“It amuses the people”

Today I read further into the book I got in the mail yesterday: Devil’s Den: A History and Guide by Garry Adelman and Timothy Smith. (I blogged about it yesterday here.)

What I love about this book is not just its subject matter (the hotly contested section of battleground at Gettysburg), but the authors’ skepticism and thorough debunking of myths that have seeped into the history of the battle and land and become accepted as truths.

In one of the chapters I read today, “Post Battle History,” Adelman and Smith trace numerous outright untruths about the battle to their roots, debunking what are basically tall tales told by early battlefield guides, many of whom had no qualifications for their work other than “born in Gettysburg.” (Both Adelman and Smith are licensed battlefield guides, a certification that requires at least the knowledge equivalence of a masters in Gettysburg history, if not a PhD.) The book is not just a history of Devil’s Den, but a history ABOUT that history… about how a lie, if repeated often enough, will become accepted as fact.

“Someone asked him why he told such a yarn as that,” the authors quote from a 1915 interview with Samuel Bushman. Bushman’s reply? “Oh, well! It amuses the people. They want things made exciting.” And there, as I commented to a friend on Facebook, is our entire culture summarized in thirteen words.

Adelman and Smith quote a 1938 Gettysburg Times article entitled “Baltimorean Says ‘Little’ Round Top Named For Her Great-Grandfather.”

A great many Gettysburgians who have lived these many years under the delusion that Little Round Top was so named because of its proximity to a larger hill of similar shape (Big Round Top) are set aright about the matter by Mrs. Lily N. Neary, Baltimore, who calmly asserts that hill was named for her great-grandfather–Peter Little– the person for whom Littlestown (PA) was named.

Write Adelman and Smith: “If only we could identify the ‘Big’ family for which Big Round Top is named, we would have it all sorted out.”

Funny though that story is, it points to the way that myths and lies get twisted into fact. Lily Neary, the authors note, “was the daughter of Gettysburg native Ephraim Hanaway Little, whose grandfather … Ephraim Hanaway (owned) the western slopes of Little Round Top at the time of the battle. It just goes to show that a shred of truth can be found in every myth.”

Fun, fascinating book!

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