Saturday, June 20, 2009

There's Always Another Side to the Story

I just finished reading Master of War: The Life and Times of General George H. Thomas by Benson Bobrick.

Bobrick makes the case that Thomas was the Union's best general in the Civil War eclipsing both Ulysses Grant and William Sherman and perhaps even surpassing Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Whenever Thomas was overall commander in a battle, the Union Army won. When another Union general was in command, Thomas' troops could be found carrying the enemy's strongest position as at Missionary Ridge or holding the key defensive position as at Chickamauga. Most importantly, he accomplished these feats while being stingy with the lives of his men. His casualty rates were far below those typical of Civil War battles. Had Thomas rather than Grant been given the task of pursuing Lee into Virginia in 1864, the carnage of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor could have been avoided.

There are several reasons why Thomas hasn't enjoyed the acclaim of his contemporaries. As a Virginian who remained loyal to the Union, Thomas lacked political patrons in Washington. As a result, promotions that should have gone to him based on both seniority and success in the field went to others. Sherman, for example, had a brother who was an influential congressman. Thomas' place in history also suffered from his death shortly after the war before he had a chance to write his memoirs. Grant and Sherman both wrote memoirs in which they excused their own mistakes and failed to credit Thomas for the decisive role he played. Grant's resentment seems to have originate after the near disaster at the Battle of Shiloh when Thomas was given command of Grant's troops for a time.

Christian apologists often argue that the New Testament accounts can be trusted because they were written during the lifetime of eyewitnesses who could have pointed out any inaccuracies in the stories. It is hard for me to believe that that anyone who has actually read any history would buy such an argument. Grant and Sherman wrote their memoirs during the lifetime of tens of thousands of eyewitnesses who had served under or fought for or against General Thomas. In addition to the eyewitnesses, there were extensive written records of the campaigns in which Thomas served. Nevertheless, history largely accepted Grant and Sherman's version of events for many years.

It is not hard to see why Thomas' side of the story did not get told for a long time. He died in 1869 whereas Grant served as President of the United States from 1868 to 1876. Sherman became head of the army when Grant was elected President and he was followed in that post by General John Schofield who had intrigued to replace Thomas before his brilliant victory at the Battle of Nashville. Although Thomas had many loyal supporters, anyone with any military or political career ambitions after the war had little to gain by publicly challenging the accepted wisdom about who deserved credit for winning the war.

Confederate General James Longstreet faced a similar situation in the south. After the war, he was ostracized for committing two unpardonable sins: he criticized Lee's tactics and strategy at Gettysburg and other battles and he became a Republican and supported Grant's administration. As a result, other Confederate generals sought to make him the scapegoat for the defeat at Gettysburg as well as other setbacks suffered by the South. Historians today regard Longstreet as one of the finest brigade commanders on either side, but for many years, the accepted wisdom was that he had let Lee down at key moments.

Happily for historians of the Civil War, the record is sufficient to show that many of the spurious stories arose after the war as certain officers sought to puff up their own reputation or smear the reputation of someone else. Still, the eyewitnesses to the events were not able to prevent the distortions from becoming the accepted understanding of the events. It was only because the dissenting accounts were preserved that later scholars can go back to figure out what really happened. The historians of first century Christianity have no such luxury. Only the orthodox Christian account of Jesus' life was preserved.

I have been in several discussions recently in which a Christian claimed that historical methodology requires us to accepted the gospel accounts at face value because we have no evidence that they are not historically factual or that their authors did not intend to relate historical facts. This is just silly. Sometimes people do tell the absolute truth, but that isn't something to be expected. Most people tell the story from a particular perspective and some people shamelessly fabricate events to fit the way they would like others to believe they happened. It is only by comparing various versions of events that historians develop confidence in any particular version or combination of versions.

1 comment:

  1. "historical methodology requires us to accepted the gospel accounts at face value because we have no evidence that they are not historically factual or that their authors did not intend to relate historical facts."

    That's part of it. Besides the lack of evidence for tampering, we have positive evidence (even if it isn't iron clad) for lack of tampering.