Historical Revision in Perspective

At the heart of historical revisionism is distrust… a lack of faith in previous interpretations of the historical record.  This blog has bitterly observed the crass consumerism and intellectual vanity that often drive outlandish revisions in our history.  But, a closer examination reveals the true divide between revisionist and traditionalist- trust.

Gordon Wood historian 2006
Gordon Wood, Brown University professor of History.

As historians rush to laud Alan Taylor’s new revision… of the American Revolutionary movement, the distrust is laid bare.  If revisionist historians refuse to come out and proclaim all previous work wrong, then there must be a lack of trust.  Was Gordon Wood trying to deceive us when explaining how radical our Revolution was?  Did Dumas Malone wish to hide Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and freedom?  Was Edmund Morgan deliberately distorting history when explaining racial diversity in Colonial Virginia?  All revisionists will say is that works like Taylor’s are now “the standards.”   To hell with what came before…


There is no mass historical conspiracy to disregard… races or classes of people.  Gordon Wood should be read in first year graduate courses and beyond.  In their zeal to legitimize controversial interpretations, revisionists like Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed propagate the distrust of these noteworthy predecessors

Chancellorsville By the Numbers

Chancellorsville is often called Lee’s “perfect battle”… facing the longest odds, using the boldest tactics, and winning the ultimate triumph- but a closer examination of the battle’s casualty statistics reveal a very different picture.  Far from perfect, Lee’s victory over Hooker was a costly, bloody gamble with marginal payoff.


Twice dividing his outnumbered force before a superior foe… and executing a bold flanking maneuver clouds the true cost of the battle.  Hooker’s inaction is far more striking than Lee’s tactical decisions.  By surrendering the initiative to Lee, Hooker allowed his opponent tactical discretion, thus making the flank attack possible.  Union reinforcements nullified Confederate gains on May 2.  Hooker’s refusal to counterattack with those additional troops only accentuated the modest Confederate gains.


Lee went into battle with just under 60,000 effectives… and suffered nearly 13,000 casualties- of which, over 10,000 were wounded or killed.  Almost a quarter of his men were gone at a time when the Confederacy was increasingly unable to replace such loss.  Comparatively, Hooker entered the battle with well over 130,000 troops, and suffered over 17,000 casualties.  But, of this number, nearly 6,000 were captured(11th Corps victims of Jackson’s attack.)  Factoring the captured, Hooker’s loss was a much smaller figure of just over 11,000.  The statistics show that Lee’s army actually took the worst of the fighting- His action, and Hooker’s inaction have permanently altered the history of the battle.  Far from the great army “cut to pieces” as remembered by Horace Greeley, Hooker’s men fought well and proved their mettle in battle

Facts in Five- Lee and Slavery

Robert E. Lee and slavery edition: misinformation, hyperbole, and unfounded revision are clouding the facts behind Lee’s slave owning

  • There is very little evidence Lee personally owned slaves- his mother, Ann Carter-Lee, may have willed him six slaves upon her death in 1829; the same year he graduated from West Point and entered military service.
  • Lee married into the wealthy Custis family in 1831.  His father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, owned as many as 198 slaves by 1856.
  • Lee and his wife, Mary Ann Randolph Custis, were both lifetime members of the American Colonization society.  Lee did not speak publicly against slavery, which was typical of US military officers.  Lee’s opinions on slavery were neither progressive nor vehement.
  • George Custis’s will called for the manumission of his slaves within five years of his death in 1857.  Lee was the executor of the estate and kept the people in bondage all five years.  They were not freed until 1863.
  • Lee’s failure to free his father-in-law’s slaves nearly caused a slave revolt at Arlington in 1858.  Lee did oversee the capture and punishment of the Norris family, after a failed escape attempt. The evidence does not support Lee personally whipping the captives.


Reconstructing Manhood with Prostheses: The Story of Brigadier General William Francis Bartlett

Historically Speaking

(Image of Daniel Chester French’s bust of William Francis Bartlett courtesy of Harvard University Portrait Collection)

By Moyra Schauffler

Amputation was perhaps the most infamous type of destruction inflicted during the Civil War. It not only left soldiers with ghastly wounds permanently “broken,” it also forced them to return home incomplete men. Injured soldiers’ wounds were evidence of bravery, an important male characteristic, but the after-effects of amputation such as physical imperfection, difficulty moving, and the inability to complete tasks independently interfered with masculinity. With negative implications on an amputee’s ability to fulfill male-gendered expectations such as soldiering, marriage, and earning a living to support family at stake, the prosthesis industry stepped in to reconstruct amputee veterans’ bodies by restoring them to natural symmetry.[1] The case of Brigadier General William Francis Bartlett, who was severely wounded in the leg, survived an above-knee amputation, returned to leading soldiers while wearing…

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On Experimentation

The American experience has always been built on experimentation… Our very existence doubted by most of the world, the optimism of Thomas Jefferson became essential to the survival of our republican experiment.


As the election of 1796 loomed… the friendship between Jefferson and John Adams waned.  Jefferson reminded his friend of their experiment:


“I am aware of the objection to this, that the office becoming more important may bring on serious discord in elections. In our country I think it will be long first; not within our day; and we may safely trust to the wisdom of our successors the remedies of the evil to arise in theirs. Both experiments however are now fairly committed, and the result will be seen. Never was a finer canvas presented to work on than our countrymen…. This I hope will be the age of experiments in government, and that their basis will be founded on principles of honesty, not of mere force….If ever the morals of a people could be made the basis of their own government, it is our case.”   Jefferson to Adams, February 28 1796

Nullification Lingers

The Doctrine of Nullification lost in the court of history… as a nation state and as a people we rejected it, outright.  Our Constitution created a hierarchy of law to bring order to the muddled system of 13 competing legal systems.  Madison, describing government as an unruly beast defended the Supremacy Clause: “it would have seen the authority of the whole society everywhere subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have seen a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members”.

  • The Resolutions of 98-  Roundly rejected by 10 of the 13 legislatures, Jefferson and Madison had taken their objections to the Alien and Sedition Acts too far.  Unconstitutional actions by the legislature can be addressed in the Federal Courts.  Washington saw the danger in them: “they  would dissolve the union or produce coercion.”
  • McCulloch vs. Maryland-  The Supreme Court settled the issue in 1819 striking down Maryland’s attempt to tax the Second Bank of the United States.  Chief Justice John Marshall defended implied powers in the Constitution: “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.”
  • Nullification Crisis of 1831- John C. Calhoun’s pernicious attempt to undermine the Jackson Presidency- South Carolina unlawfully “nullified” the tariff of 1828.  A tariff is a DELEGATED power; not reserved for the states, and not implied in a clause…it is specifically cited in the Constitution.   Calhoun and his ilk were no match for Old Hickory and his willingness to use force to defend Federal authority.

andrew jackson 1

So why are amateurish politicians like Greg Abbott…in Texas hearkening  back to something as discredited as Nullification?  Abbott proposed it several times in his suggested list of “amendments.”   Governor Abbott needs to read some history.  We’ve been down this road before-  it leads nowhere…

Greatest Generation

99 men signed the Declaration of Independence and Constitution… a group we consider the Founders.  Plenty has been written about what set this generation apart- today, it seems most writers attempt to separate them for alleged transgressions.  Today we accuse them of being greedy aristocrats determined to maintain their vast fortunes-  we forget what actually made the Founders different.  Of the 99 signers- only eight had fathers who attended college…


By all accounts, Peter Jefferson was a significant…  part of early Virginia society.  A wealthy planter, surveyor, and political leader- he had married into the powerful Randolph family.  Jefferson was part of the vanguard of planters pushing into western Virginia.  He was a self-made man whose hard work and ambition propelled him into the upper crust of Virginia society.  But, he did not read Latin, he couldn’t play the violin, he wasn’t fluent in all the Romance languages, and he never questioned the religious or slave owning hierarchies in Virginia.    The generation his son excelled in was very different- Thomas Jefferson was exceptional- yet, somehow, we have come to forget it today.**


**Gordon Wood explains this quite well in “Revolutionary Characters”