George, Meet Erwin

History intersects itself in unexpected ways, especially during commemorations such as Jamestown’s founding or the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. In the latter case, Virginia ‘s strange bedfellow is Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox” of World War II.

Erwin Rommel with German 15th Panzer Division in Libya, 1941 (United States National Archives and Records Administration)

Earning an Iron Cross for valor in World War I,  Rommel served afterwards as a company commander and instructor. According to historian Martin Blumenson in Hitler’s Generals (1989), he taught at the Dresden Infantry School 1929-1933, when he wrote Infanterie greift (Infantry Attack). By 1935, he had been promoted to lieutenant-colonel and instructor at the War College in Potsdam. After assignments as commander of Hitler’s bodyguard and commander of the 7th Panzer Division, Rommel assumed leadership of the Africa Korps in 1941, earning the nickname “Desert Fox”  for his effective surprise attacks in North Africa.

Rommel’s prowess as a military strategist has been linked online and in print  to Virginia’s Civil War sites, in regional stories that he visited specifically to learn about Civil War military tactics. Columnist Worth Richardson wrote in the Culpeper Exponent-Star that Rommel visited Culpeper in 1937 to study Confederate Army military tactics during the battles of  Cedar Mountain (1862) and Brandy Station (1863). The hotel where he supposedly stayed is now an office, according to Richardson. Recently I wrote a piece for Examiner.com mentioning the Rommel-Culpeper connection and became intrigued, leading to more research on line and in the library.

Googling this topic on the Internet led to some interesting claims.  According to the Insiders’ Guide to Virginia’s Blue Ridge, Rommel also visited  Highland County prior to World War I(not II) to study Stonewall Jackson’s tactics at the Battle of McDowell in 1862. The book Exploring the Small Towns of Virginia and Maryland places Rommel  in Monterey, Va., to follow  Jackson’s tactics in the Shenandoah Valley. At one website, Erwin Rommel is credited with helping Robert E. Lee to win the Civil War–which one can only hope is a parody.  The references to Rommel in Virginia as real or apocryphal recall similar stories of George Washington sleeping in a statistically impossible number of period homes. How do these stories originate?

This parallel is not intended to make light of local oral history or legends. Both can have degrees of truth and may lead to new interpretations of history.  In Rommel’s case, the Highlander Inn where he was purported to stay in Monterey refutes that Rommel was there, stating that Virginia Military Institute historians and Rommel biographers found no evidence of Rommel ever coming to Virginia or the US.  On the other hand, there is an alternative possibility that German Embassy Military Liaison Friedrich Von Boetticher reportedly visited Civil War sites with historian Douglas Southall Freeman. Von Boetticher was officially assigned to Washington, DC between 1933 and 1941.  He was Germany’s only official military observer in the US during that period, according to historian Alfred Beck, author of Hitler’s Ambivalent Attaché: Lt. Gen. Friedrich Von Boetticher in America, 1933-1941.

I don’t have the final word on whether Von Boetticher was that mystery guest in Monterey or possibly Culpeper, but the bottom line is that Internet sources, like all history sources, require verification. This fact is increasingly a concern in light of students’ use of online texts across subjects and disciplines. Two professors at Syracuse University and Drew University have revealed their findings that many first-year composition students at 15 colleges copied online text passages for their research papers without regard for argument, quality, or context within those texts. If there is a cautionary lesson here, it may be that history and education professionals more than ever have to model research as an active verb.

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