Open to Interpretation

If you tread the grounds of history long enough, sooner or later you will come to the realization that history and interpretation are inseparable. The epiphany can be disconcerting for those who operate in black and white, and are more comfortable in the presence of absolutes. There’s also no denying the damage that can be done by interpretation run amok. Revisionism for the sake of revisionism, and exploitation of historical “facts” to support dubious agendas are only two examples of history gone bad.

But interpretation also ensures that history will remain kinetic. This is something that those who write off history as nothing more than names, dates and places on dusty pages will never understand. Interpretation makes history live and breathe years, decades or centuries after the events took place. It is interpretation that makes our travels through the past an evolution rather than simply a reaction. And ultimately it is interpretation—at least, that which is backed by legitimate evidence and done for the right reasons—that makes history relevant, and historical study essential to both the present and future.

Any experienced student of the past knows too that interpretation is a multilayered phenomenon—it is so much larger than our personal perceptions as we read, listen or walk the hallowed ground of a battlefield. We have a wealth of Civil War primary sources to sift through. As we do so, aren’t we making interpretations of interpretations? This is one of the many ways in which exploring history becomes truly fascinating. What do eyewitnesses’ interpretations—factually based or otherwise—of surrounding events tell us about them, and what do our subsequent interpretations tell us about ourselves?

Carol Reardon does a masterful job of tackling the issues of interpretation and perspective in her book Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. She explores some of the challenges that historians must face when she reminds us that “the student of history must be wary of memory’s introduction of the fog of war. Myth and history intertwine freely on these fields, and some of their tendrils always will defy untangling.”

Should we give eyewitness accounts less credibility as a whole because we know that in some cases their authors had self-serving motivations, faulty memories when writing years after the fact, or a limited ability to accurately perceive much of anything going on around them while in the midst of combat? Hardly. Reardon is certainly not suggesting this, and few others would either. Rather she is reminding us that the price of historical truth is eternal vigilance, and that we must always be aware of the effects of interpretation.

As you make your way through the pages of Civil War Times this month, I invite you to keep those implications in mind, and not just as you read Joseph Pierro’s insightful examination of interpretation in the context of the well-known story of Robert E. Lee taking Communion with a black man a few months after the war. You may want to think about them too as you read John Marszalek’s exploration of General Henry W. Halleck at Corinth. How do we interpret Halleck’s success there now, and how did Washington interpret it then? The diary of William Murray in this month’s “My War” also offers fertile ground. What insight does he give us into a Federal soldier’s mind during the approach, siege and capture of the most important city in the Western theater, and what can we take away from it? There isn’t an article in this issue, or any other, that wouldn’t benefit from some conscious attention to the issues of perspective, memory and perception.

That, at least, is my interpretation.


Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here