In May 2016 I wrote about my favorite Civil War primary resource, the memoirs written by Confederate general St. John Richardson Liddell, known as Liddell’s Record. Liddell was on the staff of Albert Sidney Johnston and led troops at Perryville, Stones River, Tullahoma, Chickamauga, the Red River Campaign, and Spanish Fort. He was friends Jefferson Davis, Braxton Bragg, and a host of other officers. Besides his varied experiences, his memoirs are unusual in their honesty and immediacy.
Much has changed since May 2016. I wondered during the 150th why things were so quiet, only to see an explosion in bitter debates soon after the 150th closed. Despite my positive view of Liddell’s Record, both as a resource and as a literary work, I lately found myself questioning its utility and my 2016 praise. Liddell, while more open minded than the average planter, was still a man of his class, that is to say proud, arrogant, and an active member of a system of forced labor. I began to question if I should feel any solidarity with the man, much less sympathy.
The other thing that caused me to question Liddell’s Record is its status as a memoir. I knew memoirs were tricky. The BBC producer John Nathan Turner used to say “The memory cheats” when people compared his 1980s Doctor Who episodes unfavorably with the 1970s run. Several of my favorite memoirs have taken substantial hits. It is clear to me that Grant’s memoirs are unreliable, ridden with errors and hindsight judgments. It is still a good read and valuable for anecdotes and some of his analysis of personalities. Yet, he says after Shiloh he was convinced the South could only be crushed by force. His letters written after the battle are not nearly so prescient. Perhaps we have loaded Grant with too much responsibility, making his memoirs into both a classic of the genre and an invaluable resource. They are in the end memoirs written by a powerful man with a reputation to protect. Grant was known to hold long and bitter grudges, and was himself facing death’s door and likely not in the clearest of minds.
As far as Civil War soldier memoirs go, I love Co. Aytch, finding it the best written of any by a common soldier. Among my friends in New Orleans is Joseph D. Ricci, assistant curator of Confederate Memorial Hall Museum. Ricci is obsessed with the battle of Franklin. One day, while talking, I thought of Watkins’ moving, if brief passage, on the battle and asked Ricci about it. Ricci simply said “he was not there.”
I was shocked. Ricci told me the 1st Tennessee was on furlough in Columbia. He thinks Watkins’ only honest (if obliquely) passage in that part of the book is “I cannot describe it. It beggars description. I will not attempt to describe it. I could not.”
Watkins might have been there all the same. He may not have furloughed but marched with another unit. If he did, he makes no mention and it would have added to the tragedy and the drama, and so is highly unlikely. Ricci offered another gut punch: Watkins was from one of Maury County’s richest families. They were slave-owners. The home-spun persona is therefore a sham. I had been warned, in less strong language, by Larry J. Daniel to use Watkins’ sparingly. I had no idea it was this bad, but it explains why his passages on Shiloh, Stones River, and Kennesaw Mountain are more detailed than his description of John Bell Hood’s Tennessee Campaign.
Considering the above, can I trust Liddell as history or praise its literary qualities? After all, Liddell seems to have too many frank discussions with fellow officers. Braxton Bragg opens up to him before Stones River. His 1863 talk with Joseph E. Johnston finds the general offering an array of blunt opinions about other officers. It seems all too convenient.
In the end, Liddell is more trustworthy than Grant and Watkins for several reasons, First, his account was written soon after the war, when the memories were more fresh and the Lost Cause myth was unformed. He wrote for himself, not to vindicate his career. On that mark he is very honest, for while he holds himself in high regard, he acknowledges more personal and professional mistakes than you will find in anything written by Grant, Beauregard or just about anyone else who made the rank of general. You cannot rely on him 100% but that is true in the Official Records, themselves filled with self-serving reports and compromised by curations from the war department, particularly from Edwin Stanton. Liddell is better than most of its breed. It provides a window into observing the course and reasons for Southern defeat by an insider with an outsider’s personal disposition.
As to its literary qualities, Liddell’s Record still works. It is an easy read, but not an elegant one. Its’ emotions, like those of today, are raw, unrefined, and even bitter. In addition, I like memoirs by people who lived through extreme circumstances. Although warfare is my favorite topic, I have read a fair bit of memoirs by slaves, prisoners, and survivors of concentration camps, both Nazi and communist. Liddell certainly lived through a hellish time. He was a frontline officer in the battles of Perryville and Stones River and saw his home state of Louisiana ravaged by war. I might say others suffered more and wrote better memoirs, but there comes a time when such condemnation grows stale and you have to acknowledge the humanity of a man like Liddell. It is certainly easier than when one reads the stale renderings of George McClellan and Philip Sheridan. Liddell also lacks the self-righteousness of Abner Doubleday and Jefferson Davis.
Liddell still has my sympathy, and I find his narrative compelling and sad. It helps that he was both honest and a highly unusual man. Although a slave-owner, he openly advocated emancipation by war’s end, and was discussing it with other officers before that. He was an insider yet was known for being blunt, which likely cost him his command after Chickamauga. He was caustic and arrogant, but also devoted to duty, family, and his men, providing them with supplies he bought with his fortune. He was a man of his time and yet out of step, a character not quite tragic or heroic, but certainly one of pathos and dynamism tinged with pessimism. If we compare his life to examples from Greek mythology, he seems like a cross between Hector and Cassandra, both of whom suffered in the siege of their native Troy.