A Historian Stops Being A Historian When…

McDonough’s interpretation of Sherman’s performance at Shiloh provides a valuable lesson for historians to follow.

When I first picked up James McDonough’s 2016 William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country, A Life, some of the first words I read jumped off the pages immediately. McDonough, a seasoned historian and author of five previous Civil War titles, justified his writing another biography of Sherman by looking at the general’s life “sometimes with different interpretations, than previous biographies.” He continued: “For example, I am convinced, after taking another look at the Battle of Shiloh, that Sherman deserves more credit for that Union triumph than earlier biographers have assigned him; indeed, more credit than I gave him in my book about Shiloh, which I researched and wrote between 1971 and 1973.”

It was the last part of the statement that told me I was in for a treat with this read. Not only do I automatically move books that promise a new way of looking at things to the top of my never-ending reading stack, but McDonough’s willingness to change his interpretation after many years of writing speaks volumes about an important reminder that we as historians should all remember: never stop becoming a student of history, never shut oneself off to look at past events differently (even if we have interpreted them the same way for decades), and never believe that we have learned or discovered everything there is to know about a particular event, battle, or person. A historian stops being a historian when they become dead set in their interpretations and never take a second look at their past conclusions.

If historians can always remain students as well as teachers, it opens up a lot of possibilities about how we can continue to change the way we think about and talk about the Civil War.