14 April 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 13 comments

Dimitri wrote the following in his blog post for today, quoting me in the process:

If that quote doesn’t grab you, if it strikes a “yeah, yeah, okay” note, you haven’t lately read any of the vast sea of Pulitzer Prize-winning history rooted in secondary sources. To paraphrase Tom Rowland (again), the deeper one goes into the material, the greater becomes the shock and personal fear at discovering how dependent one has been on other people’s previous surmises.

The risk of not going down Eric’s path, of trusting the previous treatments, is that you are made the fool by aggregating bad stuff. And that, in a nutshell, is the central problem in Civil War history today.

In an interview published on the Savas-Beatie website, I said, “Primary documents are always the foundation of my research. I am known for turning up obscure published and unpublished source materials, and that’s what I focused on for this book.” I thought I would follow up on this a bit and explain what I meant here.

By way of introduction, I absolutely agree with Dimitri on this subject. Allow me to share a special favorite myth that has been passed along ad nauseum because it has been repeated in so many secondary sources. According to legend, the reason why John Buford’s dismounted cavalrymen were able to hold off an entire division of Confederate infantry on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg was because his men had rapid-firing Spencer carbines that laid down such a severe fire that the Southerners flinched. Or so goes the urban legend. This myth has been repeated more times than I can count, and even by the likes of Ed Longacre in his award-winning book The Cavalry at Gettysburg (to Ed’s credit, he has since corrected this error in later works).

The truth: First, and foremost, on July 1, 1863, there were perhaps a dozen Spencer carbines in existence, all of which would have been prototypes. The weapon did not go into mass production until September 1863, so it’s a factual impossibility. That leads us to the question of whether Buford’s men might have carried Spencer repeating rifles, as elements of the the Michigan Cavalry Brigade did at Gettysburg. A review of the June 30, 1863 ordnance returns for the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac–THE primary source–indicates that of the 92% of Buford’s companies that reported on that date, not a single company was armed with a repeating weapon of any sort. Rather, the majority of them were armed with Sharps .56 caliber single-shot, breech-loading carbines. The rest were armed with other similar weapons: the Ballard, Starr, Merrill, Burnside, or Gallagher carbine.

This myth is easy to disprove by using the primary sources. However, it has become engrained in Gettysburg lore. Why? Because so many secondary sources repeat it. This is just one of many examples, but it’s an easy one to discuss.

Consequently, when I’m writing, I try to stick to primary sources wherever and whenever possible. I try to limit my use of secondary sources to things like background discussions (such as pertinent local history) or capsule biographies of leading players. When it comes to writing about the actual action, I try to limit myself to using primary sources at least 90% of the time. In some instances, it’s 100%. Most of the time, it’s about 95%. Every once in a while, it can’t be helped.

However, my purpose in trying to limit myself to the primary sources is that when I do so, I have the pure material in front of me: the ACTUAL words of the participants, not someone else’s interpretation of those words. That way, when I do my own interpretation, it’s a first-generation interpretation, as opposed to going several generations deep on someone else’s interpretation of that primary source. Another technique that I try to follow is to allow the soldiers to tell their own stories in their own words wherever possible, and it’s absolutely mandatory that I use the primary sources when I do so, or else I run the risk of not accomplishing my goal.

Here’s an analogy from my professional life. Hearsay–defined as an out-of-court statement by a third party that is not subject to cross examination–is generally not admissable in evidence because it’s unreliable. Why? Because it’s someone else’s words being construed/interpreted by a third party. That’s the specific reason why hearsay is usually not admissable in evidence. The idea is sound, and it’s precisely the rule that I try to follow whenever possible in my historical work. A review of the endnotes of any of my books will bear this out.

Finally, I really enjoy uncovering these obscure and/or seldom-used primary sources. I think that they add a great deal to the work by adding insight/evidence that is different and fresh, and not the same old, tired sources used by everybody. For me, finding this stuff–the process of doing the detective work–is what I find most rewarding of all about what I do. I like to think that this is one of the things that sets my work apart from some of the other people writing Civil War history.

So, I very much share Dimitri’s concerns. There’s nothing like primary sources when trying to tell these stories. That’s the only way to get the raw material in an untainted fashion.

Scridb filter


  1. Lee White
    Fri 14th Apr 2006 at 4:03 pm

    It is interesting how many of these cherished myths become ingrained in the stories of the battles, I know that both Chickamauga and Shiloh have a long list of myths that have until recently been accepted as facts. Working at Chickamauga it is a very much an up hill battle to challenge some of them.


  2. Fri 14th Apr 2006 at 4:09 pm

    You indirectly hit on why the study of memory is so important. Uncovering the layers of stories written after the war and written for many purposes unrelated to uncovering the truth can steer one back to wartime accounts and perhaps a clearer picture of what took place and why. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  3. Don Caughey
    Fri 14th Apr 2006 at 6:10 pm

    Eric, thanks for an insightful and informative post. I’ve run across this in numerous instances during research on Brandy Station and environs, many of which your work, “The Union Cavalry Comes of Age”, has put to rest. There’s one that I just can’t find, however: Fitz Lee’s and Averell’s reputed correspondence about visits and sacks of tobacco on both sides of Kelly’s Ford. Is this urban legend, or is there a real source for it? Averell’s memoirs, perhaps?
    I’ve checked footnotes and endnotes from multiple authors and seen references to the OR, but I can’t find them in the volumes noted. Your volume is of course at the office, so I don’t have access to it at the moment. I did notice that Starr didn’t mention it all. It’s a great story of parting shots between former friends on opposite sides, I just can’t find the reference.

  4. Fri 14th Apr 2006 at 7:56 pm


    The questions of reliability of sources written long after the war is another rant for another day, but you’re right.


  5. Fri 14th Apr 2006 at 7:58 pm


    It’s fairly well documented, but I can’t recall the precise sources for that episode. I will try to remember to look it up.

    Thanks for your kind words about both the post and the book.


  6. Fri 14th Apr 2006 at 8:19 pm


    I just looked them up. My source for the first episode is a postwar newspaper article by a trooper of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry. The second is a March 22, 1863 article from the New York Times.


  7. B Johnson
    Sat 15th Apr 2006 at 9:04 am

    Dont disagree with your comments on Spencers and Buford.

    However, I think you will find that Custer had a fair amount of Spencers at that time.

  8. Sat 15th Apr 2006 at 9:09 am

    Correct, and I in fact, said something to that effect. Specifically, I wrote in my original post yesterday, “That leads us to the question of whether Buford’s men might have carried Spencer repeating rifles, as elements of the the Michigan Cavalry Brigade did at Gettysburg.”

    To be precise, all of the 5th Michigan Cavalry and approximately half of the 6th Michigan Cavalry of Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade were armed with Spencer repeating rifles. Those weapons played a major role in the fighting on East Cavalry Field on July 3, 1863.


  9. Don
    Sat 15th Apr 2006 at 12:36 pm

    Found it also this morning when I went back by the office. Thanks for the look-up. Of all the sources I’ve put together since working on Brandy Station and Kelly’s Ford, yours is the only one that didin’t refer me to another book. The academic runaround is really frustrating at times.

  10. Sat 15th Apr 2006 at 2:15 pm

    Eric, the both the Spencer and Sharps were .52 caliber, no?

    The firepower story might not be such a myth, even tho it seems indisputable that Buford’s boys were armed with single-shot Sharps carbines.

    Consider: the Sharps was good for about 10 rounds per min. aimed fire; the Spencer maybe 15 (one rd every 6 secs vs. one per 4 secs). But — every 7 shots the Spencer shooter has to stop, remove the follower from the stock, drop in 7 more rounds, recharge, and resume firing. The Sharps shooter does not, so in a sustained engagement, as at Gettysburg, the rates of fire are probably pretty close, especially considering the time needed to acquire and aim at a target, lulls in the action, time to cool off, resupply, etc.

    So my take would be that there was not a whole lot of difference in the amount of lead going downrange whether they were armed with Sharps or Spencers, given the circumstances. Both arms, of course, would vastly outshoot muzzle loaders.

  11. Sat 15th Apr 2006 at 3:17 pm


    You’re correct about the caliber. My bad.

    I think you’re correct in your analysis. The issue is not the speed of fire, but rather the myth and its perpetuation. But, your point is well-taken.


  12. Dave Smith
    Mon 17th Apr 2006 at 10:43 am

    Perhaps a classic that still needs a good treatment is the Confederate command at Vicksburg.

    Simply reading *all* of the ORs pertinent to the Confederate command, and not simply Joe Johnston’s memoirs, easily paints one a different picture than what has traditionally been reported.

    Couple it with the tendency of historians to treat Vicksburg as the U.S. Grant Show,” and it’s not surprising the story starts on the western bank of the Mississippi River, and ends under that tree between the lines, with Pemberton, Johnston and Davis relative side shows.

    Don’t get me wrong – Pemberton still surrenders in the end … 🙂


  13. Ralph Hitchens
    Tue 25th Apr 2006 at 11:19 am

    Very interesting post, although it looks like “myth” is an overstatement. In my reading I never got down to your level of detail, and don’t see that it changes my understanding of the battle — Buford’s cavalry did indeed have “rapid-fire” carbines that enabled them to check the Confederate advance.

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