On Monday, I posted a long article about a new historical discovery. I was excited to have found out that at least a few contemporaries of the Battle of Secessionville (June 16, 1862) had referred to it as the Battle of Stono. That was the historian in me, showing up to demand that my novelist persona pay attention to the facts. Now, I admit that those two facets of my writing career are often in conflict. When I'm writing history, I want to know (or make up) the story beneath the cold hard facts. I can't indulge that temptation, of course, except when I put on my novelist hat. And then, right in the middle of imagining a great scene, I find myself shuffling off to verify the facts. A historical novelist must be both, and it is not an easy chore.
In this instance I was so excited that I pasted a copy of my article onto a Facebook page, one followed by a small group of descendants and enthusiasts from one of the Union regiments involved in the Battle of Secessionville. I thought they would be "interested" and they were. But at least one of them became defensive and somewhat argumentative about it. As a result, I received both public and private messages about our ensuing discussion.
The person in question used a pseudonym in his comments, but I was aware of who he really was and that he had written a book about our mutual topic. His book was straight history; mine was a historical novel. Therefore, he pulled his historical persona on me -- reminding me that the "official" records showed no instance of anyone EVER using the term "Battle of Stono." I felt like a small child being called to the principal's office to have my fingers slapped. The quirk in our argument is this: he is not a historian by training or occupation, while I am. The question raised becomes one of methodology. What constitutes "evidence' for a historian? And do incontrovertible facts ever exist? I would argue that everything can be material for a historian, and that any fact labelled " the official version " is likely to be full of distortions, if not downright lies.
I was ready to let the discussion die, but I can't let it go without one more revelation. This morning I found ANOTHER term for this relatively unknown battle. I've written before about the various editions of the Laura Towne diary and my own evaluations of their relative worth. My Monday discovery of the Battle of Stono came from the xeroxed copy of her handwritten diary -- the one I decided was most authentic. The reference staring up at me on my desk this morning is the printed 1912 (expurgated and propagandized) edition. It reads: "the steamer being crowded with the wounded and sick from the battle of EDISTO."
Where in the world does that come from? There are three battles associated with the island of Edisto, SC -- The Battle of the Tory Camp in 1781; the Battle of Rivers Bridge in February, 1865; and the Battle of the Little Edisto on March 28, 1862. All three of them have been called the Battle of Edisto. But this description of the wounded and sick was written on June 23, 1862. The wounded cannot have been lying around in the swamps of South Carolina for three months waiting to be taken to a northern hospital. And there is independent evidence of 47 wounded soldiers from Secessionville being loaded onto a steamer to be taken to New York for treatment within days of the June 16th battle.
No, I don't believe for a moment that the Battle of Secessionville was ever called the Battle of Edisto. Both date and location are all wrong. Where did this idea come from? Well, the editor of the Towne letters was not a historian, either. He was a lawyer by training and a writer of children's edifying literature by occupation. I suspect he, too, looked at the handwritten manuscript, saw the term Battle of Stono, and shook his head. He had never heard of it, so he looked for another possibility. Since the Battle of Secessionville is not exactly a household word, he simply found another battle that took place in that part of South Carolina and "corrected" the silly woman's error.
That's how "historical facts" come out wrong, folks.