When people have the chance to learn about history, don’t we want that history to be factually correct? That’s the question I asked last week when writing about the Robert E. Lee statue at Antietam. Placed at a spot on the battlefield Lee never visited, the factual inaccuracies inherent in the statue’s placement undermine the value of the statue as an interpretive tool, which is one of the strongest arguments in favor of keeping statues and monuments up. “Shouldn’t accuracy matter?” I asked.
Today I’d like to pose a related question that I didn’t tackle in my first post.
If we’re talking about accurate facts, we should also talk about complete facts. We need as much of the who, what, when, where, why, and how as possible if we are to fully understand anything. The fewer facts we have, the less we can understand. We might know that murder was committed in the dining room with candlestick, but unless we know it was Professor Plum, we haven’t solved the crime. We need all the facts or we haven’t got a clue.
Again, the Lee monument at Antietam provides an excellent example.
Here’s the text on the plaque of the Lee monument:
General Lee led his troops along this road into Sharpsburg on September 15, 1862. Outmanned 2-1 he would outmaneuver the Federals on the 17th. Although hoping for a decisive victory Lee had to settle for a military draw. Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people to self-determination.
We could quibble about whether Lee led his column or accompanied it, but that’s not my point. We could also quibble about how much “maneuvering” Lee did on September 17. We could also have a vigorous debate about Antietam as “a military draw” for Lee versus a strategic defeat. The first point is factual in nature but also depends on an interpretation of the definition of “led.” The others are less factual and more interpretive—a realm where people can have honest disagreement, depending on how they look at the facts.
That’s why it’s particularly important to look at the final line of the plaque, which has a strong interpretive angle:
Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people to self-determination.
I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of Lost Cause-ism but instead want to stick to the idea of facts—or, in this case, the facts omitted from this account.
Let me be presumptuous for a moment and add some facts back in:
Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, although he did own slaves, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people, except those who were enslaved, to self-determination.
I’ve not added a single piece of untrue information. (Some might try to quibble about whether Lee owned slaves, but you can look at his father-in-law’s will here or read this article from the American Civil War Museum.)
Notice how the inclusion of new facts changes the overall meaning of the text?
The way we choose to phrase the information we add back in makes a difference, too. Instead of “although he did own slaves,” we could have added a phrase–still factually correct–with slightly different wording:
Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, although he did not free his own slaves….
Or, instead of “he did not free,” we could choose a different verb, like “he chose not to free” or “he opted not to free” or “he refused to free….” In each case, we’ve not changed the factual meaning of the sentence, although the flavor of each verb certainly certainly gives each sentence a different connotation. Word choice matters.
Similarly, in the phrase we’ve added to the last sentence, “except those who were enslaved,” we could have instead said “the universal right of every white person to self-determination.” I wouldn’t presume to say “every free person” because I don’t know Lee’s stance when it came to free black people, so again, it’s important to be careful with word choice.
I’ve not added a single inaccurate or untrue fact, yet the additions change the overall text and the truth it tries to convey. The newer truth we’ve illuminated with our additional facts is more upsetting to some, I imagine, than the shorter version of the story. The difference between the two is a truth some people want to hear versus one they don’t want to hear. People will go to great lengths to resist a factually accurate truth they don’t want to hear, even going so far as to pretend it’s not true because, after all, they can construct their own truth by just omitting a few facts.
To be clear, when William F. Chaney erected the Lee statue on his own property with funds out of his own pocket, he was entitled to put whatever text he wanted on the monument’s plaque. However, now that the statue belongs to the American people as part of Antietam National Battlefield, it’s fair game for scrutiny. As a general rule, I oppose removal of monuments from national battlefields because they serve a vital interpretive function and they themselves have histories that make them important additions to a park’s cultural landscape. When they are factually wrong, though, they undermine the very interpretive value that serves as the argument for keeping them.
Because this can of worms treads heavily into the realm of interpretation—which overlaps with the contentious concept of memory, which has so enflamed people’s passions of late—I didn’t want to mention it in my original post. However, accuracy matters. The more facts we have, the more accurately we illuminate our history. The discipline of history demands it.
Otherwise, we just have some stories and some statues and some monuments that don’t tell us anything but what we already want to know.
For more on slavery as the principle cause of the war, check out these resources:
- The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States at the American Battlefield Trust
- “The Reasons for Secession: A Documentary Study” by John Pierce
- “Primary Sources: Slavery as the Cause of the War” by Chris Mackowski
The text of the Lee statue tries to frame the war as being about states’ rights, not slavery—a central tenant of the Lost Cause. The original secession documents make it clear that slavery was the principle cause, though. The “the universal right of every people to self-determination” trumpeted by the statue text sounds high-minded, but the issue they were arguing over was the right of states to allow slavery.