J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Great Truth about Augustus C. Buell

I enjoyed Justin Shatwell’s Yankee Magazine article on Augustus C. Buell, author of a two-volume biography of John Paul Jones, Paul Jones, Founder of the American Navy: A History, published in two volumes in 1900.
Buell was a talented writer and the book was a gripping read, chock full of sea battles, romance, and general daring-do. The New York Tribune praised it as “a perfect biography.” It turns out it’s easy to write a great history when you’re making most of it up.

Buell’s lies went unnoticed for several years. To a casual observer the book seemed legit. Buell gave sources for much of his material. It wasn’t until 1905 that people realized he was citing documents that existed only in his imagination. As Samuel Eliot Morison, a later (and legitimate) biographer of John Paul Jones, would write, “He found it easier to write Jones’s letters himself than to use the genuine ones in the Library of Congress, which he never visited.” . . .

Buell never heard these barbs. He died in 1904, a year before an expose in the New York Times revealed the majority of his malfeasance and labeled his book, “the most audacious historical forgery every put upon a credulous public.” When he passed, he was still a star. He published three more biographies, each similarly embroidered with his own inventions, as well as a memoir of his time in the Union Army during the Civil War, which for a time was praised as the best first-person account of the Battle of Gettysburg until it was revealed that he joined the army several weeks after it was fought.
Buell’s book is now available everywhere in digital form, of course. That means more people have a chance to stumble on it and be fooled, but the same technology means it’s also very easy to find over a century of denunciations of Buell’s lies.

One of Buell’s inventions outran his critics, however. According to this 2004 article in Naval History Magazine, published by the U.S. Naval Institute, John Paul Jones’s “Qualifications of a Naval Officer” was Buell’s invention. He “had rewritten some of Jones’s letters and created other documents to offer turn-of-the-century naval officers a model of modern professionalism.”

That text has accrued so much tradition that it continues to be taught to U.S. Naval Academy students. Early this century, the Commandant of Midshipmen changed the attribution of those words to “Written by Augustus C. Buell in 1900 to reflect his views of John Paul Jones.” The U.S. Naval Academy’s website now credits those words as “Compiled by Augustus C. Buell from letters written by John Paul Jones,” which doesn’t seem quite so accurate.

1 comment:

steenkinbadges said...

Still being taught and believed? Not surprised. There are even some people out there who still believe Michael Bellesisles' creation of whole cloth AKA "Arming America" that came out in 2001 or so.