Objectivity is part of a historian’s creed, but every decision he makes about a piece of evidence is filtered inevitably through his own perspective. The contents of a document are fixed, but the meaning of its words is oftentimes open to interpretation. Even the most gifted scholar can sometimes be fooled by his own perception.
In November 1935, shortly after the initial publication of R.E. Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman purchased the following letter. In it Lee, 28, relays pleasantries to his friend and fellow Army engineer Lieutenant George Washington Cullum—and offhandedly mentions the part he played in a man’s death. Or so it seemed to Freeman, who overlooked numerous clues in the passages, italicized here for emphasis, that suggested Lee had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek when writing of the affair.
Nearly 30 years after Freeman revealed the existence of both the lighthouse slaying and the incriminating letter in a footnote added to subsequent reprints of R.E. Lee, historian John L. Gignilliat reexamined this curious episode. After obtaining access to the letter from Freeman’s heirs, Gignilliat realized that the biographer, whose reverence for Lee should have led him to give it the most favorable interpretation, had inadvertently done the opposite. Lee’s casual tone in discussing the death of the lighthouse keeper was itself a clue. The banality of the description mirrored the banality of the event.
The death of snakes is not the stuff of history. — .
Turtle Island, Michigan
31st July 1835
I have to thank you for 2 letters, & many and divers other favors “too numerous to mention.” To return them in kind is entirely out of my power, and all that is left for me, is to acknowledge them with “heartfelt obligation.” Touching your congratulations, give me your hand my Friend, & may you receive equal pleasure in any shape you like best. It is on these & other accounts that I grieve to inform you, that your anticipated relaxation from your arduous duties will have to be postponed Some Months longer. For as much as I am harassed by the idea of placing any constraint upon your movements, I cannot consent to aid & abet in any manner your projected onslaught upon New-Port. Keep cool my friend, till colder weather: else the “Natural temperature:” of your heart “might be raised to an artificial degree.” I hardly think I will be in Washington before October—and possibly not then. We shall leave Detroit for Lake Michigan about the middle of Next Month (August)….I Say we because the Instruments must come by water & of course Some one with them & it will depend upon the Genl. & Captain to Say whether I shall continue with the Party after the duty in the Field is over or not, or until the calculations &c are over & the final Report made. I have asked no questions on the subject & will obey all orders. If the latter is to be the case you need not expect to see me this year. But if the former after we get through at Lake M. I shall Soon make my way across to this country & So on. Are you Satisfied My Friend? For I have given you all the information in my possession. I am glad the Genl. has gone down to the R.R. as it will be benificial [sic] to his health, give them all there a great deal of Pleasure & be of Service in other respects.
Mrs. G. & Misses Rippy & Jule—I conclude they are all well & in W. Put on your Sweetest Smile & best Bow & give them all the love from me in the world. My last letter to the Genl. will give you an account of our movements up to this time. Our present abode may have many beauties, but to me they are as yet undiscovered & shall be nameless, as I cannot find it in my heart to utter aught against a place with So plaintive & Sentimental a name. The country around Savours marvellously [sic] of Bilious Fevers, and Seems to be productive of nothing more plentifully than of Moschitoes [sic] & Snakes. Of the good People in this Country, we have Seen nothing. We hear that about Toledo they speak hardly of us. Detroit is for us, though our young Gentlemen Say, for they have all been there, that they talk of nothing but Land Speculations—& that their Standing Toast, Sentiment & dream is “a Corner Lot running back to An Alley.” Our young friend Smith has caught the mania & has a couple of Thousand always in hand to plank upon some Lucky hit. Tell the Genl. that in my last communication I forgot to confess an act of indiscretion which I now beg leave to do through you—viz. While at Pt. Pelè, Hood & myself were Sent over to Pt. Pelè Island to make a Survey of the Point on which the Light House Stands—& that it was very necessary to ascend to the Top, to descern [sic] our station at the Pt. The door was locked & we could not gain admittance, but after Some time Succeeded i[n] getting through the window i[n] rear when we discovered the keeper at the door. We were warm & excited, he irascible & full of venom. An altercation ensued which resulted in his death. We put him in charge of the men, gained the Top, attained our object, & in descending I discovered Some glass lamp shades, which we stood much i[n] need of as all ours were broken. I therefore made bold to borrow two of his Majesty, for which liberty, as well as for that previously taken, I hope he will make our Apology to his Minister at W. We have nothing to offer in our behalf, but necessity and as we found the Lt. House in a most neglected condition & shockingly dirty, & were told by the Capt. of the Cutter that there had been no Light in it for more than a year, I hope it will not be considered that we have lopped from the government a useful member, but on the contrary—to have done it some service, as the situation may now be more efficiently filled & we would advise the New Minister to make choice of a better subject than a d—d Canadian Snake. My Friend I have to sit up all & every clear night—& am a victim to a thousand interruptions in the course of the day. You cannot therefore expect any thing from me. Besides, Hood & myself are in high preparation for a trip up the Maumee river to make a survey from a little above its intersection with the due East Line—from the S. Bend of Lake M., to this place—it is Some 12 Miles off, the Boat & men are all ready, it is a long pull & we then have to establish ourselves for the night, & among Ennemies [sic] too. We shall hardly get back before a week—as the Triangulation &c must be done with accuracy to transfer the Lat. & Long. from this place, there. Write often, even a scrap. I am sorry our two Big Generals have enacted the Donkies [sic], though I am not surprised that they Selected the time of the Absence of the Great People from W. I should not be anxious about the result—had I more faith in our Judge. Please put the within letter in the office. I would not burden Uncle Sam—but I fear the P. Masters here not of Alex. Remember me to the Genl. & all in the office—direct to Detroit—our Boys are all well & send much love & 100 kisses. Yrs truly—
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.