False Memories – A Charge That Never Happened

by markacres on March 28, 2010 · 1 comment

One of the great challenges of Civil War research is figuring out when an eyewitness source is reporting a false, or falsified, memory. I can remember when, like many with a budding interest in the Civil War, I would read an historian’s account of a battle or a meeting and accept that account at face value as “what really happened.” After all, most of the accounts were copiously footnoted and “documented.”

When I reached the point of wanting to research and write some Civil War history on my own, I finally delved into the treasure trove of original sources. What a shock! The first thing I learned was how little we really know, and how much of our accepted history really is a reconstucted narrative based upon best guess interpretations of what the sources tell us. Sources contradict one another endlessly; eye witnesses tend to telescope time, running events that happened hours or even days apart together;  many writers of orginal sources write with an eye on the history books or the promotion of their careers, and some have crafted elaborate, detailed memories that are just plain false.

A great example of such a false memory is Chaplain  Jaquelin Marshall Meredith’s (47th Virginia Regiment, Brockenbrough’s Brigade, Heth’s Division, Hill’s Corps) account of the approach to Gettysburg by Heth’s division on the morning of July 1. Meredith treats  us to a great cavalry charge by Union General John Buford’s celebrated cavalry:

We had proceeded very slowly, giving time for the whole division to form in the road and march, and had, at 9 o’clock A.M., reached only about and and a half or two miles east from Cashtown, when we passed over a long ridge and down into a broad, clean, open valley, with the pike leading gradually by open fields upwards to another long ridge, where some oak woods covered a large part of the crest on both sides of the road. We had begun to ascend this slope, when I noticed Archer’s Brigade file to the right of the road and march by columns of four, or marching orders, at right angles to the road. In a few moments Brockenbrough’s Brigade filed out on the right about four to five hundred yards in rear of Archer’s. While still marching; and without time to face into battle line, with guns unloaded, Archer’s Brigade of 1,000 men were suddenly charged upon by Buford’s Federal Cavalry, 2,500 strong, from the cover of the wood on the ridge. The attack was so sudden in front and both flanks that in a few moments I saw General Archer and two-thirds of his brigade captured with only a few pistol shots from the cavalry.

It’s a great scene from a movie, but only Chaplain Meredith saw this particular epic production. Buford’s cavalry fought dismounted; Archer’s brigade advanced several hundreds yards in line of battle from Herr Ridge toward McPherson’s Ridge, and after a vicious firefirght they were flanked and routed by the Union Iron Brigade that came up to relieve the cavalry.

Meredith wrote this accont a full 33 years after the events in question. He intended to praise General Heth, whose adventures that morning could most charitably be described as “unfortunate.”  It is a great example of an eyewitness to history account, full of colorful detail, all of it completely false.

You can find the full text of Meredith’s article in the Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume XXIV, pp. 182-187.

Thanks to Brett Schulte for welcoming me as a new blogger to TOCWOC. You can find a bit about me in my Profile.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joan Johnson August 2, 2010 at 9:32 pm

You know what they say about opinions! The Chaplin you are discussing was my Great Grandfather – were you there!? No I didn’t think so.

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