American History: February 1999 From the Editor

8/11/1999 • American History Archives

Thoughts on History

The part of history that interests me the most is the behind-the-scenes stuff, the human motivations and interactions that help drive events. History, after all, is about people, and people can be puzzling, contradictory, or sometimes just-plain ornery. While that can make for frustrating experiences in our day-to-day living, it makes fascinating history.

A long time ago I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and found myself disagreeing with the underlying premise that history is forged by big social forces that predetermine the actions of individuals. I just can’t buy that. Is that why Lincoln went to the theater on April 14, 1865? Or how Washington was able to hold his army together through the long, difficult years of the Revolution? Looking beyond the “great men” theory of history, what about the unknown Confederate staff officer who lost a copy of Robert E. Lee’s orders, wrapped around three cigars, before the Battle of Antietam? If he had been a more careful man, would events have occurred differently?

I think they would have. While the great forces of history certainly do sweep us along in their flood, it seems foolish to overlook the role human personalities–their strengths as well as their weaknesses–play in events.

Two stories in this issue demonstrate on a small scale how individuals and their quirks can act like grit in the historical works. In the case of Fitz John Porter, a Union general is court-martialed following the Second Battle of Bull Run. Porter’s woes stemmed largely from personal conflicts, many of them involving General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. McClellan was, if nothing else, a strong personality. He was also a great organizer. As for his skills at command . . . well, McClellan was the kind of leader who was always outnumbered, at least in his own mind, and tended to blame his shortcomings on others, especially the Lincoln administration. In June 1862 he even sent Stanton a remarkable telegraph message that concluded, “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.” Such language probably would have led to McClellan’s immediate dismissal, if Stanton had ever read it. But he didn’t, because the supervisor of the telegraph office had taken the rather astonishing step of deleting the offending passage before Stanton could see it. (On another occasion McClellan said that if Stanton “had lived in the time of the Savior, Judas Iscariot would have remained a respected member of the fraternity of the Apostles.” Since McClellan thought that Stanton had betrayed him, does that mean he saw himself as a Christ figure?)

Many of the Union’s hopes in the first years of the war foundered on the shoals of petty human travails. To be sure, larger social forces–such as the North’s industrial base and greater population–made the eventual Union victory practically inevitable, but the personality conflicts that so characterized the Union forces undoubtedly helped prolong the conflict. The story behind Fitz John Porter’s court-martial is a microcosm for the many human failings that characterized the Union’s fumbling attempts to win the war.

The story behind naval hero Stephen Decatur’s death in 1820 is even more astonishing. The feuds, jealousies, rivalries, and petty concerns that embroiled the officer corps of the young United States Navy seem amazingly childish today, but for Decatur they had an undeniably tragic outcome. That the accepted way for men to resolve these issues of “honor” was to go out into a field and shoot at each other seems even sillier.

Today, of course, you’d simply hire a lawyer and sue the other person. It’s comforting to think that maybe, a century or so from now, people will look back at today’s litigious society with the same sense of astonishment we feel for the duelists of Decatur’s age.

Tom Huntington, Editor, American History