Otto Eisenschiml: a scientist looks at Civil War history 6 comments


While Lloyd Lewis composed his book, Sherman: Fighting Prophet—which advanced a romantic, one-sided, and severely erroneous view of William T. Sherman—Otto Eisenschiml was arguing for a more scientific investigation of the American Civil War and its participants. Although he still fell into the trap by believing much of Grant’s Memoirs, Eisenschiml’s method and many of his conclusions help us reach a more correct account of that conflict.

I just read a draft introduction which he had written explaining his approach:

 

Unless you are interested in the truth about the Civil War, do not read this book.

 

Orthodox history rests on the testimonies of contemporaries who, unfortunately, have frequently suppressed or distorted the truth. One may read in the biography of Senator Chandler of Michigan, for instance, that “the secret history of these exciting [Civil War] days, . . . concealing many startling revelations, has yet been sparingly written; it is doubtful if the veil will ever be more than slightly lifted”.[sic, here and following] And his colleague, Senator Wade of Ohio, told a reporter that “If I tell the whole truth I shall blast too many reputations”.

 

Nor can all military writers of that period be trusted. In his Memoirs Sherman remarked cynically that “the truth is not always palatable, and should not always be told”. General Meade was still more outspoken , when he wrote that “I don’t believe the truth will ever be known, and I have a great contempt of History”. Don Piatt, soldier, diplomat, and historian, agreed. “History . . . as a pleasant fiction is more acceptable than a naked fact”, he mused, “and . . . the historian shapes his wares . . . to suit the customers . . . . Our chronicles are only a duller sort or fiction . . . . Popular beliefs, in time . . . create gods and devils . . .” These words were written some seventy years ago, but could just as well be written today.

 

Should historical truth ever be told? Is it worth the price? Shall we disturb some of our school-book traditions by laying bare their falsity, and dare we disclose the shortcomings of our national heroes? The question can be argued honestly and intelligently both ways, and everyone has to find the answer for himself. As a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, the American Institute of Chemists and a fifty-odd-years member or the American Chemical Society, I lean toward the scientific rather than the emotional approach. But I have no desire to convert others to my view.

 

“History is not history, unless it is the truth”, Lincoln wrote to Herndon in 1856. If you agree, I herewith invite you into my historical laboratory; before you enter, however, divest yourself of all preconceived opinions and notions, your gods and your devils. You will witness important personages and events of the Civil War being put into test-tubes, to be analyzed without bias, fear or favor. Whether the results will please or shock you, whether some reputations will be enhanced or made to suffer, depends entirely on what the evidence is going to show.

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6 thoughts on “Otto Eisenschiml: a scientist looks at Civil War history

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      Yes. He’s not one of the many who merely accept anything he comes across, as long as it suits his thesis. His list of generals ranked by their competence did not place the suspects in their usual order.

  • Mike Maxwell

    Joe, David and Karl
    All historical figures possess character traits and character flaws. For the historian, it comes down to “emphasis” …which of those characteristics were most important to that person’s success (or failure)?
    Regards
    Mike

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      Mike, I agree, but it goes further than that. Many of the biographers who assign “characteristics” to their subjects do so wrongly. They have a romantic image of him or her and then distort the evidence so that it fits. Although Eisenschiml’s conclusions may be very wrong, at times, his attempt to look at the evidence in a scientific way seem to me to be the only way to go.