Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Reporting a Snowball Fight: The Battle of Credit Island Part III

Hello all, and welcome to the third installment of Chris Espenshade's series about the investigation of the Battle of Credit Island! You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. Chris explains not only the history of this almost-forgotten battle, but also how archaeologists help reconstruct and interpret battle events. Enjoy!

Reporting a Snowball Fight: Biases in Military Reporting of Battle Actions

As you may recall from my previous post, one of the data sources for revising battle narratives is the archival record.  At first blush, some readers might think that the archival record should be given primacy, as, after all, these are the first-person accounts of the actual participants.

In order to attempt to explain to a 5th Grade class the many biases affecting such accounts, I introduced the analogy of a snowball fight.  How accurately could the student describe a snowball fight between just two combatants, in a small side yard of the school, lasting only five minutes, and limited to three snowballs for each?  That seemed a fairly reasonable task.

From that starting point, I then began elaborating, to get closer to a military situation.  The forces were increased to hundreds or thousands.  The landscape was one with which the participants were unfamiliar.  The snow balls were actually replaced by artillery and small arms, and the battlefield was enshrouded in trees, fog, and gun smoke.  The observers would not be allowed to prepare their reports until a week or two after the battle.  The reputation and career advancement of the observer might be affected by what he reported.   The battle would be one of dozens fought in the past few weeks, and the observer is likely sleep-deprived, poorly nourished, and possibly wounded.  I asked the fifth graders what they thought would happen to the truth as all these factors were added into the mix.  How could you possibly know what really happened?

So, it is not surprising to find wildly divergent accounts by the various participants of a battle. One of our key tasks in the Credit Island battlefield study was to reconcile the various accounts. This requires considering how a given participant gained knowledge, and what motives they may have had to mis-report the situation.  It should be noted that it is unusual for a single source to be the most reliable on all major issues of a battle, and the narrative has to be taken apart and addressed issue by issue.

Below you will see a table for the issue of the count and size of British artillery.  You might expect fairly consistent data on this very basic information, especially given the importance of this artillery to the outcome of the battle.  Instead, you see that the number and/or size of the British guns was consistently over-stated by the Americans (artillery are characterized by the weight of the round ball they fire, so a 3-pounder shoots a projectile that weighs about 3 pounds, and that measures about 2.75 inches in diameter).

Black Hawk (Native American)
“our big gun”
Black Hawk is focused on the largest piece, but is not necessarily intent on offering a full inventory.  Eye-witness.
Zachary Taylor (American)
“a six, a four, and two swivels”
Taylor had a strong incentive to exaggerate the strength of the British guns.  The Americans actually had greater artillery power present at the battle, but failed to bring their 6-pounder into action. 
J. Callaway (American)
(letter) “one six one four and one three Pounders”
Callaway did not closely observe the guns.  He had incentive to exaggerate the strength of the British.
J. Shaw (American)
Two 12-pounders, plus logs disguised as additional artillery
This seems complete fiction on part of Shaw
Reynolds (American)
“six pieces of cannon”
Account written well after the battle.
D. Graham (British)
“three-pounder and two swivels”  He identifies artillerists, Sgt. Keating (3-pounder), Lt. Brisbois (swivel), and Colin Campbell (other swivel)
Directly observed the weaponry and their deployment.  His gun list is consistent with what he was ordered to bring to the battle.
T. Anderson (British)
In his order of August 29, he states “one brass three-pounder, and two swivels”
After action: 3-pounder (Keating), Lt. Brisbois (swivel), Colin Campbell (other swivel)
Orders are highly reliable unless counter-manded.  Not the case here.

The after-action is based directly on Graham’s account.
Meese (1915)
Three-pounder and two swivels
Accepts Graham/Anderson accounts.
Mahon (1972)
Three small cannon
Generalizes from Graham, Anderson, or Meese.
Ferguson (2012)
Three-pounder and two swivels
Accepts Graham/Anderson accounts.
George Eaton (personal communication 2013)
3-pounder and 2 swivels
Accepts Graham/Anderson accounts.

Example of a British 3-pounder (from the Web-page of John Lamb’s Artillery Company)  The reconciliation of various accounts led to the conclusion that the British at Credit Isalnd has one 3-pounder and two swivel guns (probably 1-pounders).
Variety of Swivel Guns (from Henry and Delf 2004:Plate C).
It is not possible to know if certain of the observers purposefully lied, or if they simply did not have good information.  

Only after reconciling the accounts issue by issue was I able to define key data for the KOCOA analysis and the revised battle narrative. To return to the 5th graders, I now know which accounts of the snow ball fight are most reliable on each issue.  At this juncture, it is time to take the class outside, and see how the information jives with the military terrain of the battlefield.

This research – conducted by Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group -- was sponsored by the American Battlefield Preservation Program and the City of Davenport, Iowa.  This material is based upon work assisted by a grant from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.

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