Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Myth and Memory of Col. John Montgomery Part I

Statue of Col. John Montgomery in public
square of Clarksville, TN
        Often times, historical figures tend to be shrouded to some degree in a haze of righteousness and over simplified understandings, especially those related to the founding and settlement of the United States. Details are glossed over, less than righteous deeds forgotten about and heroic acts are magnified. Over time the person we remember and revere bears little resemblence to the real individual.

For me, this poses a problem: Am I to believe in something (spiritual, historical or otherwise) that is based only in a popular understanding with little to no context?

Unfortunately, people who dig into these things and try to flesh out these individuals and events surrounding them are often labeled 'revisionist' historians - a term that tends to bring with it a lot a negative baggage. Revisionist historians are often accused of re-writing histories to suit various agendas or intentionally defaming a historical person.

        While I can't say that there aren't those who do that, I would argue that re-examination and re-interpretation of histories are essential to not only the historians craft but to the public in general. It is important to understand why we revere certain people. It is important to understand the context of their deeds. It is important to discover the reasons why these people are remembered and how that memory has morphed throughout time. Any given generations perceptions of a past event are to some extent colored by their present situations. Obviously, this changes overtime, however; when we rely solely on histories written 4 and 5 generations ago we are also relying on that generations understandings of issues like race, American identity, and gender - issues that have obviously shifted dramatically in just the last 50 years. In the historians world, this usually refers to historiography - basically the history of whats been written about a subject so far. In some cases the historiography is just as important as the issue at hand. It is the record of how historians have thought and argued about the subject.

Supposed grave of Col. Montgomery near Smithland, KY
          So, I want to talk about Col. John Montgomery. Now he's no George Washington or even John Sevier but he has been, and to some extent still is, highly revered by Tennesseeans. Many of Montgomery's deeds have been romanticized and even more of them left out of the secondary literature. The following link is an essay by a local Montgomey County, TN historian, Albert V. Goodpasture written in 1919.:
Goodpasture gives the classic portrayal of Montgomery, emphasizing his work in the Revolution and as an Indian fighter.

"Col. John Montgomery" by A.V. Goodpasture

Be sure to click on "Col. John Montgomery" by A.V. Goodpasture, pg. 145.

          Before we begin talking about how Goodpastures account compares to reality we need to discuss why Goodpasture wrote what he did. We need to understand why Montgomery was remembered the way he was. This can be broken down into the following categories:

Indian Fighting
Service in the Revolution
Time as a Longhunter/ Exploration

Each of these categories held considerable weight in the minds of the 19th century public and historians.

This is going to be considerably long, so I'm breaking it up into a few parts for easy digestion. Next time, I'll continue by dissecting the three themes mentioned above.

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