Do Turning Points in History Really Exist?
Does it matter? To who?
Here we are again…still. Russia is still slugging it out in Ukraine, and NATO is waiting for the next shoe to drop. At least we’re all still alive to talk about it.
There are many ways to talk about the past, but it’s a vast and daunting landscape. Many history writers provide guideposts called “turning points” that do two things for their narratives:
Provide direction and,
Both are literary tools, not historical elements. Both draw the reader into the narrative and because they are created after the event—and not everyone agrees on what they are—they have limited use in historical thinking.
Or do they?
I wrote before about how and why some history is written. When I was in grad school, not all that long ago, I did several papers on different aspects of the battle of Shiloh (6-7 April 1862). I did independent research for each of the four or five essays, and the whole became troubling. No two narratives said the same thing or had a consistent overall evaluation. OK, writers of all stripes want to say something different. I was not that different. But what troubled me most is that everyone treated Shiloh as if it was some touchstone, a turning point of some kind. In grad school, I was starting to question the idea of turning points, so I thought I’d look deeper into Shiloh and see what I could find. The result was…
One hundred sixty years ago this week, three armies met in the southwest Tennessee pine barrens near a flatboat trading post called Pittsburg Landing. To the southwest of the landing was a small Southern Methodist meeting house called Shiloh—the Place of Peace.
Starting at just after four in the morning on Sunday, 6 April, after a week of rain, a Federal and a Confederate patrol encountered each other in the predawn dark, exchanging scattered shots. Forty-eight hours later, more Americans had been killed, wounded, or gone missing in the surrounding eight square miles of farmer’s fields, orchards, and dense woods than had been killed or wounded in any battle since 1776. Over 23,000 casualties were inflicted in those terrible hours, fields, and woods.
And for what?
What was that scrap of soggy land worth? There were no railroads, no major cities, no factories, not even salt pans that were the part-and-parcel of Civil War skirmishes in Tennessee for most of 1862. Was Shiloh a turning point, as some scholars have held? What did it prove?
That question has been a matter of contention for 160 years and shows no sign of resolution. Many dismiss Shiloh as little more than an affair of outposts, three mobs of rubes running into each other to no purpose other than to brawl about…something. Others hold that Shiloh was the most critical fight in the “western” theater in the spring of 1862. Others only say that it should not have happened.
In his article on the battle for Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, US Grant said that Shiloh is the most misunderstood battle of the war. In many ways, I discovered that he was right. Grant and his army were encamped in that barren place because they didn’t intend to stay there for long. In fact, Grant said the men should not have entrenched because they were moving on within days. It is worth noting that Grant never referred to the battle as “Shiloh,” instead, he used “Pittsburg Landing” in his memoirs.
Decisive, yes, but Shiloh a “turning point in the Civil War?” I submit that the most important result of the bloodletting in the Tennessee pine barrens was…
The South never smiled again after Shiloh.
George Washington Cable
The effect on southern morale was heavy for many reasons, not the least of which was the casualty list. Though some southerners would refer to the first day’s success as a victory for several months, it became apparent with time that there was nothing to win there. The best the Confederacy could have done was kill a few Federals, nothing more.
Shiloh was quite possibly the last time completely green armies would fight each other in the western theater of the war, but that doesn’t make for a “turning point.” What would? Frankly, because history can be written in several versions, I would argue that such things are only in the eye of the beholder. I submit, therefore, that they are tools to build suspense in the media’s description. Alternately, they are guideposts for educators, something to plan a lesson around.
There has been an annoying phrase kicking around for the past few decades:
The Right Side of History
The idea of a “right side of history” presupposes that the user knows the future, feels that it is unchangeable and inevitable, and, even worse, knows what future historians will say about a given issue. Using this phrase, politicians often push a particular program or position on an issue many will object to. These advocates, supporters, and other blowhards try very hard to sell something odious. It says to the opposition:
I know what’s right, and you don’t, so shut up and agree with me.
It’s supposed to sound kinder, gentler, and less…pushy…than simply saying, “shut up and agree with me.” Frankly, it sounds pretentious and ignorant of the process to those who know that there’s always more than one version of history.
This rhetorical device provides another reason why “turning points” are used in historical narratives: to push a version of history. “Right-Siders” like to make sure that their audience knows that the future they predict is in concert with the understanding of the past they prefer. Their “right side of history” makes very little sense if their version of the past isn’t accepted.
First, they speak of a dark and scary past, then a bright and pleasant future. You MUST buy the whole package, or you are simply wrong.
Winston Smith, your office is calling…
What do YOU think? Are there helpful and absolute “turning points?” Is there a single “right side of history?” Why? Why not?
Coming Up Next Time…
Is History Too Slippery to Really Write?
What Is Reality…and Did The Firesign Theater Answer That Question?
On 9 April in…
1336, the warlord Shuja-ud-din Timur, or Tamerlane, was born in what is now Uzbekistan. He was also known as the Iron Limp for a defect that didn’t seem to slow him down.
1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to US Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. This is the traditional end to the American Civil War but was only the end of the Army of Northern Virginia.
And it’s NATIONAL WINSTON CHURCHILL DAY, commemorating the day in 1963 when President Kennedy made Churchill an honorary American citizen. He was already half-American—from his mother, but JFK made it official.