Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Spinning History

by Kim Van Sickler

History is written by...people. People with their own agendas, biases, opinions, and artistic flairs. Over time, events and people are romanticized or vilified. Even though the evidence might point to a very different reality. Frankly, it's fascinating to me how we've come to accept certain historical stories as facts. And since I was just in Gettysburg, here are some of my favorites from that era.

John Brown. He's known as a devout abolitionist, and credited with triggering the Civil War that ended slavery. As an elementary school student I was taught that he was a hero, but there is certainly another side to that story. Like why did he take it upon himself and his band of sons to travel to the homes of pro-slavery advocates in Franklin County, KS, order them outside, interrogate them, and assasinate them? Pre-Harper's Ferry, John Brown had dropped out of his Congregational ministry studies and tried and discarded careers as a tanner, wool merchant, land surveyor, and farmer. He was married twice, father to 20 children, and directly influenced by his father, a staunch abolitionist. Some could and would say he was a shiftless loser. Post-Harper's Ferry, he was a martyr for racial equality.
Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry
Secretary of State William H. Seward. A fervent abolitionist, he was another polarizing figure. He wanted to be president, but was passed over for the Republican nomination in favor of the less radical Lincoln. Lincoln made him his Secretary of State and insisted he keep the position even when he wanted to resign right before Lincoln's inauguration. The Academy Award-nominated film Lincoln portrays Seward as the politician who is largely responsible for lining up the votes for the passage of the 13th Amendment. Seward scholars say that's accurate. Not what we were taught in school. In school it was all Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln. I never even heard that the assassination of Lincoln was a coordinated effort with simultaneous attacks on Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Seward was in bed recovering from broken ribs and a broken jaw from a carriage accident when his would-be killer jumped on top of him with his dagger and slashed up his face and neck. Yet he lived. Wow. This guy needs his own movie.
In the movie Lincoln, Seward takes it upon himself to engage in the backroom dealing necessary to get the 13th Amendment passed.
Pickett's Charge. The tide was turning in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg and Cemetery Ridge was still barely under Union control. General Robert E. Lee couldn't bare to leave it that way and decided to stop fighting the flanks and go for the middle. He ordered General Longstreet to take the center of Cemetery Ridge, so Longstreet in turn assigned three of his divisions to do the job. In the 1993 movie Gettysburg, Longstreet agonizes over this bold directive, fearing it would fail, and by golly he was right. For 3/4 of a mile, Maj. General George Pickett's division led the march across open fields towards the hunkered in Union Army. A move that historians have disagreed about ever since. Was Lee's order a brave attempt to win a close battle, or a grandiose gesture that ensured the Confederates' defeat?
Confederates walking straight into cannon and rifle fire in Gettysburg (Courtesy of the movie Gettysburg.)  
What's one of your favorite historical dramas?


  1. I learned about the plot to kill Stewart & Johnson as well as Lincoln. I guess it comes down to your teacher. And I never considered Brown a hero. I think you were misled.

  2. Interesting post. It's true, we do make heroes and villains throughout history, often without looking at the bigger picture. Sometimes it's a matter of hindsight. Other times, who knows how we end up believing what we believe, except for the influences we are exposed to, at times perhaps biased in their own right.

  3. Oh, interesting. I did know that they tried to assassinate the others at the same time, but didn't really know anything else about Seward. When you really start looking into the historical figures you're taught to respect in school, disturbing and/or interesting things can come to light. Different time period, but Wyatt Earp was not the clean-cut hero he's known as. Him and so many others.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  4. I don't think I have a favourite historical, but I do like most of them.

  5. There was a TV series, back in the day called North and South. Patrick Swayze was in it- it was about the civil war. It was overly dramatic of course, but wonderfully written. I loved it.

    PS I'm taking my girls to Gettysburg this summer. :)

  6. Brown a hero, wow...even back in the dark ages when I was in school that certainly wasn't taught. And he wasn't given credit for starting the war either. In fact, he wasn't much more then a footnote, thought to be a bit of a lunatic from my education. Harriett Beecher Stowe was given alot of credit during my school years of flaming the fires.

    Been to Gettysburg, loved it and will go back. We spent 8 hours, vs the 2 people say it takes.

    Controlling the high ground. Most accounts I've read indicate that many of Lee's generals thought he was crazy and didn't want to follow his command, but apparently none of them were brave enough to ignore him or convince him he was wrong. He could have saved many lives if he would have surrender earlier in the war; but stupid crazy men tend to think they're supermen at times.
    Road Trip

  7. Would you be willing to share a few pictures and your Flat Stanley adventures with your kids?

    1. Ha, ha! I will look through my pics and see what I can find. The latest adventure was traveling to FSU, I believe...This was a few years ago.

  8. Gettysburg is an outstanding film as is Gods and Generals. I've also seen an older film from the 30's or 40's perhaps about John Brown that was quite interesting. Stonewall Jackson is part of my family tree and I am honored to be related to him. He was a truly great man who was highly conflicted about his role in the Civil War. The South was essentially doomed from the outset.

    Scanning over your topics on this blog, I like what you write about. Now following.

    A Faraway View
    An A to Z Co-host blog

  9. Yes, I've thought of this often -- that history is written by people with their own viewpoints, biases, agendas, and imperfect knowledge. Even if what they write is well-meant and as accurate as they know how to be, it can never be completely objective. So "real history" will always get lost to some degree. I also knew nothing about the larger Lincoln murder plot until a friend of mine wrote a NF book about it. I think the survival of Seward is nothing short of miraculous.

  10. Very interesting post. I think many historical books, especially those written for grade school wash over the details, especially when it comes down to people's motives.

  11. Wow! It's interesting to hear what they leave out of the history books.

  12. Okay, I just learned about Seward from you! WOW! One of the most fascinating things I watched on the history channel was how the books of the bible were chosen (controversial topic, I know, but eye-opening)!