15 November 2005 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 7 comments

Yesterday, I discussed the process by which I find the material that goes into my work. Today, I will discuss what happens to it once I’ve got it.

As a lawyer, I’ve been trained in evaluating evidence. Evaluating and presenting evidence is my job. With experience, you learn what’s credible and what’s not. You learn when something can be relied upon and when it can’t. A key, of course, is whether something can be corroborated. If it can be corroborated by an independent source, then it’s reliable. So, the key for me is to evaluate the sources and then to determine what’s reliable and what isn’t.

I always look for things to corroborate my sources, or, as an old friend likes to say, calibrate my sources. If there is a second account that says basically the same thing, then it’s a reliable source and I will use it. Conversely, if it can’t be corroborated, odds are that it won’t be used at all. If I do use it, it will be with a caveat, usually stated in a footnote, that the source cannot be corroborated and hence is not entirely reliable. That happens only rarely.

I also talked about the timing of the account yesterday. A good of rule of thumb is: the closer in time to the event that the account is written, the more reliable it’s likely to be. Consequently, things written right away get a lot of leeway with me, because they’re so fresh, while accounts written forty years after the fact typically don’t, simply because we have no idea what factored into the writing of that account. So, if someone writes within a couple of days of the event, it’s likely to be defendable because it’s fresh. So, I always look at the timing of the recording of the account.

Another factor to consider is where it came from. If it’s a letter, it’s probably more reliable than a memoir written years later, since memoirs typically have some agenda in mind when they’re being written (if you need an example of this, see James Longstreet’s memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox, which were written as an opportunity for Pete Longstreet to defend himself from the Lost Causers who blamed him for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg). Diaries tend to be very reliable, since they weren’t written for anyone to read but the diarist, meaning that there was no incentive to spin things. I tend to find that items from the Southern Historical Society Papers are not terribly reliable since they were written with a clear agenda, the Lost Cause. Consequently, I tend not to use them unless I’m addressing a controversy or I want spin.

Finally, there’s what one of my old law school professors used to describe as the judicious use of gastronomical jurisprudence. In other words, does this pass the smell test? Sometimes, you read something, and you just know it’s made up or badly puffed, and not reliable. You can just tell. You get a gut reaction that says “nope, this dog don’t hunt.” With a gut as ample as mine, it’s usually pretty reliable. I’ve discarded a lot of accounts because they don’t make sense or they are questionable on their face. As a result, I tend to ruminate a bit on each one before I decide to use it in a work.

Finally, it’s been my experience that no matter how hard I might try, I will never be able to tell these stories as well as the soldiers themselves. Consequently, whenever possible, I try to let the participants tell their own stories in their own words. That means being extremely careful in selecting the accounts and quotations to use. If it makes it into one of my works, you can pretty well conclude that it’s there because it passed the various tests set forth herein.

To conclude, it’s about experience, it’s about knowing when and how to sniff out BS, it’s about being able to evaluate and corroborate evidence, and it’s about being careful.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Kevin Coy
    Tue 15th Nov 2005 at 6:42 pm

    Eric,
    Thanks for sharing this information. BTW, I love your blog. It is now part of my mandatory daily reading.

  2. Tue 15th Nov 2005 at 8:31 pm

    Kevin,

    You’re very welcome, and I’m very pleased to hear that you’re finding something worthwhile here.

    Eric

  3. Wed 16th Nov 2005 at 10:50 am

    Great advice, Eric, in both parts. I’ve naturally followed the same research and source “tactics.” Probably the most important point you’ve made is that good ol’ “smell test.” It can take years to develop a good nose for it… but when you have the knack, you have one of your most valuable tools. Sort of like being a good detective. Sometimes, admittedly, you can’t place your finger on a particular account’s lack of credibility, but you know it’s there.

    As authors, we also get critical of other writer’s work by using that same smell test – note the examples of Carhart’s and Walker’s books, et al. As when we meddle through a myriad of various primary sources on a subject, the same judiciousness is applied to other author’s works. For anyone very familiar with, for instance, the action on East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg on July 3, the stink gets stronger with every turn of the page of Carhart’s book. We would dismiss his book immediately whether it was published in 2005 (as it was) or even back in the early 20th century by one of the early secondary scholars.

    A stink is a stink, doesn’t matter how far removed from the events it may be.

    J.D. Petruzzi

  4. Wed 16th Nov 2005 at 11:33 am

    Well said, J.D., and an excellent example of what I was referring to there. There are, of course, lots of books that fall within this description. I would also lump Troy Harmon’s book in this same category, for much the same reason. Why there seems to be so much of this poor scholarship pertaining to the Battle of Gettysburg is really a mystery to me.

    Eric

  5. Wed 16th Nov 2005 at 12:10 pm

    Indeed. Look at any other major battle or campaign in the East – the Manassas fight, Maryland Campaign, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wildnerness, Overland, you name it – none have been bombarded with so many recent varying theories or revisionism. I’m no expert on the Western Theater to be sure, but I suspect the comparison is the same. There is lately so much speculation, on the part of some, as to the accuracy of “conventional interpretation” of events on any of the 3 days of the Gettysburg battle that it’s getting frustrating.

    As you and I have discussed, it could be attributable to many things. Maybe it’s a fad at the moment, as Civil War and American history scholarship in general becomes microscopic. Maybe it’s the fading away of the “big hitters” of scholarship, such as the Pfanz’s, Bearss’s, McPherson’s etc and others are trying to take their place by making a name for themselves with some of these wacked-out theories. The only good thing about it all is it makes the rest of us think out our opinions and interpretations more. There’s an old saying that you can learn a lot from a dummy, and these dummies are definitely forcing us to research in more detail and to substantiate our own views.

    Learning is never easy, whether it’s on your own accord or from the village idiot, I guess 🙂

    J.D. Petruzzi

  6. Wed 16th Nov 2005 at 1:59 pm

    Gettysburg is the number-one focus of Civil War counterfactuals. It’s so much a brand in counterfactual history that people who have difficulty distinguishing counterfactual speculation or fiction from actual history are naturally drawn to spectacular variants on its known story, in a way that they wouldn’t be by peculiar claims about Logan’s Crossroads or Pea Ridge or Fisher Hill. Counterfactual fans represent a natural constituency for booksales which probably equals or exceeds that of the military history purists.

    Conversely, the attractiveness of Gettysburg among charlatans and the generally goofy is clearly a sort of founder’s effect. In the same way that no con artist will ever approach you and attempt to sell you the George Washington Bridge, their literary equivalents aren’t going to try to build their flash-and-no-substance careers on some sort of argument about the Port Hudson campaign or Sabine Pass being the fulcrum of the war.

  7. Wed 16th Nov 2005 at 2:53 pm

    Mitch,

    True enough. I agree.

    Eric

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