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[Detail] Photographic Print of Tilton C. Reynolds, undated

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Comparing Different Views about a Historical Figure or Event

Different people's accounts or assessments of events and historical figures can be very different—even though they may have shared experiences with the events and/or people. A wide range of factors can influence how people respond to an event or another person. For example, age or position in life can influence perceptions; think about how you and your parents respond to some of the experiences you share. Sorting through these differences is one of the challenges of interpreting historical documents.

Orlando Gray wrote to his sister-in-law, Juliana Reynolds, from his unit in Virginia on March 4, 1862. In this letter, Gray says,  "I was not much of an Abolition when I left home but I tell you I am a very strong one now and every other man that has been among the people enough to see the evils effect of Slavry here in Virginia." In January of the following year, Tilton wrote his mother from Camp Pitcher near Falmouth, Virginia. Although the letter made no specific reference to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Tilton wrote that "The men are all getting dissatisfied and swear they wont fight no more that the union is on no account that Niggers is what we are fighting for and they say that they did not come out for that." Read these two letters and answer the following questions:

  • According to Orlando Gray, what was the attitude of soldiers towards slavery after having spent time in Virginia?
  • According to Tilton, what was the attitude of soldiers in the Pennsylvania Wild Cat Regiment to the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • What might account for the differences in the two men's perceptions? Consider when the letters were written, events that occurred shortly before each letter, and known characteristics of the two men.

Tilton and his uncle had earlier disagreed about the Colonel in charge of the regiment. In a letter to his mother written November 24, 1861, Tilton said of the colonel that he had "never Seen a man So Universaly hated as he is. There is not a man in the Regt that likes him." In a letter written just a few days later, Orlando Gray defended the Colonel. Read the two letters.

  • What might account for the differences in the two men's views of the Colonel? How can you judge which assessment of the Colonel is more accurate?
  • What insights can you gain about evaluating primary sources from this experience?