|Pickett's Charge in History and Memory: Carol Reardon|
Copyright 1999 Adam Barnhart. All Rights Reserved. Fair use of this document.The relationship between history and memory is often an uneasy one. In Pickett's Charge in History and Memory, Carol Reardon explores this relationship in the context of the Civil War, specifically, how the "climax of the climax" (4) of American history, Pickett's Charge, has been rendered over time and the social, cultural, and intellectual forces yielding its rendering. From the outset of the book, Reardon emphasizes the elusive nature of historical fact, and the tension between the psychological need to tell a meaningful story and the more disinterested role historians have traditionally played. In the case of Pickett's Charge, the centerpiece of American historical recollection, "it rests on the double foundation of both history and memory. The two have blended together so seamlessly over the years that we cannot separate them now" (3). In the case of recalling the battle of Gettysburg, the psychological limitations of memory generally are amplified by the confusion of the fog of war and the physical layout of the battlefield itself, which separated units and elements of the battle from each other, visually.
The impact of this on historians is one of limitation. Reardon sets the stage for the rest of the book with a brief historical treatment of July 3, 1863, a treatment short enough to underscore the limitations discussed throughout the rest of the book. These limitations are tied to methodological considerations and the problems historians have faced in attempting to piece together the story of the Battle of Gettysburg (and the military conflicts of the Civil War, more broadly) from the diaries, letters, and chronicles of battle that survive. Colored by the varieties of military experience and political conviction, recollections of the battle appear so inchoate as to obscure the realities of battle as much as illuminating them.
Reardon's tack, in evaluating this legacy of confusion, is almost ethnographic, focusing attention on the retelling of the event and the meanings carved out by a variety of groups through these narratives. The process of simplification and amplification play a central role for Reardon, not only creating memory imbued with characteristics that reinforce shared values, but helping to create a voice for the expression of those mechanisms. In the north, the battle was recalled as vindication for their cause; an indication that the war was now theirs to win. Individual and their actions were recalled with great valor and nobility, albeit morbidly, with great attention to the bloody losses of battle. While helping to cement northern sensibilities with respect to the war, Reardon argues, "(they) did not provide the grist for future historical controversy or the enshrinement of a great moment in American military history called 'Pickett's Charge'" (49).
The controversy and strongest call to the distortion of history as memory comes in the South, where "(the) Southern press...deserves the credit for providing the foundation of facts and fancy for legend building and myth making" (49). The Southern recollection of Pickett's Charge is a cornerstone of Lost Cause mythology, where it provides "a point of demarcation, a specific moment when no doubt remained about its (the Civil War's) ultimate end" (62). Pickett's Charge is, in this environment, annexed as a profound reflection of the Southern willingness to fight in spite of overwhelming odds and the dignity with which they went about their grave task. The recollection of the charge, however, was altered not only with respect to symbol, but to fact; in identifying the advance as Pickett's Charge, the role of troops led by James Pettigrew, Cadmus Wilcox, Isaac Trimble, and David Lang are written out of the memory of the event. As Jubal Early and the Lost Cause sort through their heroes and scapegoats Pickett becomes a representative hero, tied to Robert E. Lee, while other military leaders are shoved into relative obscurity or, as in the case of James Longstreet, consigned to shoulder the burden for the failings of the Southern military, generally.
While the creation of the Lost Cause ideology served as a point for intersectional harmony, the recollection of Pickett's Charge points to the intrasectional components of the Lost Cause. While troops from North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida participated in the events of July 3, the recollections of valor, over time, were confined to Virginian troops. Virginia, already enjoying a central place in Lost Cause mythology as the home of Washington and Jefferson (to whom Lee and the South claimed direct ideological inheritance) and its claim to fighting on the basis of section rather than slavery because of its later entry into belligerence, housed a large portion of the Southern press. The Richmond newspapers, in particular, helped mold the notion held in memory to today, of George Pickett leading a valiant group of Virginians into the heart of the Union army. This recollection, which enjoyed general acceptance by 1870, was contested throughout the South, particularly in North Carolina and Mississippi, crystallized in William Bond's pamphlet Pickett or Pettigrew? An Historical Essay, which asserted the provincialism of Virginian writers and argued that it had been Pettigrew's rather than Pickett's troops which performed most admirably in battle. Despite these efforts, Reardon argues, "with great energy, they silenced their challengers, by both discrediting their motives and arguments and overwhelming all doubts with a new flood of heroic images of Pickett's men buffed up to an even higher sheen" (154).
Though the book is compellingly written and argued, it suffers in places for not clearly defining distinctions between "history" and "memory." The work of John Batchelder is clearly held up as an example of the former, but her less charitable references to works that were warmly received by the general population -- Sallie Pickett's Bugles of Gettysburg is referred to as "execrable"(204) -- leaves the impression that it is the distortion of history that creates memory, an uninspired resolution to the promise of history and memory as phenomena that "have blended together so seamlessly over the years that we cannot separate them now." Bewildering in this more firmly structured methodological orientation is her disinterest in engaging the historical source of this dissension. While doing a tremendous job of making sense of the multitude of dialogues existing during and in the wake of the war, she shows a disinterest in using those tools to extrapolate information about the content of that dialogue. While this is a viable approach, engaging a wider array of secondary source material would have helped both in demonstrating the superimpositions of personal, regional and sectional interest in creating memory and illustrating the differences and relationships between history and memory. Ultimately, Pickett's Charge in History in Memory, in spite of theoretical weaknesses, is an engaging and thorough treatment of the forces that interact in the conversion of event to public memory.