Projecting

5 12 2016

I’m getting around to outlining my thoughts on Irvin McDowell’s plan for the campaign on Manassas. If you’ve been following along, you know that I am firmly of the opinion that McDowell’s intentions and expectations for the campaign have been grossly misrepresented over the years, with resulting, understandable effects on the analysis of the failure of his plans (keeping in mind that reasons for the failure of plans and reasons for defeat are two very, very different things). While I think I’m no longer completely alone in that opinion, and may never have been, I’m still pretty sure I’m in a very small minority.

anteffcoverIn the meantime, I’m reading a very interesting book by Bradley Graham, The Antietam Effect. I’ve heard rumblings about this book over the past few years (self published in 2012), but never saw it until stumbling over it in the Fredericksburg Battlefield visitor’s center. This is a collection of essays dealing with various topics of the campaign. It’s wide-ranging, even eclectic. The titles listed in the footnotes may leave you scratching your head at first glance but, trust me, there’s a point to everything (and yes, you have to read the notes). I don’t necessarily agree with all the author’s conclusions, but I love his approach and find it very similar to my own, on a basic level.

One passage I found particularly intriguing, and applicable with some bending to my own experience with the historiography of First Bull Run, can be found on page 175:

To make their views more compelling, some authors enlist the unspoken opinions of key players…They engage in a species of psychological projection – projecting their own internalized impressions onto important historical characters. This cognitive bias tends to shape analysis, and good scholarship devolves into advocacy for the favored view, and the ascription of the author’s opinions onto those who did not espouse them.

It seems to me that, when it comes to McDowell’s intentions and expectations, authors have developed impressions of what they must have been or should have been, and in the absence of confirming evidence projected those impressions as being those of the man himself. The strange thing to me is how consistently this has been done over the years, so that those impressions have become generally accepted. When the legend becomes fact…

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