Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sheridan now politically incorrect

I've encountered this in other fields of history; so it didn't surprise me to read in Robert M. Utley's foreword (to Morris' book) that liking Sheridan is no longer politically correct. What he actually wrote was, "In the last two decades [his foreword was written in 1999] American Indians have asserted their cultural heritage and ethnic identity within the American nation, and scholars have flooded the historiography of the westward movement with Indian studies. Public awareness has been enriched. No longer are Indians mere foils in the saga of sturdy white pioneers carving civilizations out of the wilderness. Robust civilizations already existed in the wilderness, and we may now vicariously identify with them and watch the overpowering advance of the newcomers.

"Neither in the burgeoning literature nor in public perceptions have the Indian-fighting soldiers fared well. Motion pictures and television, popular works, and even scholarly studies have portrayed them as the villains of the story and often as bloodthirsty butchers. The image is no more accurate than the earlier public image of Indians as savages barring the path to civilization. The U.S. Army played a significant role in the Indian wars, one entitled to the same canons of scholarship that should govern all examinations of the past.

"In Phil Sheridan and His Army, Paul Andrew Hutton applied those canons rigorously, at a time when Indian studies were gaining momentum. . . ."

What does Sheridan's Indian-Fighting activities have to do with his Civil-War actions? It ought not to have anything to do with it, but it doesn't seem to work that way. We have seen that Longstreet's belief that one ought to embrace the Restoration and show support for it by joining the Republican Party affected his reputation retroactively -- at Gettysburg for example. If he could become X; then he must have been X-like even in his earlier career. It is hard not to fall into that trap especially when one is reading about someone who coined the phrase, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" [although what he actually said was probably "the only good Indians I've ever seen have been dead."]

The historian, if he is to true to his craft, must strive to put himself back into the time, place or person he is writing about. He is not permitted to let either his own prejudices, the prejudices of the department he is working in, or the prejudices of the people he hangs out with influence his writing. Utley tells us that Hutton lives up to that standard.

Can someone who is inherently Liberal and Politically Correct, like anything about the antebellum South? Apparently they can, especially Virginia. As with Lee, it didn't really favor secession, didn't really like slavery and is only fought on the side of the South for honor's sake -- or so it goes. But there doesn't seem to be a way to like Sheridan and other Indian fighters unless they were like Crook and respected the Indian ways with a modern-like respect.

My own impression of Sheridan thus far is that Sheridan deserves to be ranked with Sherman and Grant at the very top. Sherman and Grant both thought so and the record supports their view. Sheridan was as well liked by his men as either Grant and Sherman were. In fact he may have been better liked. He was able to turn a rout into a victory by his very presence; which is something neither of the other two managed.

In reading about Sheridan I noticed that he was able to get rid of his weak lieutenants in a way that would have been the envy of Bragg. It seems to be a characteristic of weak lieutenants that they don't view themselves as their commanders do, and a large percentage of them (if not all) hold grudges. I am inclined to give the benefit of doubt to the commander bent on making his force as effective and powerful as possible. Maybe Sheridan didn't always get these "defective" lieutenants right, but he got his army right.

No comments: