Battles and Leaders – Imboden asks, “What is Up?”

14 02 2010

In John Imboden’s Battles and Leaders article, Incidents of the First Bull Run, he offers up this:

After midnight of July 17th, General Bee, my brigade commander, sent for me to go with him to headquarters, whither he had been summoned. Several brigade commanders were assembled in a room with General Johnston, and a conference of one or two hours was held. When General Bee joined me on the porch to return to our quarters, I saw he was excited, and I asked him, “What is up?”

“What is up?”  No, no, no…it can’t be.  Surely he must have said:

My compiments, General Bee, sir.  May I be so bold as to inquire regarding your assessment of the tactical situation at present?  My sincere and heartfelt apologies if I have overstepped my position.

As we know from films like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, people in 1860s America spoke exactly as they wrote – no umms, no ahhs, no slang, certainly no profanity, just fully formed thoughts with perfect grammar, diction, and decorum.  Well, of course they didn’t.  But for some reason, many today are convinced they did.  It carries over into the writings of modern historians, who apparently become so immersed in the documents of the era that they lose perspective, and use archaic terms in their narratives without exposition.  What happened in the 70 years separating our incredibly stilted impression of 1860s conversational speech and the witty repartee of Miller’s Crossing

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