blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, December 7, 2012

How History Becomes Distorted

Recently while researching my first nonfiction title A Fate Worse than Death about rape in the Civil War, I came across a book with an interesting diary entry from Private John Haley of the 17th Maine Infantry. On December 10, 1864, Haley wrote about a colonel in another regiment that was "perpetrating one of the foulest outrages upon two defenseless women." He went on to state that if these women had not submitted to "their infamous proposals" their house would have been burned and the women would have been "turned out into the bleak of December."

In Haley's disgust, he said that if privates had done such a thing, they "would have suffered death. The nearest tree would have been requisitioned." But because the colonel was an officer, he was drunk, "as is his custom."

I wanted to quote the complete passage for my book, but because the edited version of Haley's diary is still under copyright, I felt uncomfortable quoting a complete paragraph, even though the original is a public domain work. Instead, I searched for the original diary, which happens to be located in a small library in Maine, where the former private had lived. The current librarians were wonderful in helping to locate the original entry from Haley's diary and sent me a copy.

Here's the unedited version:

At this place [Virginia] occurred a dastardly outrage, if [the] report be true. Colonel Byles, of the 99th Penn. and his ADJT [adjutant] made their headquarters at a farm house near by occupied by two women alone. They made infamous proposals to them, which being refused, these miserable, cowardly skulks threatened to burn the house unless their demands were complied with. So to save their home, and themselves from being turned out into the 'bleak December,' they submitted.

Had this outrage been the work of privates, they would probably have dangled from the nearest tree in very short order, Col Byles consenting thereto. But there may be another side to the story, women are not all of them always paragons of virtue and these innocent creatures may have been 'as deep in the mud as Col Byles was in the mire.' As who shall say?

One thing we did know, Old Byles, was a drunken old fool and one never knows when an officer keeps in this condition, what crazy and dirty ideas may creep into his brain.

I think even with the snippets that I've posted from the book, anyone can see how the original is much more colorful and ominous than the altered version. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident while researching my book. It hasn't been.

No wonder our outlook on history is distorted.

Kim Murphy


  1. Another great historical insight from Kim. Thanks for posting this. War is not a lovely business.

  2. A fascinating example of why it always pays to go to the original documents rather than edited versions or excerpts,or to trust what "everyone knows". The bit you quote is far more illustrative of the times. My new publisher's just accepted my book about Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly (Churchill's Nephew) -- at last, at last -- and I mention this because in the research I not only exploded some myths put about by the Mitford Industry but ciscovered fascinating new material -- as you did in your example above. History is always being distorted by people who don't or won't check their sources.

  3. Your research and book sound very interesting! As said earlier, 'war is not a lovely business' and I'm completely unsurprised to hear of rape and abuse of physical and legislative/military power. Nevertheless, it sounds like it will be another brick in the wall for research into social history (which has so much to do with women).

    I look forward to reading it!

    Trix in London, ON