Robert E Lee's Military Secretary Reflects on Truth and History

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Colonel Charles Marshall
Military Secretary of Robert E Lee
When old soldiers and sailors meet for a talk about the war, it must be admitted that they sometimes forget the reverence due the divinity commonly spoken of as the Goddess of Truth. For my part, I have heard events that occurred under my own eyes described in such a way that I failed to recognize them.

A distinguished Confederate officer who was dangerously wounded in one of the battles in Virginia, but not having lost consciousness remembered those who bore him from the field, told me that if all the men who had claimed that they assisted in that charitable work had been present in fact on the occasion and had taken part in the engagement the odds as to numbers would have been greatly in favor of the Confederate army. ....

This tendency to exaggerate and invent in describing events that excite great interest, and particularly such as appeal to the feelings and passions of men, makes itself felt long after the events have occurred, and impairs the value of history. We do not yet know with certainty the facts of the battle of Waterloo. And as to Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, although I witnessed both, I sometimes think, in view of the absolutely irreconcilable accounts we have of those two engagements, a Bishop Whately might readily create historic doubts as to whether either was in fact fought.

I am the more impressed with the want of accuracy in the accounts of military operations by my experience during the late war. It was my duty to prepare the reports of General Lee under his directions. To do this, as he required it to be done, I had first to read all the reports made by the different commanding officers, who always forwarded the reports of all their subordinates, down to company commanders. From all these I prepared a statement with great detail, of course using such information as I possessed from my personal knowledge and observation as a staff officer, and from orders and correspondence.

One of the most difficult things I had to do was to reconcile the many conflicting accounts of the same affair. Sometimes this was impossible, and when the matter was important enough to warrant it, I was required to visit the authors of the conflicting reports or they were brought together and required to reconcile or explain their respective narratives. After exhausting every means to attain entire accuracy, a more general report of the whole was prepared and submitted to General Lee, who made such corrections as he thought proper, and directed the omission of such things as he deemed unnecessary for a clear understanding of the subject, and the report thus verified and corrected was then written for his signature.

One who had had this experience can appreciate the different ways in which the same thing presents itself to different minds, especially when the description is written long after the event, and in the midst of the distractions incident to active service. Yet it is from such sources as these that the details of military operations must be derived by the historian.

If I may be permitted to dwell a little on this subject, I desire to say that much of this confusion and contradiction of statement is due to the fact that the narrators of such things do not always confine themselves strictly to the statement as to what they did themselves, but are much disposed to include in their reports what they think was done or omitted to be done by others.

I remember a striking illustration of this which occurred during the battle of Fredericksburg.

Fighting on that occasion took place on the right and left of the Confederate Army, its centre not having been engaged at all. General Longstreet on the Confederate left had repulsed the repeated attacks made on the troops posted at the foot of Marye's Hill, and General Jackson had repulsed the assault made on our right near Hamilton's Crossing. The distance between the two scenes of combat was between three and four miles.

In the afternoon I was sent to the right with an order to General Jackson, and while looking for him I came across General D. H. Hill, who commanded a division in Jackson's corps. As soon as he saw me General Hill exclaimed “Well, it is just as usual. This corps does all the fighting. Those fellows on the left haven't fired a shot all day, except some little artillery firing.” I offered, with great respect, to bet the General a very large apple that “the fellows on the left” could show two dead in their front for every one that “the fellows on the right” could show. Nearly fifteen hundred Federal dead lay in front of Marye's Hill, and General Hill did not know that there had been any fighting there.

The Story of Appomattox
By Charles Marshall
 

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 8, 2015
View attachment 354044
Colonel Charles Marshall
Military Secretary of Robert E Lee
When old soldiers and sailors meet for a talk about the war, it must be admitted that they sometimes forget the reverence due the divinity commonly spoken of as the Goddess of Truth. For my part, I have heard events that occurred under my own eyes described in such a way that I failed to recognize them.

A distinguished Confederate officer who was dangerously wounded in one of the battles in Virginia, but not having lost consciousness remembered those who bore him from the field, told me that if all the men who had claimed that they assisted in that charitable work had been present in fact on the occasion and had taken part in the engagement the odds as to numbers would have been greatly in favor of the Confederate army. ....

This tendency to exaggerate and invent in describing events that excite great interest, and particularly such as appeal to the feelings and passions of men, makes itself felt long after the events have occurred, and impairs the value of history. We do not yet know with certainty the facts of the battle of Waterloo. And as to Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, although I witnessed both, I sometimes think, in view of the absolutely irreconcilable accounts we have of those two engagements, a Bishop Whately might readily create historic doubts as to whether either was in fact fought.

I am the more impressed with the want of accuracy in the accounts of military operations by my experience during the late war. It was my duty to prepare the reports of General Lee under his directions. To do this, as he required it to be done, I had first to read all the reports made by the different commanding officers, who always forwarded the reports of all their subordinates, down to company commanders. From all these I prepared a statement with great detail, of course using such information as I possessed from my personal knowledge and observation as a staff officer, and from orders and correspondence.

One of the most difficult things I had to do was to reconcile the many conflicting accounts of the same affair. Sometimes this was impossible, and when the matter was important enough to warrant it, I was required to visit the authors of the conflicting reports or they were brought together and required to reconcile or explain their respective narratives. After exhausting every means to attain entire accuracy, a more general report of the whole was prepared and submitted to General Lee, who made such corrections as he thought proper, and directed the omission of such things as he deemed unnecessary for a clear understanding of the subject, and the report thus verified and corrected was then written for his signature.

One who had had this experience can appreciate the different ways in which the same thing presents itself to different minds, especially when the description is written long after the event, and in the midst of the distractions incident to active service. Yet it is from such sources as these that the details of military operations must be derived by the historian.

If I may be permitted to dwell a little on this subject, I desire to say that much of this confusion and contradiction of statement is due to the fact that the narrators of such things do not always confine themselves strictly to the statement as to what they did themselves, but are much disposed to include in their reports what they think was done or omitted to be done by others.

I remember a striking illustration of this which occurred during the battle of Fredericksburg.

Fighting on that occasion took place on the right and left of the Confederate Army, its centre not having been engaged at all. General Longstreet on the Confederate left had repulsed the repeated attacks made on the troops posted at the foot of Marye's Hill, and General Jackson had repulsed the assault made on our right near Hamilton's Crossing. The distance between the two scenes of combat was between three and four miles.

In the afternoon I was sent to the right with an order to General Jackson, and while looking for him I came across General D. H. Hill, who commanded a division in Jackson's corps. As soon as he saw me General Hill exclaimed “Well, it is just as usual. This corps does all the fighting. Those fellows on the left haven't fired a shot all day, except some little artillery firing.” I offered, with great respect, to bet the General a very large apple that “the fellows on the left” could show two dead in their front for every one that “the fellows on the right” could show. Nearly fifteen hundred Federal dead lay in front of Marye's Hill, and General Hill did not know that there had been any fighting there.

The Story of Appomattox
By Charles Marshall

This was typical of D.H. Hill, who had an almost pathological need to express criticism, or disdain, for other officers. Marshall's anecdote also reflects Lee's own exasperation with Hill, which would only grow in the years after the war.
 

jackt62

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I desire to say that much of this confusion and contradiction of statement is due to the fact that the narrators of such things do not always confine themselves strictly to the statement as to what they did themselves, but are much disposed to include in their reports what they think was done or omitted to be done by others.

That is sure an understatement!
 

Tom Elmore

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Jan 16, 2015
I could not agree more with Marshall, having frequently encountered the same challenges in trying to sift multiple primary sources for a semblance of accuracy and coherence. I have concluded that no two soldiers recalled the same fight in the same way, even if they were standing next to each other the entire time. This becomes fully apparent when two or more veterans compared their recollections, which sometimes led to ugly post-battle arguments, with much ink on paper. The weekly National Tribune used an apt byline: "Fighting Them Over."
 

bdtex

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View attachment 354044
Colonel Charles Marshall
Military Secretary of Robert E Lee
When old soldiers and sailors meet for a talk about the war, it must be admitted that they sometimes forget the reverence due the divinity commonly spoken of as the Goddess of Truth. For my part, I have heard events that occurred under my own eyes described in such a way that I failed to recognize them.

A distinguished Confederate officer who was dangerously wounded in one of the battles in Virginia, but not having lost consciousness remembered those who bore him from the field, told me that if all the men who had claimed that they assisted in that charitable work had been present in fact on the occasion and had taken part in the engagement the odds as to numbers would have been greatly in favor of the Confederate army. ....

This tendency to exaggerate and invent in describing events that excite great interest, and particularly such as appeal to the feelings and passions of men, makes itself felt long after the events have occurred, and impairs the value of history. We do not yet know with certainty the facts of the battle of Waterloo. And as to Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, although I witnessed both, I sometimes think, in view of the absolutely irreconcilable accounts we have of those two engagements, a Bishop Whately might readily create historic doubts as to whether either was in fact fought.

I am the more impressed with the want of accuracy in the accounts of military operations by my experience during the late war. It was my duty to prepare the reports of General Lee under his directions. To do this, as he required it to be done, I had first to read all the reports made by the different commanding officers, who always forwarded the reports of all their subordinates, down to company commanders. From all these I prepared a statement with great detail, of course using such information as I possessed from my personal knowledge and observation as a staff officer, and from orders and correspondence.

One of the most difficult things I had to do was to reconcile the many conflicting accounts of the same affair. Sometimes this was impossible, and when the matter was important enough to warrant it, I was required to visit the authors of the conflicting reports or they were brought together and required to reconcile or explain their respective narratives. After exhausting every means to attain entire accuracy, a more general report of the whole was prepared and submitted to General Lee, who made such corrections as he thought proper, and directed the omission of such things as he deemed unnecessary for a clear understanding of the subject, and the report thus verified and corrected was then written for his signature.

One who had had this experience can appreciate the different ways in which the same thing presents itself to different minds, especially when the description is written long after the event, and in the midst of the distractions incident to active service. Yet it is from such sources as these that the details of military operations must be derived by the historian.

If I may be permitted to dwell a little on this subject, I desire to say that much of this confusion and contradiction of statement is due to the fact that the narrators of such things do not always confine themselves strictly to the statement as to what they did themselves, but are much disposed to include in their reports what they think was done or omitted to be done by others.

I remember a striking illustration of this which occurred during the battle of Fredericksburg.

Fighting on that occasion took place on the right and left of the Confederate Army, its centre not having been engaged at all. General Longstreet on the Confederate left had repulsed the repeated attacks made on the troops posted at the foot of Marye's Hill, and General Jackson had repulsed the assault made on our right near Hamilton's Crossing. The distance between the two scenes of combat was between three and four miles.

In the afternoon I was sent to the right with an order to General Jackson, and while looking for him I came across General D. H. Hill, who commanded a division in Jackson's corps. As soon as he saw me General Hill exclaimed “Well, it is just as usual. This corps does all the fighting. Those fellows on the left haven't fired a shot all day, except some little artillery firing.” I offered, with great respect, to bet the General a very large apple that “the fellows on the left” could show two dead in their front for every one that “the fellows on the right” could show. Nearly fifteen hundred Federal dead lay in front of Marye's Hill, and General Hill did not know that there had been any fighting there.

The Story of Appomattox
By Charles Marshall
Great post Dave. Thanks for posting. Very sorry some members here just can't take it for what it is and comment on it in the spirit that you offered it. Smh! Thanks again for posting it. Haven't seen that before and was not familiar with Col. Marshall.
 

unionblue

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Feb 20, 2005
Location
Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
Great post Dave. Thanks for posting. Very sorry some members here just can't take it for what it is and comment on it in the spirit that you offered it. Smh! Thanks again for posting it. Haven't seen that before and was not familiar with Col. Marshall.

Col. Marshall is my favorite Confederate soldier, next to Mosby. He called it like it was.

And I do believe @Bruce Vail was being tongue-in-cheek with his comment. :wink:
 

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 8, 2015
Great post Dave. Thanks for posting. Very sorry some members here just can't take it for what it is and comment on it in the spirit that you offered it. Smh! Thanks again for posting it. Haven't seen that before and was not familiar with Col. Marshall.

Nobody can deny personal recollections of historic events can be mistaken, distorted, or even fabricated by specific individuals. What's offensive in Marshall's statement is the arrogant assertion that the version of events decided upon by Marshall and Lee are the only true versions.
 

eeric

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2019
Nobody can deny personal recollections of historic events can be mistaken, distorted, or even fabricated by specific individuals. What's offensive in Marshall's statement is the arrogant assertion that the version of events decided upon by Marshall and Lee are the only true versions.
He clearly said he relates only what he witnessed, obviously Parker etc may have paid attention to other details of the event but didn't write about it unfortunately, to my knowledge anyway.
 
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