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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Historian's Choices

This is Steven Petrick Posting.

One of the things about history is what makes it into a book and what does not. One of the books I have in my possession is a collection of short biographies of military leaders of note. It is a very thick book (four or five inches), and many of the people listed have little more than a paragraph, some only a few sentences. A smaller number merit an entire page, and some more than a page. The book includes Generals of Rome and ancient China, as well as generals of more recent vintage (naturally none after the date of its publication), I say this to indicate that there was obvious effort to be complete. There are a few people who were not "generals" or "admirals" but were deemed of note (and, no, I have not read the whole book, I have used it to look up individuals that I wanted to be reminded a little more about when encountering them elsewhere, like General Kuryabashi at Iwo Jima). There is no real way for me to know how many people of merit were excluded, it was after all the choices of the book's original authors whether someone was included or omitted. But some Civil War Generals help to illustrate the oddity of the choices.

Confederate General George Pickett merits nearly a column. General Robert E. Lee almost two pages, General James Longstreet more than a page. There are entries for Anderson, and even Heth.

There is no entry for Early.

This is odd in that Early held an independent command, marched on Washington, D.C., having the distinction to reach its outskirts and have his troops actually observed by President Lincoln from the outer works. He is sometimes referred to as "The Only Man General Lee Ever Fired". Yet, there is no listing for him, but Harry Heth has a listing, so does George Pickett (who arguably was also "fired" by Robert E. Lee, albeit just days before Appamatox Courthouse). While Pickett's division made up the bulk of the troops in that attack that has come to be associated with his name, his only other accomplishment of note seems to have been to be absent from duty to attend a fish bake when his command failed to block the Union assault on Five Forks.

Yes, Early's independent command ended in a disaster that helped cement Sheridan's place in history, but Early seems somehow to deserve more mention than Pickett, or even Harry Heth whose main claim to military fame seems to have been starting the battle of Gettysburg in violation of Lee's orders.

Who knows who else does not have a listing but should have, who the historians chose to ignore, and what their reasons were? When they make these choices, they influence what others will learn, or not learn, of history.