It's Always Difficult to Convey What Is Really Happening in a War to the Folks on the Homefront

Roundup: Historians' Take

Thomas A. Desjardin, a historian with the Maine Department of Conservation, writing about President Bush's complaint that the American people are getting a jaundiced view of the war in Iraq from the media; in the Boston Globe (Dec. 7, 2003):

The truth is, people on the home front never get an accurate perception of what happens in large-scale conflicts, not in the past and not now. If understanding the war in real time on television is difficult to fathom, then imagine reaching back a dozen decades or more and asking "history" to figure things out.

While the media serve as a filter through which we see the story of modern warfare, a more complex and intricate system of filters has shaped our understanding of past struggles. And perhaps no event in American military history illustrates this better than the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

To begin with, our knowledge of this Civil War battle -- the "history" of it -- comes largely from sources other than historians. Indeed, the most influential chronicler of Gettysburg listed among his qualifications the fact that he painted landscape watercolors in Boston's Hyde Park neighborhood before the War Between the States. Though John Badger Bachelder did not serve in any army and was not present at the battle, most of what we know about Gettysburg is a direct or indirect result of his influence.

Prior to the Civil War, Bachelder had tried to collect enough accounts of the Revolutionary War's battle of Bunker Hill to paint an accurate historical depiction, only to find that the passage of years had left memories of the event scattered and contradictory. So when war of an equally important scale broke out again in the United States, he decided to do his research while memories were still fresh.

Within seven days of the battle of Gettysburg, Bachelder was on the field, interviewing wounded soldiers and making topographic sketches. Two months later, he traveled to the war front in Virginia, where he interviewed every officer he could find who had been present at Gettysburg. From this work, he published an intriguing three-dimensional map of the battlefield with lines showing the positions of the units. This enabled him to gain the endorsement of the Union Army commander and to continue to collect firsthand accounts of the battle....

In the end, however, Bachelder was never able to render his huge wealth of knowledge into an illustrated history. The final product of his endeavor was an eight-volume, 2,000-page summary taken largely from the already published official reports of the battle. Less than 10 percent of this massive work made use of the vast body of knowledge he had collected himself. What he had no doubt learned through years of toil was that the experience of combat is too complicated to fully understand and record....

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