Is Thomas Livermore Trustworthy?: A Story about Memory, Memoirs, and the Civil War
I recently completed Thomas Livermore’s Days and Events 1860-1866 because it is, to my knowledge, the only memoir written by a veteran of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. Livermore served with the regiment from its inception, starting as a 17-year-old 1st Sergeant and working his way up to Captain before obtaining a series of staff appointments, mainly with the II and XVIII Corps. If Days and Events 1860-1866 is not a classic of Civil War memoirs, it is still an informative and enjoyable read that reveals much about its author and his regiment. For that reason, it has become a key primary source employed by those who have done research on the 5th New Hampshire.
As I read the book and came to understand how Livermore wrote it, however, I asked myself, “Is it reliable?” Livermore produced the manuscript between 1867 and 1872, scribbling away when he had free time on Sundays. Since he had not kept a diary during the war, he worked from memory. In the years after he completed the draft, he revised it based on books he read as well as conversations he had and correspondence he exchanged with other veterans. That reliance on others colored his impressions, especially when he sought to recollect his years as a staff officer.
The passage that provides perhaps the best example of the dangers associated with this mode of proceeding appears in his account of Gettysburg, where he served as the staff officer in charge of the II Corps’ ambulances. Livermore could not remember exactly where he was, what he did, and what he saw during Pickett’s Charge, largely because his time was divided between overseeing the ambulance train and serving as an aide to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, his corps commander. He wrote that his duties “carried me to every point where our corps was engaged” and “I was obliged to ride constantly to and fro.” For that reason, he wrote, “I have not the benefit of the sequence of events which would have been witnessed by me if serving as an aide all the time.” This confusion, which left Livermore with a memory salad, made him susceptible to thinking that he saw what he may have actually learned after the fact. In recounting the events of July 3, 1863, he produced this revealing passage: “It seems to me certain that I saw the rebels come through our lines [near the famous copse of trees], but I can’t arrange the events chronologically, and I almost fear I have heard about the rebels coming through so many times, that I have blended these accounts with my intimate knowledge of the looks of our lines and made myself believe I saw them come through when in fact I did n’t.” This statement is all the more interesting because only two pages later, he states emphatically, “If I had been serving with my regiment [from which he had been plucked for staff duty only a couple of days before], I could have told just what I did at all times.”
What should one make of these statements? To what extend did Livermore understand the workings of his memory? As I struggled with these questions I chanced upon an article in the May 2021 issue of The Atlantic entitled, “You Won't Remember the Pandemic the Way You Think You Will.” This essay, which is based on current findings in psychology, makes four major points about memory. First, we tend to remember with some specificity the high and low points in our lives, with trauma in particular “engraving painful and long-lasting memories.” Second, these moments become “episodes” in our memory that are “invested with meaning.” They help us compose a “narrative identity” and “continuous sense of self” that helps define who we are. Third, as we experience an event, we compose “our memories in anticipation of sharing them,” a response that colors both our perceptions and recollections. In so doing, we weave events into a story. Fourth, in sharing this story with others, we begin to modify our recollections of what happened by borrowing parts of other people’s memories of the same event. We thus become members of a community engaged in a “crowdsourcing project of organizing collected memories,” and our recollections thus become collectively constructed.
How does this article help us understand Livermore’s memories? His account provides ample evidence that his mind worked in accordance with the findings in The Atlantic article. It is clear, for example, that Livermore composed his memories in anticipation of sharing them. Moreover, a clear narrative identity and sense of self emerges in his narrative. Finally, evidence from Days and Events 1860-1866 suggests that Livermore may have been onto something in thinking that his memories as a company officer were less susceptible to ex post facto collective construction than his recollections of time on various staffs.
On the one hand, while fighting with the 5th New Hampshire, Livermore was exposed to a great deal of combat trauma that made an indelible impression not easily misremembered. Indeed, his depictions of the major battles in which he fought with the regiment are not only lengthy and detailed but also dwell on gruesome incidents. Moreover, Livermore’s ambit was restricted to a small number of men who occupied a limited amount of space. His account of life in the regiment centered around his company which, after the Peninsula campaign, probably never numbered more than 30 men (and often much less). It was easy to construct a chronological account of such a small group, and almost all of its members were neither as articulate nor as fluent with the pen as Livermore was. In other words, this body of men—which constantly turned over due to death, discharge, and stays in the hospital—did not possess the wherewithal to challenge or influence Livermore’s view of events.
On the other, as a staff officer, Livermore’s duties were variegated, and he was involved with many, many more men strewn over a much larger area. From this position, he obtained occasional glimpses of different faces of each battle or operation, leading to a disconnected mélange of impressions that he shaped after the war through reading and conversation. Moreover, he was surrounded by a number of educated officers on the staff who could contest as well as sway his view of his experiences. Finally, as a staff officer, he was exposed directly to far less trauma, and his duties were far less memorable.
Should the reader, then, treat Days and Events 1860-1866 with caution? Yes, because all sources require caution, especially those written well after the events they describe. But The Atlantic article on memory, when coupled with Livermore’s own insights about the workings of his memory, indicates that some sections of the book (e.g. Livermore’s recollections of service in Company K and then Company E in the 5th New Hampshire) are perhaps more trustworthy than others (e.g. his memories of staff work).