A Historian Stops Being A Historian When…

McDonough’s interpretation of Sherman’s performance at Shiloh provides a valuable lesson for historians to follow.

When I first picked up James McDonough’s 2016 William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country, A Life, some of the first words I read jumped off the pages immediately. McDonough, a seasoned historian and author of five previous Civil War titles, justified his writing another biography of Sherman by looking at the general’s life “sometimes with different interpretations, than previous biographies.” He continued: “For example, I am convinced, after taking another look at the Battle of Shiloh, that Sherman deserves more credit for that Union triumph than earlier biographers have assigned him; indeed, more credit than I gave him in my book about Shiloh, which I researched and wrote between 1971 and 1973.”

It was the last part of the statement that told me I was in for a treat with this read. Not only do I automatically move books that promise a new way of looking at things to the top of my never-ending reading stack, but McDonough’s willingness to change his interpretation after many years of writing speaks volumes about an important reminder that we as historians should all remember: never stop becoming a student of history, never shut oneself off to look at past events differently (even if we have interpreted them the same way for decades), and never believe that we have learned or discovered everything there is to know about a particular event, battle, or person. A historian stops being a historian when they become dead set in their interpretations and never take a second look at their past conclusions.

If historians can always remain students as well as teachers, it opens up a lot of possibilities about how we can continue to change the way we think about and talk about the Civil War.

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16 Responses to A Historian Stops Being A Historian When…

  1. Thomas R Place says:

    A Great comment and one i shall use in the future Kevin . Thank you .
    I can only hope some others on this site can and will do the same . some have the modern political
    correct blinders on .

    • Kevin Pawlak says:

      Thanks for reading, Tom!

    • John Foskett says:

      Not sure what you mean by the “modern political correct blinders”. There are folks on both sides of the so-called “political” spectrum who fail to look at history the way they should – objectively and letting the chips fall where they might based on facts and not on ideological slants. For every historian who approaches things with “modern political correct blinders” on, you can find just as many who reflect the Lost Cause Mythology. it’s difficult, for example, to read anything by Freeman without recalling that this was a historian who admitted showing daily reverence to the statue of an eminently fallible historical figure. None of it is a credit to the historian’s trade.

      • Thomas R Place says:

        I have no ideal what sort of spin you are putting on my post . Except your dis like for Gen. Lee.

      • John Foskett says:

        Then tell us what you mean by “political correct blinders”. You apparently don’t understand my point about Lee. It’s got nothing to do with “disliking” Lee. It has to do with a historian who admittedly venerates any historical figure. History should be about facts, not about fantasies based on philosophical viewpoints or stereotyped images of fallible human beings..

  2. Kevin
    An idea whose time has come (that old ways of looking at things need to be periodically revisited). I can think of one thing in particular that is pretty close to home so to speak. I have not read a Sherman biography but this one looks interesting.

  3. John Foskett says:

    Excellent post and all credit to McDonough for revisiting his earlier conclusions. We don’t see enough of that.

  4. I cannot in good conscience agree with any review of a McDonough work that does not mention the plagiarism associated with his book on Atlanta, which was withdrawn from publication by the publisher.

    • Kevin Pawlak says:

      Thanks for the comment, James. This was not intended to be a review of McDonough’s newest book or a statement of his previous works. Rather, I just wanted to illustrate a greater point about constantly revisiting history. His statement about his change of heart about Sherman’s performance at Shiloh just happened to fit the bill.

      • John Sinclair says:

        The book to which Mr. Epperson refers is about 30 years old. Since then, Mr. McDonough has written other books, including his recent Sherman book, apparently without similar problems. Many of us did things 30 years ago of which we are not proud. Not sure it is necessary to stamp the proverbial “A” on Mr. McDonough’s forehead 30 years later whenever his name comes up unless there is reason to believe he did not change his ways after that book.

      • Changing one’s mind is, of course, a good habit to have (when called for). My favorite story in this regard comes from Bud Robertson, who once said that his view of an altercation between Stonewall Jackson and AP Hill had evolved—“When I was writing a biography of Hill, it seemed to me that he was in the right, but by the time I came to write my biography of Jackson, I had changed my mind!” [Quote approximate.]

      • John Foskett says:

        Unfortunately, given Stonewall’s well-established track record with subordinates, that might be the “exception that proves the rule”.

  5. Rob Wilson says:

    You make good points and wise observations, Kevin. Thanks.

  6. Pingback: ECW Week in Review Feb. 19-25 | Emerging Civil War

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