Thinking About Names

Earlier this week at American Battlefield Trust’s Virtual Teacher Institute, I had the opportunity to share a presentation about ideas for using biography and timelines to make history stories more relevant and anchoring those stories to key historical dates. One of the tangent discussions in the presentation included the question of “What do we call historical figures? What name do we use?”

At this point, I don’t necessarily think there is a right versus wrong answer as long it is an appropriate name and a respectful reason behind the choice. Of course, style guides and genre tradition should be taken into account for writers and presenters of public history as well.

Here’s what I mean and how the discussion unfolded:

When talking or writing about a historical figure, we have to decide what to call them.

  • Last name (traditional)
  • First name
  • Full name
  • Name with social title or military rank
  • A family or friend nickname for the person

There may be other options, but these were the ones I used as examples.

In most military and public history, historical male figures are referred to by their last name, full name, sometimes full name with title, and in certain circumstances a nickname. (Or nickname with last name.)

Generally speaking, we don’t find public or academic history writers calling a certain Union general “Ulysses” or a certain Confederate general “Robert.” It would not be tradition to use first name only and some might even feel it would be disrespectful. Sometimes, children’s books – especially story book forms – will use first names with famous figures. This is probably a way to break down the “distance” and make the historical figure feel more relatable.

I think there are a few pros and cons here, but I wonder if – under certain circumstances – it would be useful in the general public history field to use first names. Intentionally. To help remove some of memory’s pedestals. I don’t think it would be a good general practice, but maybe in certain writings or programs for audiences it would helpful. Some explanation might be necessary so it would come across as intentional and not rudely disrespectful. There have a been a few blog posts where I’ve decided to use first names because it matched a warmer or more familial tone that I felt fit the piece. Again, that intentional reason defined in the choice is key, I think.

What about how females are named in biography, though? Basically the same set of choices exist, but when writing about a couple, the man will often be referred to by his last name only and his wife is referred to by her first name or maybe social title. Example: Jackson returned home and told Mary Anna… Or it might read: Jackson returned home and told Mrs. Jackson…

I don’t have an axe to grind with how women are named in biography or public history as long as it is respectful. It’s just interesting to look at what has been tradition and ponder if it is or will always be best practices moving forward.

In 2019 in an ECW blog post, I made and explained a conscious choice about using a woman’s first name:

I have been working on a lengthy research project focusing on the life of Arabella W. Griffith Barlow. She is a woman who has many names in the historical records. Miss Griffith. Arabella Griffith Barlow. Mrs. Colonel Barlow. Mrs. General Barlow. Belle. After much deliberation, I decided to call her Arabella in this article and in a presentation; stripping away her social titles lets us remember and “see” her more clearly as an independent woman. (See Mrs. General Barlow: Her Image, July 27, 2019)

I think when referring to historical women I’m more conscious of the choice and my reasons behind the choice when writing or speaking, and I don’t chose the same for every article or program. It really does vary based on what I’m trying to accomplish. For the guys though, at this point, I mostly keeping with tradition and call the male historical figures by their last names or last names with titles. Sometimes a nickname…though I’m not a fan of making everyone “gallant.”

A few months ago I had a funny moment with historical name choice. Someone asked me, “How’s John?” I looked blankly at them. Who were they asking about? An ECW editor? My cousin? I was very confused, and it must have showed. The person immediately rephrased the question: “How’s your John Pelham manuscript coming along?” Oh, THAT John. But I never call him John. He’s always “Pelham.” (Unless I’m explaining his youth years in Alabama and then there are so many Pelham boys that I do switch briefly to first names just to avoid confusion.) Later, after I answered the question, I thought about it. Was there a reason I don’t call him John? Yes. It’s not traditional for military research and military biography. And to be honest, even after quite a few years of research, his life sometimes still feels distant and his personal feelings are mostly elusive due to missing primary sources. Knowing facts and doing years of research does not automatically equal a “closeness” that makes a first name of a long-dead historical figure feel comfortable. So, Pelham he shall remain! (And to answer the question, the manuscript is finally in progress.)

So what do you think? Are you a strict traditionalist when it comes to historical names? Or are you willing to consider if an account, a circumstance, some writing, or a program might lend itself to intentional and explained first name calling?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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5 Responses to Thinking About Names

  1. Larry De Maar says:

    Good point. I always think of John Pelham as the Gallant Pelham or Thomas Jackson as Stonewall Jackson, for example. I rarely hear of Pierre Beauregard or Hiram Grant, for some reason. Just kidding.

  2. Martha Taylor says:

    I once toured a historic site related to Clara Barton. The guide made an effort to refer to her as “Barton” throughout the tour. Not Miss Barton or Clara Barton, but Barton. In theory, this made sense, but in practice it sounded odd.

  3. Hugh De Mann says:

    Thomas Morris Chester, ‘The Black Pioneer’.

    Where is his statue?

  4. I think keeping with the tradition of calling a military figure by their last name makes a lot more sense, especially if they are so well known by that name as opposed to their first name. And when half of everyone is named “John” or “Robert” or “William” it helps to clarify who you’re referring to. But for an extra emotional connection, using first names or nicknames within a certain context or when telling a certain story can be a nice reprieve from formalities. As for women, I almost always call them by their first names, probably out of an unconscious habit. Maybe it’s the near-feminist in me, but identifying them by their surname feels like it gives them a little less automatic agency in the story, because they’re being identified by a name that signifies them as either married or unmarried, linking their identities with their social status. But that’s overthinking it a little.

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