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Where To Start..?
Finding sources, resources, information, and balance in historical research
Where To Start?
Over the holidays, we had the misfortune to not have a working washing machine. How it got broke is beyond the scope of this essay, but it got broke. The service firm associated with the Now Defunct Big Box Store took a month to show up, and then, of course…”we gotta order parts.” Not to worry, we were assured, the door hinge and drain pump will be on hand when we come back…in two weeks. We will send them to your home before the “technician” gets there.
The promised day arrived and, lo-and-behold, no drain pump is on hand and the “technician” is arriving in four days. A distressed phone call later and we hear the dreaded “supply chain issues” and “we will make all efforts…”
Ain’t buying it…
So we ask for the part number. Before this call, I’d done some snooping around as the old parts counter/catalog guy that I once was in my professional life. I searched for my make and model and “drain pump” on several websites and…yep; there’s a bunch of ‘em. Trouble was, there were two distinctly different pumps seventy-five bucks apart. But the guy at the other end of the phone gave us the number he had…which didn’t come up anywhere…except one place…
But only part of the number was right…with the right description.
Old parts guy/tech writer that I am, I realized that the front digits were what Defunct Big Box Store used internally—probably warehouse locations—for the Original Equipment Manufacturer’s (OEM in the trade) pump. This isn’t at all unusual, and I’d seen it many times before. What I’d found was an aftermarket—made for the repair trade—pump. I ordered the aftermarket pump, which came the next day and the “technician” put it in the next week and now we no longer have to beat our clothes on rocks by the river…or the 21st century equivalent, which is to shlep it all to the laundromat.
So…what’s all this got to do with history?
The study of the past is a great deal like this: get part of an answer, figure out what part was useful to the source, and integrate your findings into your narrative. Now, my full-time profession as a technical/parts writer is valuable for my washer machine issue because I could see as much of the source as I needed to fit my requirements. This comes to mind in a discussion group that I’m a part of devoted to the 1862 battle of Shiloh (yes, those two days in the Tennessee pine barrens are that complex and controversial). One thread we’re discussing now has to do with the park’s plans to eliminate references to the Sunken Road, the Bloody Pond, and the Hornet’s Nest.
Why would they do that?
The Sunken Road that defined the western edge of the Hornet’s Nest on the Federal left flank on Sunday 8 April 1862 was only about two feet below the road’s shoulders during the battle and isn’t that much deeper now. First-hand accounts don’t mention it; most commentators didn’t come up with it until well after the battle. Several accounts mentioned a pond behind the firing line in the Hornet’s Nest, but it would appear that the small water feature has dried up and federal law prohibits its restoration. The Hornet’s Nest was a post-battle appellation, admittedly attached by journalists after talking to the battle’s survivors, created to dramatize the intensity of fire around Federal left flank.
Has to do with perceptions, it seems.
“Sunken Road” is the name for much deeper roads, notably at Antietam; the Bloody Pond is no longer a pond; the Hornet’s Nest is…ahistorical, according to the park authorities. Our argument is that these terms are in practically every book in the bookstore/gift shop at the park and elsewhere. Why…?
Then they’ll replace the old books with more “accurate” ones.
This is how history gets written, believe it or not. The park will get new books written by scholars they approve of that will be devoid of the features they no longer talk about. Bully for them. The older accounts will still be around, but the park won’t promote them. They will probably write new books that include these now-obsolete terms.
Which means my book won’t be at the park.
When I was writing The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War, I didn’t go to the park, unlike every other scrivener who ever wrote about a battlefield. Why? Part of it was because of my career as a tech writer, I had the training to visualize things based on many descriptions, illustrations, photos and maps. It takes time, but it can be done. I knew even ten years ago that the park had their padded, predigested interpretation based on what they could sell to Congress, and I had mine, based on the record and a century and a half of other scholar’s work.
To answer the question “where to start…?”
You start with an idea. Originally, DOD started one direction, and it ended up going in another. I wanted very much to base my battle narrative on the actions of NCOs during the battle, but a dearth of information frustrated that. I ended up reconciling the several versions of the battle written in the books by scholars before me, and I think I managed that. But the park, being controlled by the National Park Service, which is a creature of the Department of the Interior and it thus political, is subject to pressures and perceptions by forces beyond the historical field. They are thus presenting history by committee driven by politics and perceptions. For decades, the Park Service has been in the thrall of the notion that the battlefields have to emphasize the Civil War’s relationship to slavery and the slaves. Not all battles had a direct relationship, but the parks have to…
Knowing this takes some time, experience, and a very good sniff tester.
Time has a tendency to make errors and propaganda more obvious. While the Sunken Road, the Bloody Pond and the Hornet’s Nest are a part of a century and a half of scholarship—and they make excellent copy—how “historically accurate” they are is a matter of debate. And, like the part number I got from the Defunct Big Box Store Service guy, it has a kernel of truth padded by utility. These terms were/are useful for most narratives, but now, for a few, they may not be used for those the park promotes. When I went elsewhere to get around DBBS’s “supply chain issues” and get my washer fixed and stop those early-morning jaunts to the laundromat, I was avoiding the park’s version of the battle and creating my own based on my experience as a researcher, historian, scholar, tech writer, and experienced sniff-tester. That’s how you start…
The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War
The Second Edition of this one will be out before the end of the year. If any of you have read the First Edition, the text will be substantially the same, but I’ll be cleaning up this one of the same kinds of typos that I cleaned out of Crop Duster.
Long Wars: A Primer
You Saw Me Standing Alone…
On 28 January:
1807: The first gas-lit streets opened to the public in Pall Mall, London, England. Using town gas derived from coal, the lamps were hand-lit by lamplighters on foot. The intent—and the effect—was to reduce crime. Remarkably, London still sports several hundred gaslights between Covent Garden and Buckingham Palace, but the lamplighters are now on scooters.
1915: Woodrow Wilson signed the Coast Guard Act, creating the modern US Coast Guard from the Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. On the same day, German raider Prinz Eitel Friedrich sank William P. Frye off the coast of Brazil, the first American ship sunk in World War One. Also on this date, the British Admiralty approved Winston Churchill’s plan for an attack on the Dardanelles at the entrance to the Black Sea, on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
And today is NATIONAL KAZOO DAY, the one instrument that anyone, regardless of musical talent, can play. If you ever heard “Stairway to Heaven” on the kazoo—and I have, and now you can too—you’ll know what I’m talking about.