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.)