chickamauga and became completely confused. I went back and read it cover to cover a few years ago, with a much greater understanding of the battle under my belt, and discovered that I could now at least follow all his tortured trains of thought. Many of his arguments still don’t make sense in the light of other facts, and a lot of his facts are plain wrong, but I could at least follow along.

    However…

    The extensive primary source quotes Gracie provides are invaluable. There is detail here found nowhere else, and Gracie often quotes those sources in full; leaving us with what really amounts to a collection of primary source documents from his own files.

    Frustratingly, Gracie intended “Truth” to be only the Union side of the story, and a direct rebuttal to what he saw as Henry Boynton’s (The first Park Historian) distortion of facts on Horseshoe Ridge. Gracie apparently intended to follow up with a “Confederate Truth” and had many more southern sources to use – he often hints at them in the book.

    So Gracie’s long lost treasure trove of source material would be an invaluable find for any historian, if it still exists (and did not go down with the Titanic, though why he would bring all that to Europe with him seems unclear.) As it stands, he taunts us with his secret knowledge only in passing.

    Someday…

    • Andy Hall said, on September 4, 2010 at 1:41 pm

      Thanks for providing a fuller view of the work. I haven’t dived into it in such detail, but I found it hard to follow, as well.


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