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Topic: Historians who make stupid mistakes

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Subject: Historians who make stupid mistakes
Date Posted: 11/28/2011 7:55 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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When I was much younger, I considered myself an expert on the American War of the Rebellion (as Lincoln always called the Civil War). Then a highschool/college buddy asked me to fly north to attend a conference on "Command and Control at Gettysburg." I went only to keep him company, and to visit him and his wife as they were some of my best friends and I rarely had a chance to visit.   After all, what was I going to learn at the conference that I did not already know?

It only took listening to the first two speakers at the conference to learn that what I knew about the Battle of Gettysburg was that I knew almost nothing about the battle. Since then, I am a bit more humble when it comes to discussing matters I think I am well-read in. One speaker at the conference said something that I have never forgotten. He was discussing books on the war and stated, "If you want to be an expert on the Civil War, only read one book. If you read another book then you will discover that the second author does not always agree with the first. So you will have to read a third book to find out who is right. After 3,000 books you are just getting started."

Still, after you have read a few hundred books on a subject, you begin to build a good understanding of events, places, things and people related to that subject. Therefore, it is always a souce of amazement to me when an author, often a respected historian, makes such a stupid error that you wonder what he or she was drinking (smoking?) as they wrote those words.  For one book that had many, see my review of Total War.

I thought it might be interesting to see what really dumb errors other readers have encountered. 

I have noticed many in my readings, but the most recent was in the book A Shower of Stars: The Medal of Honor and the 27th Maine by John Pullen.  Pullen wrote The 20th Maine, which is not only a classic, but was the first CW book I ever read and created an addiction for that subject that I have never been able to shake. 

In the preface, Pullen is discussing letters written by servicemen of all wars that help us understand what the soldiers experienced. As an example, he discusses a 19-year-old World War II infantryman whose unit's first combat occurred when they hit the beaches of Leyte. Pullen then remarks that not many in that platoon "survived the New Guinea campaign."   Excuse me, Mr. Pullen, but Leyte was part of the the Philippine campaign. New Guinea was somewhere else and much earlier.  How did you make such a goof?

So... what are your favorite errors?



Last Edited on: 6/4/12 10:58 PM ET - Total times edited: 3
Kat (polbio) -
Date Posted: 12/10/2011 10:28 AM ET
Member Since: 10/10/2008
Posts: 3,067
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As a historian, I can tell you that as long as humans are writing books it is almost impossible to not have their biases and inferences in the book. The other issue with errors in history books is there is so much information that it is almost impossible to include it all, and things get generalized. Generalizations are often half truths, just look at the history taught in public schools today.

Throughout college I rememebr being asigned books in class that contradicted or even just slightly varied from the books i had been assigned in other classes. The best way to get the truth is by reading the primary sources. But even then, you have to take into consideration biases of the original writers, especially when looking at political documents.


Date Posted: 12/11/2011 3:08 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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My favorite historical error was not made by a historian, but by a poet, John Keats (1795-1821).   It occurs in the sonnet Keats penned after an evening he and a friend spent, rapturously, reading Chapman's translation of Homer, that the two had just discovered.   The blooper occurs in the second stanza of On First Looking into Chapman's Homer:


                       "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

                         When a new planet swims into his ken;

                         Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

                          He stared at the Pacific--and with his men

                          Look'd at each other with a wild surmise---

                          Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

Well, twarn't Hernán Cortés, t'were Vasco Nuñez de Balboa.....The curious thing is, that I had to educate a university professor of Spanish about the glaring error!    The professor (although a native speaker of English) was not very well acquainted with English-language literature. 

Balboa, the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean in 1513, was a member of the expedition to Mexico made by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.  Balboa was later executed on a charge of treason, for having usurped command of the smaller expedition during which he made his discovery.   Records of the conquest of Mexico expedition were left by one of the members of the expedition, Bernal Díaz del Castillo.




Last Edited on: 12/11/11 3:10 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Kat (polbio) -
Date Posted: 12/11/2011 3:38 PM ET
Member Since: 10/10/2008
Posts: 3,067
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That is a good one, Bonnie. I did not know the history of Balboa either.


I notice alot of times that numbers of participants in battles differ a lot depending on who is telling the story. For instance, I remember doing research on a battle in the Revolutionary War and several sources claimed there were 900 colonials to 1100 red coats and then a hand ful of sources claimed it was more like 1800 colonials to the 1100 red coats. I remember the primary sources (dispatches written by the colonial officers) concurred with the lower number.

Date Posted: 1/21/2012 10:14 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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I am currently reading Danger's Hour by Maxwell Kennedy. It is the story of the USS Bunker Hill, a fleet carrier during WW II,  and the Kamikaze pilot who crashed into it.  Actually, it covers the development of carrier warfare and the Japanese evolution to suicide attacks. The author does a pretty good job of it and I am enjoying the book. I'm a little over 1/2 way though this 460-pager and the carrier is still on station off Okinawa. I expect the Japanese pilot will strike soon.

However, on page 120, the author really goofs. In a footnote he states:

"The Fifth Fleet fought under Nimitz in the Central Pacific. The Third Fleet fought in the Western Pacific under Halsey.''

First, Admiral Nimitz was the Naval Commander of all U. S. naval forces in the Pacific, so the Third Fleet was under his command also. 

Second, Admiral Spruance commanded the Fifth Fleet.

Finally, the Third and Fifth Fleets were the same assembly of ships, with additions and deletions here and there. When Admiral Halsey commanded the naval force, it was called the Third Fleet. When Admiral Spruance commanded, it was called the Fifth Fleet.


Last Edited on: 9/1/15 4:07 PM ET - Total times edited: 3
Date Posted: 6/4/2012 10:51 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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Here is an interesting one that gives me difficulty understanding how the historian made the mistake.

I'm reading Harold Winton's  Corps Commanders of the Bulge, his in-depth analysis of the six U.S. Army corps commanders involved in the WW II Battle of the Bulge. This is not light reading about the battle, but follows the career and training of each man and then his actions in the battle.  For those who want a great read on the Battle of the Bulge itself, read John Eisenhowers' The Bitter Woods.

Anyway, on pages 159-160 of Corps Commanders, Winton mentions that the race between the Americans and Germans to be the first into Bastogne, was "...as Marlborough famously remarked about Waterloo... a near-run thing". The only problem being that John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, died in 1722, or 93 years before the Battle of Waterloo,. Of course, the remark about Waterloo being "..a near-run thing," was made by Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington.

Other than that, this is an exceptional book that reveals why the Americans beat the Germans in that battle, and once again helps demolish the belief that the German were the best soldiers in WW II.

Last Edited on: 10/16/12 5:23 PM ET - Total times edited: 4
Date Posted: 10/16/2012 4:46 PM ET
Member Since: 7/27/2012
Posts: 2
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A mistake that is common, if written by someone not interested in architectural or house histories is to put an "s" at the end of the famous name of Robert Adam. While I like Susan Nagel's Mistress of the Elgin Marbles, she did this and made me wonder what else is off just a little.

Another mistake made, usually by men, is saying that breastfeeding stops conception. This is not true. Just look at the number of women who are nursing and pregnant with their next child. I am actually an example to prove this old wives' tale false, too. If you are a writer, please do not say this. This drives me crazy.

I do have a question, because Nagel writes that Robert the Bruce is a descendant of someone that came over with William the Conqueror. Does anyone know if this is accurate? If so, do you know the lineage?

Date Posted: 2/18/2013 11:34 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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Rich Relations by David Reynolds covers the 'American occupation' of Britain during 1942-194, and the problems that occurred when the two cultures clashed.

As might be expected, Reynolds briefly covers the conflict between American and British military personages, especially between Generals Patton and Montgomery. On page 379 of the hardback edition, Reynolds covers their race to be the first army across the Rhine. I was amazed that he credited Patton's Third Army with doing so on 22-23 March. Reynolds totally ignored or forgot that the first army across the Rhine was the American First Army under General Courtney Hodges. It made its crossing on 7 March when soldiers of the 9th Armored Division secured the bridge and crossed it.

The "Bridge at Remagen" is such a well-known incident of the push into Germany that a mistake like this is inexcusable.

Last Edited on: 2/18/13 11:35 PM ET - Total times edited: 3
Date Posted: 3/5/2013 6:23 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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The Afternoon of the Rising Sun.

I was really looking forward to this book, but encountered problems almost from the first chapter. This book is a naval history of The Battle of Leyte Gulf. The battle took place in the Philippines and was one of the largest naval battles in history.  Unfortunately, this book has problems that I cover in my review above and on the Amazon site. Since this thread is about mistakes, I'll list those here:

The author states that MacArthur was in command of the Solomons campaign. - No, he wasn't

At one point, he leads the reader to believe the Solomons campaign took place in 1944. - How about 1942-43?

The author reports MacArthur's 'achievements' as if he were simply repeating the press releases from that headquarters. - Many of these press releases are now known to be distortions of the truth, if not outright lies.

And he credits one Japanese admiral with saving the Japanese fleet at Midway by encouraging Yamamoto to retreat. - Almost all naval historians state that if Yamamoto had continued sailing until he came upon the American fleet, the huge superiority in numbers of the Japanese fleet would have spelled the end of the American Fleet.

Last Edited on: 3/2/14 1:58 PM ET - Total times edited: 2
Date Posted: 5/4/2014 9:14 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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It has been over a year since I made a contribution to this thread. Mostly because I've been too busy to list the very few errors I came across. Today's error really isn't by a historian. The book is Cronkite's War and is written by his grandson. As such, the grandson did a good job describing his grandfather's activities in WW II and Walter's love for this wife. Actually, the journalism part took a back seat to the love story.

The mistake occurs early in the book when the author, Walter Cronkite IV, states that Ernie Pyle, a famous WW II journalist, was killed on Iwo Jima in 1945. Actually, Pyle was killed on Ie Shima, a small island off the west coast of Okinawa. I've been there and even seen the monument to Ernie Pyle.

Recently, I was reading a book about the U.S. Marine assault on Peleliu, Brotherhood of Heroes. Somewhere in the beginning pages the author states that this island was west of the Philippines. I'm sure that would have come as a surprise to the Japanese defenders, the Marines who paid heavily to capture the island, and the idiot generals and admirals who too late realized they didn't really need to capture the island but what-the-hell the Marines were already on their way there so let them attack it.

Peleliu is actually several hundred miles east of the Philippines.

Date Posted: 2/12/2017 1:17 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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Well, I haven't posted anything here in almost three years, and that's good. It means historians are doing their homework, reviewing their sources, checking their text and listening to the advice of proofreaders hired by their publishers. We certainly can't complain about that!

But then I made the mistake of reading "100 Mistakes that Changed History" by Bill Fawcell.  Actually, I should have been alerted to the problems I found, as the book should have been titled "100 Mistakes Which Changed History."  If any word in the English language is unnecessarily over used, it is the word 'that.' Well, okay, maybe 'like,' as in "and then I like told her, and she like said...."

I won't even attempt to summarize my review of the book here. When I finished typing it into WordPerfect, it was two pages long. You can click on the book page above to access the review.


Date Posted: 3/29/2017 7:45 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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I just finished reading Preemptive Strike by Alan Armstrong. The link is to the book's page and my review. It is another interesting book about events taking place before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, when referring to the Philippines he refers to something called "Bataan Island," and has the Japanese landing there before landing on the larger island of Luzon. I found this interesting, as Bataan is a peninsula attached to Luzon. I've actually been on Bataan, so I think I know where and what it is. But, just to be sure, a search for "Bataan Island" turned up nothing.

Last Edited on: 5/29/17 7:50 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 5/19/2017 5:26 AM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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While the Internet is a vital means of communicating today, it also seems to set new lows in journalistic standards. I don't need to describe all the reasons why, I suspect you already know.

I often find some of the news, especially historical news, in it amusing, if only because of the way it is expressed. In their rush to get text on a site, the writers of news blurbs obviously don't know their history and don't check their work, even to the point of not really thinking about what they are writing.

Here is a good example, from one of the pages offered from the news options on the apps page of Windows 10. This is taken from "Today in History."

May 19th:

"British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (pictured, left) and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt meet in the White House and announce the date for cross-Channel invasion of Normandy, in northern France. The leaders announced May 1, 1944 as the day of attack, and it came to be known as D-Day. That date, though, proved a bit premature, as bad weather postponed the charge by five weeks."  (I added the italics.)

Well, there you have it. Churchill and Roosevelt publicly "announced the date" for the invasion of northern France. Makes you wonder why the Germans were caught by surprise. Obviously, the people who worked for Hitler were just as wrapped up in themselves as some of the people who have worked for our leaders.  smiley

For whatever reason, I never thought of the invasion as a 'charge.' Perhaps one of the secrets of WW II was the Allies ran across the English Channel waving their flags. I guess technically it was a charge, but I had never thought of it that way and have never heard any historian describe it that way either, I also appreciated the writers placing "(pictured, left)" in the news blurb so that I wouldn't wonder which of the two people pictured was Churchill and which was Roosevelt. I guess it is a little sad the writers of the blurb are so clueless about who is Churchill and who is Roosevelt they thought other people needed help in determing which was which.  Will there come a time when they will write "President Lincoln (center)" ?

A few weeks ago the same news source had a photograph of  Churchill and Eisenhower pictured together during the war. Eisenhower was in his uniform as a general. But the photo caption stated "Prime Minister Churchill and President Eisenhower." Since Ike didn't become our president until at least seven years after World War II, this caption is inaccurate.

I've come to believe the people who write these blurbs never took a course in history.

Last Edited on: 10/11/17 9:03 PM ET - Total times edited: 6
Date Posted: 5/21/2017 2:44 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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Here's another good example of interesting history from the Windows 10 News:

21 May, 1881 --- "Clara Barton finds the American Red Cross."

Wow! And I didn't even know it was lost. smiley  I wonder if there was a reward?

Actually, there is, if you can find a copy of A Woman of Valor, a story of a great American lady, grab it!

Last Edited on: 5/21/17 4:45 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 5/27/2017 3:40 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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Windows 10 News does it again.

May 27th, 1703....   "Tsar Peter the Great finds the city of St. Petersburg, which served as the capital of the Russian Empire for more than two hundred years until the Russian Revolution of 1917." (italics added)

This time it was an entire city which was lost.  Although, if you have some knowledge of Russian history, it makes you wonder if the people in that city were happy they were found.

I guess I really shouldn't make fun of the Windows 10 News staff in this thread. After all, they really aren't historians. In fact, they probably never even took a course in history, or, for that matter, English either.

Last Edited on: 5/27/17 3:41 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 5/29/2017 2:18 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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Windows 10 does it again!

In a story on Windows 10 news, regarding Memorial Day, it reported on the cleanup of a forgotten soldier's cemetery.

I quote the most interesting line:

"Research led them to find some of the buried were members of Teddy Roosevelt’s Dragoons, a mounted Calvary division."

Let's ignore the fact all "Calvary divisions" are typically mounted in some respect (vehicles today; horses in the past, except for present day ceremonial duties).  No, wait a minute, first we have to ignore the fact 'calvary' is mispelled, unless you are referring to the site where Jesus Christ was crucified. Next, let's ignore the fact Roosevelt's unit was only a regiment and not a division, of which he was not the commanding officer, but the executive officer. And let's ignore the fact this regiment fought in Cuba as an infantry unit, as it left its horses in Florida.  So what's left to wonder about?

The regiment was popularly called The Rough Riders, even though it was officially the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry. Dragoons referred to some mounted regiments common in the early 19th century and before. By the middle of the 19th century, such units were no longer called such, at least, not in the United States.

.... waiting with baited breath for Windows 10 to do it again!

Last Edited on: 5/29/17 2:33 PM ET - Total times edited: 4
Date Posted: 9/16/2017 2:24 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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One of the books I'm currently reading is Operation Storm: Japan's Top Secret Submarines and Their Plan to Change the Course of World War II.  It is an interesting book about some very large, 400-foot long submarines, even larger than the U.S. Fletcher-Class destroyers built during WW II. These submarines were first proposed by Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. The concept was to use these subs as underwater aircraft carriers, which would have 30,000 miles cruising ranges. The plan was to bomb Washington, D.C. and New York City, with the hope of destroying American morale. As the Japanese began to lose territory, the concept was changed to bomb the locks of the Panama Canal, and render the Canal inoperable for at least six months.

However, I won't spoil it for you by telling you how it all turned out.

What I want to discuss is how the author kept mentioning the U.S. used Ultra, a breaking of the enemy's code, to know the location of Japanese submarines and wreak havoc, in one case sinking 25 Japanese subs, or 1/4 of their submarines, just in one month.

The problem is Ultra was the code name for the breaking of the German military codes, not the Japanese codes.

The U.S. Navy first broke the Japanese codes in the 1920s.  The code name for this effort was Magic, with subdivisions of Red, Blue and Purple. Obviously, the author was not well read in the history of code-breaking. Plus, the people who reviewed the book, including the editors and proof-readers, failed the author too.

Currently, I am about half-way through the book, so I haven't written a review yet. However. I am finding it a fascinating, well-written read.

Last Edited on: 9/16/17 2:27 PM ET - Total times edited: 2
Date Posted: 10/5/2017 8:25 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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I just finished reading a Civil War biography/history I wish I hadn't started. It is called To Gettysburg and Beyond. Beyond is right. The link goes to my review.

Even though published in 1994, the author overlooked research which was well-known at that time. I could complain here about some of the myths the author perpetuated, but to stick to the subject of this forum I have to wonder how he could make continuous use of the word 'subaltern,' a military rank, in a book on the American Civil War. The U.S. Army discarded this rank in 1800 and replaced it with "second lieutenant." I've read too many books on the Civil War to count, but I have never seen 'subaltern' used in any of those books until this one. We can only wonder why?

Last Edited on: 10/5/17 8:26 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 10/22/2017 1:12 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
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While I give Thaddeus Tuleja's American History in 100 Nutshells a nice review, he did make a couple of glaring goofs.

On page 172, he states it was fortunate for the United States its Pacific fleet aircraft carriers were not in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on 7 December 1941, as they then "turned the tide in the Pacific two years later..."  In actual fact, the Battle of Midway, where the tide of battle was changed, occurred just six months later, almost to the day.

On page 195, he states Lyndon Johnson's "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution," occurring near the beginning of America's involvement in the Viet Nam war, eventually forced LBJ's resignation as chief executive. Johnson never resigned his office as president, rather, as credited by historians and political scientists, it was American society's reaction to the Viet Nam War which convinced Johnson not to run for reelection after his first full term in office.

Last Edited on: 10/22/17 1:13 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 11/2/2017 9:18 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,207
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Why it is authors can't take the time to look up information on Wikipedia, and confirm it elsewhere before putting incorrect information in their books?

I just finished reading The Depths of Courage: American Submariners at War with Japan, 1941-1945. While I want to say this is an excellent book, I'm biased, as I love to read stories about the "Silent Service," or the submarines. On the other hand, I would never want to serve on a submarine. For one thing, in WW II, one in five submariners were killed. And, if the 'flack' hits the fan, I like to have my choice of directions in which to run.

The personal stories related by the authors really convey what it meant to have been a submariner in WW II, including all the 'warts.'

Unfortunately, the authors seem to have problems with numbers. In numerous cases, their reports of casualties are way off. For example, they report over 9,000 dead Marines in the taking of Peleliu, when there were actually less than 2,300. The rest were mostly wounded Marines. The authors also reported it took the Marines three months to secure Iwo Jima, when it was actually five weeks.

And they report the British surrendered 60,000 men at Singapore and another 100,000 on Java. Sorry, but Java was Dutch Army territory. The British surrendered about 136,000 men at Singapore.

And did you know the Battle of Stalingrad, as mentioned on page 116, lasted nearly two years?  Most authorities, including the Germans and the Russians say it only lasted a week or so over five months.

And in one case, the authors reported U.S. submarines in the Pacific were directed by information from ULTRA, the breaking of the German code, but got it right later on when they reported it a MAGIC, the name given to the breaking of the Japanese code.

And the authors reported that Japanese Americans on the West Coast were rounded up simply because there wasn't time to decide who was a fifth-columnist or not. That's just a white-wash of the real reason, racial prejudice and economic discontent from the people who competed with Japanese American farmers and businessmen.

Since this book was published in 2007, there is no excuse for these errors, as they could have simply looked up the correct data online.

Finally, and while this may be just a little thing to you, as a former Marine, it is important to me. The authors quote at least twice from William Manchester's book Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War.  Most people don't read prefaces, but if they read the one Manchester wrote for this book, they would know much of it was a fictionalized account, as he admits, of his experiences in World War II, often based on stories he heard from other Marines. While Manchester was in the Marines during that war, his sole experience in combat occurred on Okinawa in 1945, where he was wounded.  However, the book, as he writes it, has him serving in combat units early in the war. There is no doubting the man's bravery, but other authors need to know what he reports may not be totally accurate. In fact, while reading that book, I often 'gagged' on some of the "free license" he took.

Last Edited on: 11/2/17 9:21 PM ET - Total times edited: 2