October, 2005

Although I have said some of this publicly on a prior occasion, I really believe that it is appropriate for me to pay tribute to someone whose loss I still feel keenly, and whose friendship, support, and guidance meant a lot to me. I’m not one for public outpourings of emotion, but I think it’s appropriate to pass on my thoughts and to share some information.

Brian Caldwell Pohanka was very much a mentor to me. In many ways, if I am a successful historian today, I owe that to Brian. He was always unfailingly generous, sharing knowledge, resources, and time. There was a time, early in my historical work, when I didn’t write anything that wasn’t read, commented upon, and blessed by, Brian. He unfailingly encouraged me in my work, and he always shared his immense knowledge willingly. In my case, as recently as sixty days before his untimely death in June, I asked him for recommendations on some reading on Ranald MacKenzie, and his lovely wife Cricket answered me within hours with his suggestions.

I had a chance to tell Brian the things that I needed to say to him directly this winter. He told me then that he has made certain that his legacy will continue on by donating his massive library–which makes mine look small–and papers so that they will be accessible to all, and he made a cryptic comment about once he was gone, we’d learn more about steps that he took to ensure that his legacy as a preservationist lived on. As Dimitri Rotov points out, Brian donated half a million dollars to the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, half a million dollars to the Richmond Battlefields Foundation, and another $100,000 to another preservation group. For those who don’t know this, Brian was one of the three original founders of APCWS, which is today the CWPT. He was also one of its largest annual contributors, but always anonymously, as he never wanted to draw attention to himself. That was very characteristic of Brian–he wanted no attention for the things that he did.

Professor Greg Urwin once paid Brian the ultimate compliment. One day while we were having lunch, Greg told me that if the definitive account of the Battle of the Little Big Horn could be written, there was only one person who could do it–Brian. I told Brian this, and he characteristically pooh-poohed it. But I am pleased to be able to tell you that he got to do just that. In August, a new book on the Little Big Horn–a Frassanito-style then and now–was published by the University of Oklahoma Press, and Brian finally got to tell the story of the Little Big Horn his way in it. I understand that he also finished his magnum opus, his regimental history of the 5th New York Infantry, aka Duryee’s Zouaves. Brian spent more than twenty years working on it, and it was a mammoth undertaking.

Rest in peace, Brian. I, and the rest of the Civil War community, miss you. It’s just not the same knowing that you won’t be there to read and comment on my work–it was always a safety net for me. And thank you, for being my friend and mentor. Most importantly, thank you for everything you did for our Civil War community.

And at last, you will be able to look George Custer in the eye and ask him just what the hell he was doing that warm June day in 1876……

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Well, I’m home after a long weekend. I led two tours this weekend, even though I don’t feel particularly well. I seem to be coming down with a cold, and it’s difficult for me to talk in my normal voice at the moment. Nevertheless, I had a great time. The weather was just spectacular, I got to talk about things I really enjoy in a place I love, and with people whose company I enjoy. All in all, it doesn’t get much better than that.

As I finish this series of posts, there’s one final issue that I want to address.

There’s something about Gettysburg that compels otherwise normal, sane people to do things that make no sense. I’m not sure what it is. However, there’s something about Gettysburg that drives good people to propound goofy, unsupportable and unsubstantiatable theories. Perhaps they feel a need to be able to claim that after 140 years and countless tens of thousands of pages of books and magazine articles that they have made a great discovery that somehow unlocks the battle. Perhaps it’s that they feel the need to be the subject of discussion. Perhaps they just feel a need to stir up controversy. I don’t know what it is. However, three very prominent examples come to mind.

First, is a certain park ranger. He’s well respected among his peers, and he’s known as being a fellow who’s not afraid to research things and go out on a limb. His first book, which is an expounding upon Lee’s “real” strategy for Gettysburg, has sold a lot of books. This fellow’s most recent theory is that Meade figured out that Longstreet was making a countermarch, sending Union cavalry to meet it in the vicinity of Hunterstown. Instead of Longstreet’s infantry, the Federal horse found Confederate troopers, and a nasty little fight ensued. Never mind that there isn’t a single shred of evidence to support this particular claim. It’s new, and it’s controversial, so therefore, it has to be advanced.

Then, there’s a particular licensed battlefield guide. This individual is absolutely obsessed–to the point of perhaps being unhealthy about it–with a particular portion of the field. This guide has cooked up a bizarre theory about where an important event occurred that is based on a flawed and factually incorrect assumption. Without there being so much as a scintilla of evidence to support it, this person claims, as a matter of absolute fact, that the monuments of a particular brigade were misplaced and that the veterans were promised that these monuments would be moved, thereby reflecting the true place where these events occurred. Never mind that the records of the Gettysburg Battlefield Monument Association do not reflect anything whatsoever of the sort in any fashion. When this person is challenged about the evidence underlying this theory, that person responds by launching vicious personal attacks against anyone who challenges the theory, and demanding that anyone showing the moxy to challenge the theory prove it wrong. Never mind that the responsibility for proving a theory is on the person advancing a theory. By all accounts, this individual is a nice person. I’ve never seen it–this person has launched vicious personal attacks on me in public because I had the temerity to challenge the theory.

Finally, there’s another ranger I know. I’ve actually spent a fair amount of time with this fellow, and I enjoy his company. However, this fellow seems bound and determined to make a name for himself as making some great discovery. Consequently, he latches on to these bizarre theories and insists that they have merit. There’s also the fact that this fellow insists on arguing theories even when others prove him incorrect. It’s frustrating as hell when that happens.

I have never met the first two people mentioned. By all accounts, the first person is a very good guy, well liked and well respected. The second person, I am told, is nice. I would not know, and from the way I have been treated, I couldn’t possibly care less what that persons says and does. If what that person says and does has no impact on my life, then that’s good enough for me. So long as this person ceases and desists from launching personal attacks upon me, I couldn’t care less what that person says or does. The third fellow I know fairly well, and I enjoy his company.

Why these people insist on advancing these theories is a total mystery to me. Perhaps it’s because they feel some need to advance new theories in the hope of finding something new all these years later. Maybe it’s that they hope to make a splash and that they also feel some need to have a moment in the limelight. I doubt we will ever know, and it may not even be conscious on their part.

I do know that these theories frustrate me to no end when unwitting members of the public accept them as the gospel truth just because someone in a position of credibility says that they are so. In my mind, that’s wrong, and in my mind, it should not be allowed. The second individual I mentioned shows people the wrong part of the battlefield and claims that EVERYONE–the veterans, the GBMA, and the National Park Service were all wrong about where these events were placed. It’s wrong, and it needs to end.

Either put up or shut up. And if you can’t put up, then please, do us all a favor and shut the hell up.

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I am sitting in a hotel room in Gettysburg as I write this. The hotel is right next to the visitor center, meaning that it’s actually on the battlefield proper, although it probably ought not be here. That’s another rant for another night, though.

I spent a fabulous day on the battlefield today. The weather was nothing short of spectacular–not a cloud in the sky, and about 70 degrees. It simply doesn’t get any better. I led one tour today, and have another one to lead tomorrow. I am fond of saying that the even the worst day on the battlefield is significantly better than the best day at the office. It was certainly true today.

At the same time, it’s one of those mixed feelings things.

As I said, I am drawn to this battlefield, time and again. No matter how fascinating I find other battles, I still come back to Gettysburg. I ask myself why. Perhaps it’s because I’m a native Pennsylvanian. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent more time on this field than any other and know it better than any other. Perhaps it’s because it was my first love. Honestly, I’m not sure. I wish I could understand it, but I can’t.

I do know that there’s one thing that I firmly believe. There WERE other battles beside Gettysburg. Some of them were even more important. Others are certainly as fascinating in their own right. What I’ve never been able to understand is why some people are single-minded about Gettysburg. Gettysburg is the ONLY battle that they care about, and it’s the only one that they deem worthy of studying in any fashion. Instead of really understanding where and how Gettysburg fits into the big scheme of things, they would rather micro-manage and micro-study every single thing about Gettysburg to the exclusion of every other battle. They may know ever teeny, tiny bit of trivia about Gettysburg, but they don’t know anything at all about the rest of the war.

A long time ago, I realized that one cannot truly understand Gettysburg without having a thorough understanding of Chancellorsville. There is so much about Chancellorsville that is directly tied to Gettysburg that you can’t truly understand one and not the other. Here are some of the linkages:

1. John F. Reynolds, who was aggressive by nature, never fired a shot in anger at Chancellorsville. Was it any surprise that Reynolds was desperate to pitch into the fray at Gettysburg?

2. Dan Sickles resented the position he was forced to abandon at Hazel Grove, which exposed his Third Corps to galling artillery fire. He swore it would never happen again.

3. O. O. Howard provided no real leadership to the 11th Corps, putting it into an untenable position. Then, he ignored reports of a Confederate movement against his flank. Although elements of his command fought hard, it was in an impossible position, and got routed and was sent flying.

I could go on, but you get the idea. All of these events play into the way these people conducted themselves at Gettysburg. Accordingly, I firmly believe that you can’t really understand Gettysburg without understanding Chancellorsville thoroughly. Some agree with me, but still refuse to learn these lessons. Others simply blow off the idea, content to stay in their own private Idaho. One fellow once said to me that since his time is limited, he’s decided to focus on Gettysburg to the exclusion of all other battles. While I can appreciate that, it’s an awfully narrow view.

The truth is that while I love this place and what it stands for, I would rather go to Antietam, where there’s no crass commercialism and phony ghost tours every ten steps. Or, better still, I would prefer to go to Chancellorsville and examine those events in detail. Or, I would prefer to visit some of the pristine cavalry battlefields that have been long overlooked by history and by most people.

In my mind, I think it’s very sad that people take such a narrow view. As important as this place is to me, there are plenty of places that are just as important, if not more so.

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