Friday, September 18, 2009

I'm thinking of changing concentrations

AMU offers a a bunch of different history M.A. programs. Right now I am enrolled as as a Classical and Ancient History student. But I am taking a course right now called "Historical Research Methods" which is reading, among many other books, Major Problems in American Military History. The letters and reports in this book written by people who actually fought in so many of my country's battles is very moving. So, I am thinking of changing from Classical and Ancient to American. I am certainly interested in Classical and Ancient, but it doesn't make my heart pound. I've read scads of those old Greeksand Romans, and though their is wisdom in what they say, and sometimes humor, for me there is not much love. But reading Washington's report of the Battle of Ft. Necessity, or Iron Hawks account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Sherman's justification for his march to the sea are not only fascinating but full of emotion for me. Its my family history. I am not a Roman or a Greek. I am an American.

I will have to make my decision before next semester. The two courses I am taking this semester are required of all history grad students. But all the following semesters are concentration specific.


Below is something I wrote today. I have to write a few of these little things each week for the professor who seems bored.

Q: What makes the first person primary source particularly useful to historians?

A: Since the 19th century genius Leopold von Ranke wrote that the work of the historian is to write history "wie es eigentlich gewesen" most historians have made that their goal (1). In order to tell it as it really was the historian must know how the witness to events remembered and regarded those events.

Q: What criteria would you use to evaluate the usefulness of a first person source?

A: Before I could ascertain the usefulness of a source I think I would have to make a judgement about its accuracy. To do that I'd begin by asking these questions.:
1. What do other sources say? Can they all be reconciled?
2. Is the source trying to protect or embellish his reputation or the reputation of another person, group, or institution?
3. Is the source benefiting in some way from this account?

Once accuracy is ascertained it seems to me that the source can be used in one of two ways:

A. Proving the accuracy of other sources
B. Providing information not found in other sources

For example, let's take a look at Iron Hawks account (2) of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Does his account align with the other first person accounts? Yes. Though he was a witness to different details, the big picture he paints is in agreement with his enemy Lt. Benteen's letter (3), the Oglalas interviewed by Billy Garnett (4). Iron Hawk recounts his own confusion and fear so he seems to not be trying to embellish his own reputation. Neither does he seem to be exaggerating the fear of the Unites States soldiers nor the bravery of the Indians. And finally, I can't think of how he might be benefiting by retelling this story. I would judge Iron Hawk accurate

Having judged the accuracy of Iron Hawks account I would use it , primarily, for getting into the minds of the Indian warriors. For example, the admonition Iron Hawk received when he was slow to the fight, "The earth is all that lasts" (5) was revealing of the fatalism of the Indians the U.S. Army was facing that day. And Iron Hawk's account of the Shyela warrior being fired upon many times and not being hit, though dropping lead balls from his belt in front of the other Indian warriors can be seen in at least two ways; evidence of the Providential protection of the Indian warriors on that day, or of a psychological operation on the part of the Shyela warrior to make them believe they were under some sort of supernatural protection.

(1) Breisach, Ernst, "Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern (2nd Ed.)" (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 233
(2) Chambers, John Whiteclay & Piehler, G. Kurt, "Major Problems in American Military History" (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), p. 198
(3) Ibid, p. 195
(4) Ibid, p. 205
(5) Ibid, p.199

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