Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Krick on the Dangers of Searching for Boogeymen

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

Continuing his theme about the risks of historical revisionism, author Robert K. Krick recounts an anecdote about an Ohio high school graduate writing a paper on the Battle of Fredericksburg–during which, on the night of Dec. 14, 1862, many participants marveled at the display of a colorful aurora borealis in the night sky over the blood-soaked battlefield.

His teacher marked down the boy’s paper because he cited Confederate sources for the story.

Apparently, he felt, Southerners made things up and cannot be trusted, Krick says.

Krick forward to the Ohio teacher ample evidence, written by New England soldiers at the time, that the event actually happened.

As a warning to our age, he quoted Thomas Jefferson and George Washington on people’s widely disparate reactions to the same facts.

When Jefferson disagreed with some of Washington’s decisions in the first president’s latter years, Jefferson suggested that Washington must be growing senile or have been bamboozled by “sinister advisors.”

For his part, Washington questioned whether, when he disagreed with his critics, he should be expected to “arrogantly differ” from them by suggesting their “involvement in some nefarious scheme.”

With the American Civil War, whether people are writing on Lee or Grant or some other figure, Krick says, people can reach polar opposites on issues citing the very same evidence.

It’s just the way the world is, whether dealing with disagreements over history or, say, the beauty of Yosemite Valley in California, his home state, Krick says.

But in the case of Lee, “the millions of words from R.E. Lee’s own pen and those of his own contemporaries” provides sound evidence of what happened and what people were thinking and feeling at the time, he sais.

People have “no need to accept my judgment” about the Confederate commander — or that of Lee’s detractors.

Read what was written at the time — primary documents — and reach your own conclusions, Krick advises.

“You can do it for yourself,” he says. Anyone who is interested can sift the contemporary evidence “without intermediaries or interference.”

Krick, who grew up in a very small community in California’s Sierra Nevada range, concludes with might be a coda for his own considerable life as a scholar of American history.

But he is looking forward, with hope for the future:

“I have not the last doubt that, growing up on a farm in some far distant clime, there will be some boy who examines that evidence … who reads and marvels, and is impressed and eager to learn more.”