Check out Gary Gallagher’s list of five overrated Civil War officers (with a tip of the hat to John Fea). One of them is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, not because he was a poor commander but because fiction and film have elevated him into the stratosphere of popular memory.
I call this the Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect. It happens when a work of fiction or film sends a previously obscure subject into the stratosphere of popular imagination. There were plenty of brave and talented field officers at Gettysburg, but only one got top billing in The Killer Angels and the movie adaptation.
Likewise, up until the 1990′s, Velociraptor was just one of many little carnivorous dinosaurs that rarely got any press. And with good reason—other than its svelte form (the name means “quick robber”) and formidable claws, there wasn’t anything particularly impressive about it.
Then Michael Crichton came along. Dinosaur artist Gregory Paul had assigned a larger relative, Deinonychus, to the genus Velociraptor, and Crichton adopted this classification in Jurassic Park. The raptors in his book were therefore substantially bigger than their real-life counterparts, and formidable enough to take on his human characters.
Steven Spielberg evidently thought that even the beefed-up raptors in the novel were too puny for the big screen, so by the time the raptors made it to Hollywood they were about three times as tall as they had been in the fossil record. Ironically, after the book came out, scientists identified yet another large relative of Velociraptor, as big as the ones in Spielberg’s film.
I’ve drifted off-topic, haven’t I? Sorry; I’ve got this thing for dinosaurs.
Anyway, the point is that works of fiction often have a much greater impact on the way people remember the past than the interpretations of the people who study it. How many monographs on Gettysburg do you think it would take to equal the impression made by Shaara’s novel? I’d say quite a few.
The other thing that struck me about Gallagher’s piece is the reaction it elicited from readers. Take a look at the comments; some readers assumed that because Gallagher takes issue with certain evaluations of a few Confederate generals, he must be politically correct and have an anti-South agenda. Never mind that he included Union commanders in his list, and never mind that he didn’t say one word about the Confederacy itself. Perhaps the online defenders of True Southronness should set aside the Confederate flag; a doctor’s reflex hammer seems like a much more appropriate emblem for them.