A defense of Southern memoirs
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Robert K. Krick, author and Civil War historian, assails critics of Confederate officers’ accounts
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
LEXINGTON—Civil War historian Robert K. Krick is a careful scholar. He loves primary sources—documents written by participants at the time—since memory sometimes plays tricks with the facts.
But he’s had it with fellow historians who’ve dismissed swaths of memoirs written by Confederate military officers as unreliable.
Krick, who lives in Fredericksburg, let fly those feelings during a daylong, statewide symposium hosted Thursday by the Virginia Military Institute’s Center for Leadership & Ethics.
He and Penn State professor Carol Reardon led a panel on “Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia,” held at the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission’s 2012 Signature Conference.
Krick, retired chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, mounted a vigorous defense of Confederate memoirs as valuable historical sources. He decried modern writers who appear to distrust such accounts as tainted by “Lost Cause” mythology.
One “inane strain” of that criticism, he said, holds that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wasn’t really so popular among his troops and Southern citizens at the time.
Nonsense, Krick said.
He offered a maxim about the writing of history that he called Hamlin’s Razor (a riff on Occam’s Razor): “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance or sloth.”
Virtually unexamined is the question of whether Lee deserved that adulation from the Army of Northern Virginia, he said.
Tens of thousands of his troops felt so, Krick said, citing many examples. “It cannot be disputed by anyone except the most determinedly obtuse,” he said.
The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors.
“Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.
And what about Lee?
The Army of Northern Virginia’s commander, “against long, long odds, crafted some of the greatest campaigns in world history,” Krick said to an appreciative audience from across Virginia and more than two dozen other states. Lee is interred in the family crypt inside Lee Chapel at nearby Washington and Lee University.
As one example, Krick cited how Lee’s men turned back the Union army from the doors of Richmond in 1862. “Lee stood the war squarely on its ear that summer,” Krick said.
Under his command, his army demonstrated “movement and daring like never before,” he said.
Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville is “simply incomparable,” Krick said.
Krick related an anecdote about an Ohio high school graduate writing a paper on the Battle of Fredericksburg—during which, on the night of Dec. 14, 1862, many participants marveled at the display of a colorful aurora borealis in the night sky over the blood-soaked battlefield.
His teacher marked down the boy’s paper because he cited Confederate sources for the story, Krick said. Apparently, he felt, Southerners made things up and cannot be trusted, Krick recalled.
Krick forwarded to the Ohio teacher ample evidence, written by New England soldiers at the time, that the event actually happened.
With the American Civil War, whether people are writing on Lee or Grant or some other figure, Krick said, people can reach polar opposites on issues citing the very same evidence.
It’s just the way the world is, whether dealing with disagreements over history or, say, the beauty of Yosemite Valley in California, his home state, Krick said.
But in the case of Lee, “the millions of words from R.E. Lee’s own pen and those of his own contemporaries” provides sound evidence of what happened and what people were thinking and feeling at the time, he said.
People have “no need to accept my judgment” about the Confederate commander, or that of Lee’s detractors.
Read what people wrote at the time—primary documents—and draw your own conclusions, Krick advised his listeners.
Anyone who is interested can sift the contemporary evidence “without intermediaries or interference,” he said.
Krick, who grew up in a small community in California’s Sierra Nevada range, concluded with what might be a coda for his own life as historian.
He spoke of history’s ability to fascinate, just as it did when he was was boy, reading of Confederate exploits on distant Southern battlefields.
“I have not the least doubt that, growing up on a farm in some far distant clime, there will be some boy who examines that evidence who reads and marvels, and is impressed and eager to learn more,” he said.