How Gettysburg became Gettysburg: Tom Desjardin’s must-read book

Desjardin-coverThe 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.

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 150 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 Americans 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.”

6 Responses to How Gettysburg became Gettysburg: Tom Desjardin’s must-read book

  1. It was not until I went back to graduate school that I knew what “historiography” was. Now that I know–or at least have a better understanding of it–it colors everything I do. This is, I agree, an indispensable book.

    1. It’s definitely one of my favorite Civil War books. As a former PR guy, memory studies fascinate me because they’re all basically just PR campaigns…attempts for one set of ideas to win out over others.

  2. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

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