Sunday, October 25, 2009

Agincourt and the Whiskey Rebellion

Family lore, especially legends about heroic and illustrious forebears, gives us a sense of rootedness. But just because a story has been handed down through the generations doesn't make it true.

For a century or more, one branch of my family has taken enormous pride in the belief that its first American ancestors arrived in this country from Northern Ireland in 1770, settled in the Monongahela Valley and fought in the storied Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94 against arbitrary federal taxation of alcohol.

Now my brother, a retired professor of economics and a trained researcher, has discovered two strong bits of documentary evidence suggesting that the family did not get to this country until 1798, far too late to have participated in the Whiskey Rebellion.

Such are the vagaries of oral history, of unsupported memory. We don't, as a rule, remember things as they actually occurred; we tend to remember events the way we want them to have happened.

These musings are spurred by an article in today's New York Times suggesting that the Battle of Agincourt, fought on this date 584 years ago, may not have been the impossible victory against overwhelming 1-to-5 odds that Britons have celebrated for nearly six centuries, helped along by these stirring lines from Shakespeare's "Henry V":

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Indeed Agincourt was a great win for the English against the French, some modern historians now say, but involved closer to 1-to-2 odds (and maybe less) than literary posterity has claimed. Like my brother, the revisionist historians have taken a hard look at actual documentary evidence -- in the case of Agincourt, military and tax records -- and come up with a different truth. It isn't what traditional historians and popular dramatists have said it was all these centuries.

Why is this stuff important? The Times article points out that the recent discoveries have led to a "new science of military history" that today's generals in Afghanistan and Iraq are carefully consulting in making their command decisions. If he who ignores history is doomed to relive it, so is he who relies blindly on national myths.

It's great to believe stirring stories, but it's better to have the truth.

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