Arts/Literature

Shaping Memory—Review: These Honored Dead by Thomas A. Desjardin

The Battle of Gettysburg certainly ranks as one of America’s great stories—but how it became such a great story is a story unto itself.

That’s the focus of Thomas Desjardin’s book These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory.

Does the world need one more book about the battle of Gettysburg? (Well, there will always be a market for one, so maybe that’s a moot question.) In the case of These Honored Dead, published in 2003, the answer was—and is—yes. Desjardin’s book is a must-have for anyone who seriously considers him/herself a Civil War buff. But perhaps more important, it’s an indispensable case-study for anyone interested in understanding the forces that shape public opinion as it evolves into historical record.

And with everything that’s gone on in the last eight or so years, that kind of insight could be particularly useful.

Desjardin, a former historian for the National Park Service at Gettysburg and currently a historian for the state of Maine, writes about the “ever-changing history of Gettysburg.” The book is not about the battle itself but what people think they know about the battle. He then goes on to explore how people know what they know (or think they know).

The battle of Gettysburg, as it turns out, has a mythology all its own. Desjardin explores the sources of those myths “not in an attempt to explode the myths but rather to examine the myth-making process.” That mythology is built on misunderstandings, misrememberings, manipulation, and outright lies.

Yet Desjardin suggests that the apocryphal can sometimes be more valuable—or at least more valued—than the factual, and the results of the story-building process can have important sociological and psychological (not to mention historical) implications.

“History has a way of coming out the way we hoped it would rather than the way things really happened,” Desjardin says. That has less to do with the way the events themselves unfold as it does with the way people retell those events after the fact. It also has much to do with the way a modern audience interprets those retellings to fit their own times and context. “[P]eople reinvent their legends and myths in order to meet some need or fill some void in their present,” Desjardin says. “This is not necessarily a conscious behavior but is more often a slow, subtle, subconscious process.”

In Gettysburg, that process got underway even before the smoke from the battle had cleared, and it has been slow, subtle, subconsciously evolving over the 145 years since.

Sometimes, the process has not been so subtle or subconscious. Desjardin points to individuals, like Union General Dan Sickles and Confederate General Jubal Early, who had vested interests in making sure history remembered events in a particular way. “When veterans such as Dan Sickles or Jubal Early work actively, even relentlessly, to shape our popular knowledge of past events, they literally make history, building a belief in a particular version of the story even if it is partly fabricated,” Desjardin explains.

Popular culture, too, makes history. Desjardin looks as such things as Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and the movie based on it, Gettysburg, Ken Burns’s The Civil War, Shelby Foot’s The Civil War: A Narrative, as well as the works of several popular painters. All have had profound impacts on the way American’s understand Gettysburg. “Despite the thousands of scholarly works on the subject, popular voices such as [Ted] Turner’s have done more to shape people’s understanding of the Gettysburg story than the army of professional historians who produced these works,” Desjardin says.

Even the placement of monuments on the battlefield has affected, and been affected by, memory of the battle.

On rare occasions, Desjardin argues against himself. When talking about Sickles, for instance, Desjardin talks about the partisan slants they each took in promoting their interpretations of events on the battlefield. Sickles tried blatantly to harpoon the reputation of his commander, George Gordon Meade, in order to cover his own battlefield blunders. At various times, Sickles’ version of events held sway over public opinion, and Meade’s reputation unduly suffered. “At neither period was one history more right or more wrong than the other,” Desjardin says, although he has clearly demonstrated that Sickle’s self-promoting efforts were clearly off-base. I chalk up Desjardin’s inconsistency to poor editing rather than poor logic.

Sharper editing would have also kept Desjardin from rehashing several topics in the book. He talks about The Killer Angels in one chapter, for example, and then two chapters later talks about it again as though he’d never mentioned it before. Rather than making a point in one chapter and building on it in the next, he writes as though he’s introducing the info for the first time (again) and then he builds upon it. Such rare lapses, when they do occur, make the book feel disjointed, but the overall readability of Desjardin’s book make such sections fly by, anyway.

These Honored Dead is a fascinating study of memory, myth-making, and storytelling. While Desjardin’s book deals specifically with Gettysburg, that same kind of myth-making and story-building is happening in the world, even today. Looking at how the story Gettysburg evolved can help us perhaps understand how the stories of the 2000 presidential election, the terror attacks of 9/11, and the war in Iraq are all being shaped. “There is no factual, unassailable answer to questions such as these, and consequently a constant battle rages among supporters of both sides who seek to sway the popular opinion—and the history books—to one point of view or another,” Desjardin says.

“[T]here is a deep and highly useful knowledge that can be gained by studying the past and observing its processes, especially those that involve story building,” Desjardin says. “Learning more about that process, we can understand an immeasurable amount about our past, our present, and even our future.”

10 replies »

  1. Chris,

    Great synopsis and analysis. It seems to me that spin has been going on a long time, perhaps Eve was the first spin meister.

    Jeff

  2. Chris,

    This is an example of why I love reading S&R. I’m going to buy this book, and I thought I’d never bother to buy another on that battle. The mythmaking aspect of history I learned in cultural antrhopology courses has always fascinated me, and I can’t wait to read this take on it.

    Thanks!

  3. Excellent review, and while i’m no Civil War buff by any stretch of the imagination i’m going to put this one on my winter reading list.

  4. Haven’t read the Old Testament in a while, have you, Jeff? Adam was the craven whiner who blamed someone else for his own actions. Eve never even called out the serpent. She ate the fruit and took her punishment… like a man.

    Or not.

  5. Oops, sorry: that should read “never called out the serpent until Adam passed the buck.” Got a two-year-old hanging off my neck…

  6. Chris,

    One of my favorite books similarly explores political myth-making. Michael Schudson’s “Watergate in American Memory” looks at how we know what we think we know about Nixon and events preceding Watergate.

    I read it first in my doc program 20 years after covering some of those events in the early ’70s. It’s interesting how reading books by the various participants has colored my own first-hand experience of those events.

    Today, the old saw about “Journalism is the first rough draft of history” takes on a new meaning in the Age of Spin.

    A terrific review, Chis. Thanks.

  7. Ann Ivins,

    Genesis 3,4 is subject to much interpretation and debate. Although I have made a diligent effort to read passages every day for the past 40 years, I bow before your supreme understanding, humbled at your grasp.

    Perhaps you ought to revisit
    Romans 15:4

    Num. 11:28,29
    Isa. 65:5
    Mark 9:38-40
    Luke 9:49,50
    2 Cor. 10:12

    Jeff

  8. “History has a way of coming out the way we hoped it would rather than the way things really happened,” Desjardin says.

    You mention 9/11 and Iraq (along with Gettysburg and presumably the entire Civil War). But nowhere is that more true than the national mythology surrounding World War II.

    It seems like we’re only just figuring out both the Civil War and World War II. We’re making much better time with Vietnam and already many have uncovered the truths about Iraq. Absorbing them into our national consciousness is another matter.

    For more about General Sickles, this book by the well-known writer Thomas Keneally is both illuminating and juicy: American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles.

  9. I think you’re right, Russ, since so much of what we know of WWII is more John Wayne than Saving Private Ryan (although the latter did wonders for opening up a lot of eyes to what it was really like). The fact that members of The Greatest Generation are passing away at such an alarming rate also seems to put an emphasis on the “greatness” aspect of what they did rather than the horrible tragedy that war inevitably is, and that really has an impact on how we are, as a society, making sense of that war.

    The Sickles book is indeed juicy. With Sickles as a subject, how could it not be!

  10. Yes Russ, the Keneally book is very interesting. I think that I will look out for the Desjardins book. The way that stories evolve is very interesting.
    I started looking around for things about why Meade did not pursue Lee immediately after Gettysburg and that was interesting to see the changes in the way it was perceived through the years. Until I looked around about it, I would have said it was over cautious but now I think that, realistically, he did not have much choice.