I grew up learning a version of Civil War history that modified the South’s Lost Cause mythology with reconciliation rhetoric from the North. Both explanations unraveled under serious study, and after pondering a succession of other socioeconomic and political viewpoints I concluded that the era had never been accurately portrayed. Focusing on original research into period sources, I soon found myself producing entirely new interpretations of different elements in the conflict that struck me (and many of my contemporaries) as more reliable. The ensuing critical reactions have run hot and cold as dictated by ideological ferment.

Thirty years ago, I dug into Confederate records of the military prison at Andersonville that had lain untouched in the National Archives for a century and a quarter, and scoured manuscript repositories for prisoners’ diaries. The result, although still a harrowing tale, contradicted the portrayal of deliberate attrition that Republicans used after the war to demonize Confederates and smear Northern Democrats as their allies.

Unsurprisingly, my portrayal of Andersonville found great favor in the South, and for a time in academia generally, but it is no longer esteemed by woke academics who dismiss anything insufficiently censorious of the Confederacy. Recently I saw a video of a young professor at Old Dominion University reading to his history class from one of the wildly exaggerated prisoner memoirs that sold well in the postwar North; he recommended it to his students as a “primary source.” Like most such reminiscences, it was fraught with demonstrably false details and ridiculous claims that I debunked with information from original diaries, but such horrifying memoirs are easier to find, and much safer to teach.

Later, I took on the saga of Robert E. Lee’s retreat to Appomattox. Again, rejecting memoirs, and challenging the authenticity of certain critical documents, I deduced that Lee’s army was much larger when he began the retreat than Lost Cause adherents believed, and that it dissolved through desertion. I also pinned some of the worst failures of the campaign on the revered general himself, or his staff.

An entire roomful of Civil War enthusiasts laughed out loud one evening in 2002, when I estimated Lee’s army at well over 70,000 men on the eve of its last march, instead of the traditional figure of about 40,000. My comments on his generalship produced a sullen silence punctuated by muttering.

Recently, however, Allen Guelzo published a much-acclaimed biography of Lee that incorporates some of my criticisms. Then, last week, a colleague introduced me to another researcher who thinks he has found conclusive evidence that my calculation of Lee’s original force was correct. Now my opinions of Lee seem more acceptable, having finally fallen on the “right side of history” — or at least on the momentarily popular side of political prejudice.

Reaction to my depiction of the Republican Party’s October surprise of 1864 also depends on modern partisan bias. Throughout the summer before Lincoln faced reelection, propagandists in his administration compiled a fat dossier linking the Democratic Party to a planned uprising of disloyal citizens.

Brandishing affidavits from paid informants, Confederate deserters seeking amnesty, and anonymous sources, they insisted that hundreds of thousands of Northern Democrats were arming themselves for an orchestrated revolt. All this was published on Oct. 8, one month before the election, in an official “report” identifying Democratic political clubs as covens of the conspiracy.

Widely distributed in pamphlet form as the 1864 equivalent of a government press release, the report on the purported plot dominated the news until the election. Yet, when state governors and military commanders asked for additional troops to meet the threat, the War Department refused them. Lincoln himself showed no concern about the conspiracy, or credence in it.

A few dozen vociferous Democrats were charged with treason to give the scheme substance. They were quickly put on trial before Republican-dominated military commissions, and each day newspapers carried alarming prosecution testimony of a widespread conspiracy; no rebuttal testimony was allowed until after the election.

A few convictions were necessary, lest the theatrical nature of the scheme become obvious, and four men were sentenced to death. The landmark Supreme Court ruling in Ex parte Milligan took its name from one of those defendants, and the condemned men were all eventually released.

This utter sham, so clearly orchestrated to influence an election, would seem to deserve a book of its own, but the fault lines of its reception could be easily predicted.

In saner times, it might be taken as a universal cautionary tale, but with partisanship again at 1860s levels such a book would be praised or criticized according to current events. In the wake of Republican vendettas as obvious as the Lewinsky hearings and Clinton impeachment, it would be lauded as refreshing candor in the liberal press and scholarly journals.

The recent spate of Democratic witch-hunts would surely induce the same observers to dismiss it as conservative spin. In the end, most people’s impressions of history depend less on what really happened in the past than on how their faction is faring in the present.

William Marvel lives in South Conway.

Recommended for you

(1) comment

Scott Shallcross

Struggling to argue that the current January 6th Congressional Investigation has anything to do with your Civil War research is pure sophistry. Get back and do some current research.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.