A few months ago, I mentioned to a fellow member of a writers’ group that I was working on a post-Civil War manuscript. Her immediate comment was “You’d better be on the right side of that conflict.” My immediate reaction was a silent grimace, and a sense of foreboding.
As an amateur historian with a bias toward my own Yankee heritage (20th Maine, Gettysburg), I’ve done my homework on the War Between the States, from both sides. And, as I wrote in a recent post, there is very rarely a ‘right’ side of any war. The war fought in America in the 1860s had many causes and many tragedies.
I think one of the best authors to examine the complexities of this American conflict, Michael Shaara, does an excellent job in his novel, The Killer Angels, of presenting how the commanders and soldiers on the Union and Confederate sides saw their roles and their respective positions in the political and social argument. Neither side was innocent nor entirely right.
What concerned me most about the above comment from my colleague was the dictatorial nature of her statement. Writers must be at liberty to explore and express, as only they themselves see fit. If we write to dictates, we are not fulfilling our potential to give another point of view, to show another experience. If we only regurgitate what is ‘accepted’ history, we allow truths to remain hidden and lies to flourish under the guise of ‘so many have said this, it must be true.’
As we all recognize, a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth and many ideologically motivated historians, journalists and activists depend upon that to spread their dogma as fact. Regardless of our own personal preferences, we owe ourselves and our readers our own interpretation of our research, however contrary or uncomfortable that may be.
If we self-censor for fear our discovery of another truth may bring unpleasant consequences, censorship of knowledge and opinion will eventually govern and any claim we may make about our honesty will be fundamentally flawed and hypocritical.
Writers are substantially courageous souls. After all, who but the brave put their thoughts, opinions and emotions on public display? We may be writing for entertainment, but false, shallow and stale effort will be recognized for what it is.
With thanks to Lerone Bennett Jr., Nelson W. Winbush and his grandfather, Pvt. Louis Napoleon Nelson, Company M, 7th Tennessee Calvary, Army of the Confederacy.
For further reading: Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, Lerone Bennett Jr.; Everything You Were Taught About the Civil War Is Wrong, Lochlainn Seabrook; * image from Seabrook; The Civil War: Volumes 1-3, Shelby Foote; Civil War Hospital Sketches, Louisa May Alcott.