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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum: Centennial vs. Sesquicentennial

Feb 29th, 2012

3)What role should academic historians play in the commemoration?


DS: For several decades, maybe longer, I have felt there were two tracks of Civil War study, one in the academy and one outside of it, and the two did not intersect enough, in my opinion. I know that some Civil War scholars help lead battlefield tours and the like, but I’m afraid a lot of scholarship just isn’t reaching a wide audience.

KN: People have worried throughout my career about a growing divide and distrust between academic Civil War historians and the popular audience. I’m not denying that it’s real. Academic historiography that challenges popular perceptions by looking beyond the battlefield and statehouse to the home front admittedly does not always translate easily into public observance or book sales. And the public, publishers tell us, still wants battles and leaders, not race, class, and gender. More recently many members of the public simply have dismissed what academics have to say as “politically correct” when modern interpretations challenge revered myths of the past. I’ve had audience members become visibly angry, or even walk out on me, when I link slavery to Confederate enlistment. But while one cannot dismiss very real political and intellectual divisions, I think that the polarized apples-and-oranges trope nevertheless tends toward overstatement. Anyone who has spent time on the Civil War Round Table circuit, for example, knows that Civil War enthusiasts beyond the university still turn up to hear what academics have to say, and the vast majority stay in their seats. Popular periodicals such as Dana Shoaf’s as well as many Internet sites have proven to be successful venues where academics and non-academics continually engage in constructive dialogue. It is possible to build bridges that will connect what George Rable once described as two parallel streams, each seemingly going their own way.

DS: Yet, take for example, Paul Escott’s interesting study, “What Shall We Do with the Negro”: Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2009. Compare the Amazon sales figures of that thoughtful, nuanced study with Thomas DiLorenzo’s Lincoln polemics. I’m not meaning to beat up on Escott; I ran an excerpt from his book, and dozens of other books could have served as examples. It is very worrisome to me, however, that the popular audience isn’t getting enough of the academy’s research.

KN: That’s why the sesquicentennial provides such a marvelous opportunity. Better still, we already have the blueprints. One of the great strengths of Robert Cook’s work is his delineation of how two groups initially wrestled for control of the centennial. The politicians and businessmen who first controlled the national centennial commission envisioned a flag-waving national pageant that would celebrate the war, reconciliation, and nationalism. Concerned about their developing commercial and politicized tone, historians such as Bell Wiley and T. Harry Williams called for a more sober Centennial that would depict the harsh reality of the war through good books and articles, public lectures, the archival collection and preservation of period documents, and the creation of useful bibliographies. Allan Nevins and James I. Robertson followed that plan as best they could after the centennial pageant floundered in Charleston on the shoals of segregation, and it provides a useful model for us now. Fifty years later, we need to continue producing good scholarship, and we need to share it. We should respond favorably to the requests from the Round Tables and local historical societies, taking our findings to wider audiences. Academic historians should encourage and support activities such as those planned at the Auburn University Libraries, whose sesquicentennial observances will not only include public lectures, but a day of sesquicentennial digitization for anyone who wants to bring in family documents from the period. Finally, if I am right about the sesquicentennial being at least in part an Internet event, it is time to bite our lips and at least occasionally take to our keyboards. If new media can radically advance the old hopes of Wiley and Williams through the digitization and wider dissemination of privately held documents, postings on a blog likewise will also immediately reach a wider public. That does not mean that we should all become bloggers, heaven forbid, but at the right moments, our comments can make a real difference midst the cacophony of competing claims and spurious research. To paraphrase Kevin Levin, we shouldn’t surrender the Internet to partisans whose idea of research is cutting and pasting ad infinitum from each other’s wrongheaded screeds.

RC: While professional historians may have been deprived of the chance to serve on a federal sesquicentennial commission, they still have every reason to play an active role in the forthcoming commemoration. One thing they can do is contest the official mantra of inclusiveness when that apparently worthy mantra runs counter to what might be called, perhaps quaintly in these postmodern times, the facts of history. Inclusiveness is not necessarily an aid to historical understanding. Neo-Confederates, for example, adhere to the Lost Cause interpretation of the coming of the Civil War. They assert that secessionists abandoned the Union not to protect slavery but to defend white southerners’ constitutional rights. Even a cursory glance at the historical record will demonstrate that the states of the Deep South seceded primarily to preserve their capacity to maintain racial slavery. Professional scholars possess both a responsibility to publicly challenge apologists for the Confederacy and the textual evidence to make their case stick.

RC: Historians also should highlight the human cost of the Civil War. In the process, they can interrogate the dominant nationalist interpretation of the Civil War as an epic combat drama, which ended happily for the United States with the reunification of the country and the liberation of 4 million enslaved African Americans. This interpretation might contribute something to national well-being, but making people feel good about themselves is a job for politicians, not historians. Like all wars, the Civil War was a brutal and disgusting event. As veteran-turned-author Ambrose Bierce well knew, death, disease, and disfigurement featured prominently alongside reunion and emancipation as its primary results. For this reason alone, any attempts by national elites to use the sesquicentennial as a means of promoting support for present-day military adventurism should be vigorously critiqued.

JW: This is a wonderful teaching moment for us, and I hope we take full advantage of it. Clearly, we have a chance now to educate the public that slavery was the cause of the war and explain why professional historians are almost unanimous in this conclusion. We can work to counter other misinformation, too, including the fable that many blacks fought for the Confederate cause.

DS: This Lost Cause mythology that slavery had nothing to do with the cause of the war is another example of the separation between the popular and academic worlds of Civil War history. How many academic historians believe that this is true? Popularly, however, it still reigns in many quarters. I regularly get letters from readers telling me so. The 150th is giving academics a golden opportunity to speak to a large audience. It is pleasing to see that many professional historians are, indeed, seizing the opportunity to do so.

JW: This is not just a moment for pushing back against the Lost Cause mythology, though. We have audiences hungry for all kinds of information about the Civil War. What strikes me is what a magnificent opportunity this is for us to share the insights we have gained over the past half-century. I differ a bit from Ken in that I think we’ve moved well beyond the guns and bugles, which have an enthusiastic but rather limited audience. We can use this moment to talk about the northern and southern home fronts, areas that are still ripe for scholarly exploration. Thanks to Drew Gilpin Faust, we can tell riveting stories about how so much death affected communities and the nations alike. Political histories have taken a different turn, too, examining not just events in the congresses and white houses, but also how they played out on a more local level. Here I’m thinking of work such as Phil Paludan’s A People’s Contest. And even in the case of military events that we think we know so well, works such as Margaret Creighton’s Colors of Courage (about Gettysburg) offer a completely new view. Similarly, the past fifty years have given historians more time to contemplate the leading figures of the war. Robert E. Lee, for instance, has begun to come off his pedestal, with works such as Lee Considered that challenge the hagiographic tone of earlier biographies. While upsetting to Lee supporters, this approach has pushed us to take a more nuanced view of the Marble Man of Virginia. On the other hand, time has been more kind to James Longstreet as historians have warmed to his views about the value of fighting from a defensive position. We also have a much better sense of rank-and-file soldiers from both sides, their experiences and their motivations. We can take all of what we have learned, either in our own research or by reading the monographs of others, and share it in the many talks we will be asked to give in the coming years.

DS: For those about to embark on such tasks, here are a couple of tips. First and foremost, if you are going to discuss something that is social history, don’t call it that. I’ve found that when audiences hear that term, they tend to tune out the lecture. I frequently engage in literary legerdemain. If I set up a story as social history, I got little or no feedback on it. But, if I simply let it run, readers were engaged by it and wrote in about it. The same tactic works for spoken presentations. Oh yes, another tip: Get ready for lots of fried chicken and pasta salad, which seems to be the staple ration of many Civil War organizations.

JW: Here in Kansas and Missouri, it’s barbecue.

RC: Historians’ main objective should be to continue doing what they do best: researching and writing about the Civil War (perhaps with a stress on probing narratives to slake the public’s thirst for stories) and disseminating their findings as widely as possible. Only by doing this are ordinary Americans likely to gain a clearer sense of the sheer complexity of this sprawling conflict. They need to know, among other things, that slavery was the root cause of the war; that the white South was deeply divided over secession; that Confederate soldiers had a stake in defending slavery even if they did not own slaves; that most northerners did not go to war to liberate blacks but that the strength of Confederate resistance soon rendered emancipation central to Union grand strategy; that African Americans played an active role in their own emancipation but continued to live under heavy constraints; that Confederate defeat was a product of many factors, including internal dissent as well as Union military strength; that the battlefield and home front were closely intertwined; that southern whites fought vigorously, sometimes violently, to defend white supremacy after Appomattox; and that the majority of their northern peers were complicit in the failure of Reconstruction to make the former slaves truly free. Each of these points has profound relevance today, and each merits the widest possible dissemination.

DS: I don’t like to conclude my answer on a negative note, but I am disappointed so far in the Society of Civil War Historians’ apparent lack of involvement in the commemoration. I am a member of that organization and wish that its leadership would be more aggressive in establishing the organization as a contact point for speakers and advisors to 150th events. Who knows, perhaps the SoCWH could even help fill the void left by the lack of a national commission. So far, however, I have not seen much effort from that quarter.


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