I was in Richmond recently and I wondered aloud whether the city had been burned during the Civil War. This was, perhaps, a stupid question, but I’m from Iowa. So there you go. “Yes,” my companions patiently informed me, “Richmond had been burned to the ground”—but the passive voice, as they say, was used. And perhaps that’s because the Yankees didn’t light the torch.
Take a look at the above photo. It’s natural to want to compare the city’s ruins to Berlin or Dresden during the Second World War. In fact, James Loewen tells us in Lies Across America that some history textbooks do just that—but without explaining “that the departing Confederates burned it, or that Union forces saved much of the city.”
“A librarian at the Virginia State Library told me of an 1876 map that shows ‘everything they didn’t burn,’” Loewen writes. “‘Everything who didn’t burn?’ I asked. ‘Everything we didn’t burn,’ she admitted, also letting slip her Confederate identification; ‘I try not to get into that.’”
This to me lays bare one of the most fascinating aspects of studying history. What we know or what we are willing to admit can depend so greatly on who we are, where we’re from, and to what degree we’re invested in the subject. As for me, I identify as Iowan. So don’t even talk to me about Herbert Hoover . . .