Thursday, November 15, 2007

Changing Perceptions and Spin

One of the things I find interesting as an amateur historian is how history changes over time according to one's perspective. Related to this is how events and facts are 'spun' over time until the original event bears little or no resemblance to its 'history.'

I found an excellent example of this last night. I was reading through one of the initial printings of the Army Lineage Series, published by the Office of the Chief of Military History in 1969. I was reading one of the volumes on Armor-Cavalry, and naturally enough turned to the entry for the 6th Cavalry. Much to my surprise, I discovered the following quote pertaining to the unit's history:

"At Fairfield the unit engaged two enemy brigades of cavalry, completely neutralizing them and saving the supply trains of the Army, but in the process was literally cut to pieces." (pg 157)

I found this very interesting in an official unit history, as it is a good bit different from what I've read in various accounts of the engagement. The unit was engaged at Fairfield, and from all accounts it was definitely cut to pieces. There was a supply train involved, although it was a Confederate train that the unit was sent to intercept by Brigadier General Merritt and not the supply trains of the Union Army. They were only engaged with one brigade, "Grumble" Jones' Laurel Brigade. Not that one brigade wasn't enough, since that put the odds against the 6th at roughly 4 to 1. Given that Jones reported only 58 total casualties for the encounter, his brigade only appears to have been neutralized in that they spent much of the rest of the day rounding up the more than 200 members of the 6th US who were captured.

I don't post this as an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the 6th Cavalry or what they were able to accomplish at Fairfield, but simply as an illustration of how perception changes and legend grows over time. To this day Fairfield is considered one of the premier engagements in the regiment's long history. Similarly, this is not intended as a jab at the Office of the Chief of Military History, which does a lot of great work.

For those interested in more information on the battle, I highly recommend JD Petruzzi's excellent article in the July 2007 issue of America's civil War magazine and Paul M. Shevchuk's article "Cut to Pieces" from February 1985 which is available from USAMHI.

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