Yours Truly, Coming to an Academic Conference Near You (Possibly)

The famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, composed of African American Soldiers commanded by Robert Gould Shaw.
The famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, composed of African American Soldiers commanded by Robert Gould Shaw.

On Saturday, 2 March, I will be presenting a paper at the Indiana Association of Historians 33rd Annual Meeting at the University of Indianapolis. You can look at the conference program here. Readers will notice that I am on the very last panel for the entire day, which should be interesting.

The particular paper I’m presenting at this conference is entitled “An Army of Liberation: The U.S. Military as an Agent of Social Reform in American History.I began writing it this past summer, right before I began my endeavor into graduate studies. Some studying of the papers of Ulysses S. Grant and several secondary source readings into the relationship between the U.S. military and the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War got me interested in seeing how this relationship developed and, by extension, now has me on this intellectual kick to learn more about the history of civil-military relations in the United States (hence my thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana).

Without ever being a member of the U.S. military myself, I am going to state that I believe many soldiers have experiences in the military that challenge them to think about social topics such as race, gender, and (today) sexuality. I think there is a dearth of scholarship that exists on these interesting relationships, and this paper reflects a personal effort on my part to find a connection between military service and the changing views on race from many soldiers throughout American history. I argue that nationalist sentiments (love of country, in sum) challenged soldiers to face this topic head-on whenever personal views (i.e. an indifference to slavery during the Civil War) bumped up against the realities of a national crisis (i.e. the Union Army’s need to arm black soldiers in 1863 after struggling to defeat the Confederates in the Eastern Theater of war in 1862).

Here is my paper abstract:

Since its victory over the British in the Revolutionary War, the U.S. military has represented itself as a strong and efficient patriotic force dedicated to law and order, duty, and sacrifice. Countless historical monographs have dedicated thousands of pages towards analyzing these character traits and how they relate to battle strategy and the nature of America’s foreign policy initiatives. Likewise, studies on the consequences of war for citizens who remained on the “home front” are frequently published. However, there remains a deficiency of works attempting to understand the U.S. military and its impact on social policy within its own borders. This study analyzes three episodes in U.S. history–the abolition of slavery during and after the Civil War, the desegregation of the military in 1948, and the attempt to desegregate Little Rock High School in 1957–to demonstrate the unique and somewhat controversial role the U.S. military has played in shaping the constructs of domestic social policy. It argues that U.S. soldiers frequently disagreed over the proper role of the military in social affairs and that some rejected “radical” measures that could change the status quo, such as ending slavery during the Civil War or segregation throughout the twentieth century. In each episode, however, the military unintentionally helped change the very nature of civil rights in America. Looming threats to the military’s strength and efficiency, the preservation of law and order, and the perpetuity of the nation itself required that the military protect and aid African-Americans, who were eventually seen by many soldiers as allies in creating a stronger military, maintaining law and order, and promoting American nationalism. The subsequent results of the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement demonstrate that the obtaining of freedom in America frequently involves some of the most unlikely figures and institutions within its society. This paper is a compilation of original research and scholarly synthesis, and was largely influenced by Gary Gallagher’s recent publication, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

I look forward to meeting many talented graduate students and professional historians throughout the State of Indiana and will attempt to live tweet the event once again. We’ll see how that goes!


Social Networking and Talking Past One Another

Picture courtesy of Anne Helmond
Picture courtesy of Anne Helmond

I’ve been blogging for two months now and have been quite surprised by how much I’m enjoying it. Blogging can certainly be a time-consuming endeavor, but one’s priorities change over time. I find myself keeping the television off about 99% of the day now. I also used to be a pretty passionate gamer, especially when I had roommates who helped fuel that passion during my undergraduate days. One roommate in particular, a very good friend of mine, had an Xbox with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a Nintendo Entertainment System with Dr. Mario, and a Super Nintendo with NBA Jam. Good Lord. All of these activities are fun, but I definitely take them in small dosages nowadays.

The WordPress statistics are telling me that in these short two months I’ve had almost 1,000 views from people in more than 15 countries. I’m skeptical as to whether or not these numbers are accurate one way or the other, but I’m pleased with these modest accomplishments. With the way history is treated (or ignored) in the United States by many, many people, I view my little site as providing 1,000 opportunities to perhaps start a conversation or at least plant some ideas into one’s mind about the state of history today and ways we can understand and improve it looking forward.

One of the challenges I have come across since starting my own blog is making time to read other blogs. I have been reading history blogs for almost three years now, and I got into a routine of reading my favorites on a daily basis. When I was a teaching assistant last year I frequently read other sites during my down time to learn more about 19th Century history from some of the top historians in the business. It would be safe to say that I have probably learned just as much about all facets of history from blogs as I have from books.

Now that I am embarking on my own project, finding the time to read blogs for fun is getting tougher. At the same time, since joining Twitter I have had the chance to learn about and share articles with others that I find interesting, but I find myself sometimes glancing over these articles rather than reading them all the way through.

In the rush of trying to share articles with my cohorts and write content for Exploring the Past, I feel that my reading has gone down quite a bit, and I can’t help but wonder if others have had the same experience. My fear is that the digital age has led to many of us talking past each other rather than talking to each other. We are sharing information without reading it, communicating about it, or fully understanding it. Furthermore, there is now so much information to digest that many of us end up taking little bites of various articles that could be really helpful rather than eating the whole entree. Does that sort of reading really help us grow stronger mentally, or could it make us stupider, as Nicholas Carr has suggested? A sizable group of people are now “following” my blog (which I greatly appreciate), but I wonder how many did so because they actually liked my content, and how many did so without reading, just to get my attention and get me to read their blogs.

To be sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this. People blog and use social networking sites for many, many individual reasons, and I have no room to judge the intentions of others. Some work very hard to build up a following, some do it purely for their own personal gratification. To each their own. For me, I view the use of social networking sites (including blogs) as a way to quite literally create a web of meanings that help to at least partially define one’s personal identity, digitally and in real life. For me, I intend Exploring the Past and my other social networking endeavors to represent a part of who I am as a person, but I also hope to use it to meet other people whose perspectives are worth hearing. The digital landscape has given us unprecedented amounts of information and opportunities for connecting with others, but it challenges us to modify our reading habits to process as much information as possible. In modifying my reading habits, I hope that I am still able to read content in a way that allows me to understand it to the best of my mental capabilities and puts me in contact with others who want to engage in a reciprocal relationship of information sharing.


The Indiana GAR Opposed “Birth of a Nation”

Birth of a Nation Theatrical PosterLast month, on a beautiful 63 degree day, I (perhaps foolishly) decided to go to the Indiana State Library to learn more about the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana. I found some pretty neat and noteworthy information that I hope to research further and possibly incorporate into my thesis.

In future posts I will expand further on the who, what, where, why, and how of the Grand Army of the Republic, but for now I’ll explain that each year from 1866-1949 (with the exception of 1867) the Union Civil War veterans that composed the GAR met in a National “Encampment” in which they held lavish parades, listened to speeches, remembered the sacrifices of Union veterans who had died in battle, and had “campfires” where the “Boys” had a chance to fraternize with each other and relive the experiences of war. The same “Encampment” style gathering also took place on the state level. Indiana was one of the first states in 1866 to have a functioning department of the GAR, but they fell into disrepair by 1875 and didn’t begin to have regular state meetings until 1879.

Fast forward to 1915. New technology in the form of motion picture film is beginning to gain popularity throughout the United States. A film demonstrating new camera techniques–including panoramic shots and night photography–and a captivating narrative about redemption in the wake of tragedy entitled Birth of a Nation is released and sweeps the nation to become one of the most popular, yet controversial films in cinematic history. For those not acquainted with the film, we turn to David Blight, who describes it on page 395 of his book Race and Reunion:

With its stunning battle scenes and suspenseful chases, Birth of a Nation made cinematic history… The lasting significance of this epic film is that by using powerful imagery, buttressed by enormous advertising and political endorsement, it etched a story of Reconstruction that has lasted long in America’s historical consciousness. The [Civil] war was noble on both sides, the film says, but Reconstruction in the South was directed by deranged radicals and sex-crazed blacks, especially those mulattos given unwarranted political power. The very lifeblood of civilization, of familial survival, was at stake for the exploited South; hence, white Southern men had to take law and history into their own hands. The South not only wins in the end in Birth of a Nation; it also transforms emancipation… into a reign of racial terror and the necessity of… the hooded riders of the Ku Klux Klan. When Gus, a renegade black soldier who has symbolically raped and murdered a white girl, is thrown upon the ground by Klansmen who have castrated and murdered him, the “nation” achieves a rebirth quite unlike the one [Abraham] Lincoln and [Frederick] Douglass had in mind in 1863.”

Blight goes on to point out that most African Americans vehemently opposed the film’s showing, with local NCAAP chapters throughout the country distributing pamphlets and actively protesting to get Birth of a Nation banned in movie theaters. Blight concludes with this statement on page 397, which leaves us with the impression that few others cared, including the Union veterans who played their own role in helping to end slavery sixty years earlier:

And so it was that in 1913-1915 Civil War memory was both settled and unsettled; it rested in a core master narrative that led inexorably to reunion of the sections while whites and blacks divided and struggled mightily even to know one another across separate societies and an anguished history. Reconciliation joined arms with white supremacy in Civil War memory at the semicentennial [of the Civil War] in an unsteady triumph.

To be sure, this period in American history was what James Loewen has described as “a nadir of race relations” in the United States. Over the next 35 years Birth of a Nation would make $50 million, with many whites North and South praising the film for its exciting visuals and historical accuracy. Yet Blight’s conclusion is problematic. He oversimplifies the nature of Civil War memory(ies) by suggesting that reconciliation with former Confederates necessitated the acceptance of white supremacist views and by concluding that Civil War memory(ies) were even settled at that point. They were not. Furthermore, one gets the impression from Blight that all whites accepted Birth of a Nation as the definitive film for depicting the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, when in reality that was far from the truth, especially from many Union Civil War veterans. As Barbara Gannon has pointed out, the GAR was an integrated institution in a period where segregation was the norm, and some veterans spoke out for better treatment for African Americans. They rejected the “Lost Cause” and all that entailed.

In 1916, at the annual State Encampment for the Department of Indiana GAR, comrade Milton Garrigus had this to say about Birth of a Nation and what Union veterans could do to counter it:

An exhibition of a play entitled “The Birth of a Nation,” written by a prejudiced Southerner, is traveling about the country teaching false history and excusing and justifying the horrid acts of the “Ku-Klux” and anarchistic night-riders in the South during the period of reconstruction. It poisons the minds of the people, especially the children. It was prohibited in Ohio and Kansas, but was tolerated in Indiana.

All who want to know the truth about the Ku-Klux Klan should read an interesting book entitled “A Fool’s Errand,” “by one of the fools,” which was written by a Union soldier who resided in the South when all that cussedness was carried on. It tells the whole truth and would tend to counteract the false teachings in the play alluded to.

The Committee on Reports for the Indiana GAR accepted Garrigus’s statements, so we know that at least a majority of the Indiana GAR, if not the entire department, agreed with him.

I don’t see anything about reconciliation with the South or giving into any white supremacist views here. In fact, we see a reaction against state leadership in Indiana for allowing the movie to be shown, a claim that it would “poison” the minds of children, and a book recommendation that would help readers get to the “truth.” Historians of Civil War memory(ies) have profited greatly from the work of David Blight, but it’s safe to say that we’ve still got a lot more to learn.

Check out the full post at the IUPUI Digital History Blog!

Digital Public History

Researchers interested in British law have greatly benefitted from the digitization of the Old Bailey Proceedings, 1674-1913. This collection of court cases from London’s central court is one of the strongest digital repositories in existence and holds the potential to advance the user’s experience in many ways, whether helping them to ask new questions about the history of British law, conduct genealogical research, or–thanks to Old Bailey’s open access to its encoding practices–help educate a person looking to create web code for their own website. With a collection of 197,000 trials composed of roughly 120-127 million words, the Old Bailey Proceedings are one of several new digital projects that have attempted to make the process of conducting textual and quantitative analysis easier for all types of researchers.[1] In this essay, I will attempt to address some of the advantages and disadvantages of conducting textual and quantitative analysis online.

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We Destroy a Part of Our History Every Day

I spent the majority of today conducting research at the Indiana State Archives for my thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic. It did not go as well as planned. I was particularly interested in studying the letter books of the Department of Indiana’s Assistant Adjutant General, of which there are 25 volumes from 1895-1918 at the archives. The Assistant Adjutant General was the right hand man of the Department Commander, the person in charge of the entire state GAR. He was sort of like a press secretary for a top executive today. I went through the collection from 1895-1900, and let me tell you, these puppies are thick. Each volume was between 900-1000 pages and covered the AAG’s correspondence over a 6-9 month period, roughly. The AAG at this time, R.M. Smock, was most definitely a man of letters and very passionate about his job.

I was hoping to use this collection to gain a better insight into the views and ideas of the GAR as a whole. I wanted it to be passionate and personal. However, most of the letters are purely bureaucratic in nature: writing local posts reminding them of bills due to department headquarters, helping to organize new posts into the order, making preparations for the state and national encampments, answering questions about the proper rituals of the GAR, etc. Several people wrote to the AAG looking for friends and loved ones who may have been in the organization. A lady named Ida C. Patterson from Honolulu, Hawaii, mailed the AAG asking him to look for one William Eaton, who was supposedly living in Indianapolis in 1898. The AAG responded on March 18 by stating, “I do not know where such a party lives. I have examined the roster of the Indiana soldiers at the Buffalo [National] Encampment and do not find his name in the list.” If I were writing a thesis on the GAR’s organizational structure or the migration of GAR veterans (and their loved ones) to the West, such a letter might elicit a stronger interest from me, but I’m pretty sure 95 percent of the AAG’s letters will be of little use to me, which means that I will unfortunately need to continue going through the letters up until 1918 for that 5 percent that could benefit the project.

Another disappointing realization made today was that some of the AAG’s letters–regardless of their content–have been permanently destroyed. The typeset ink used for these letter books has faded so badly that they are now unreadable to us today, leaving us in a sense of bewilderment as to what these letters may have contained. None of this material has been digitized, just like most of the archival material in repositories around the world. Even a prominent institution like the Smithsonian is fighting just get 10 percent of their collections online. Clearly, historians are in a race against time to preserve the documents in their archival institutions.

See if you can read this AAG letter from 1895 (click to expand):

GAR AAG Letter - Illegible

Thankfully, most of the AAG letters I’ve seen so far look more like this one (a letter not from the AAG but from Dept. Cmdr. James S. Dodge to A.S. McCormick, Commander for John A. Logan Post 3 in Lafayette, Indiana) and reads as follows:

Replying to your esteemed favor of the 25th inst. in reference to the propriety of allowing the pictures of Generals Lee and Longstreet in the Grand Army Post hall, permit me to congratulate you on the stand you have taken in this matter, and you should not, no difference what pressure may be brought to bear on you, waver in the least in carrying out your good resolutions. I can readily understand why a camp of confederate veterans might order the pictures of Lincoln, Grant, Thomas, Sherman, Logan and other heroes of the Union war hang in their meeting place, but it is beyond my comprehension how any person who loves his country and the Union for which he fought can want to hang the picture of a rebel General in such a place.

GAR AAG Letter - legible

This was my favorite letter of the day and I think it has real potential to be included somewhere in the thesis. I’ll comment on it further in another post, but for now I want to focus on the first, illegible letter. Such letters are being lost to historians on a daily basis. The ravages of time are wiping out these documents, but there are also institutional challenges to be considered. Many archival repositories are struggling financially yet receiving large collections from donors. As time, money, and space decrease in quantity, archivists are forced to destroy many objects no longer deemed important. In his article “The Archive(s) is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape,” published in the The Canadian Historical Review in September 2009, Archivist Terry Cook has suggested that only “1 to 5 per cent of the total available documentation of major institutions is preserved.” When I first read that, it shocked me. That means 95-99% of archival documents are destroyed by major archival institutions. Wow. It is actually a surprise that these AAG letters still exist today.

My experience today reminded me of Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1987 essay, “The Historian is Both Discoverer and Creator.” Boorstin reminds us of a harsh truth in history-making. “Historians,” remarks Boorstin, “can rediscover the past only by the relics it has left for the present… My life as a historian has brought me vivid reminders of how partial is the remaining evidence of the whole human past, how casual and how accidental is the survival of its relics.”

Yet Boorstin ends on a high note: “The historian-creator refuses to be defeated by the biases of survival. For he chooses, defines and shapes his subject to provide a reasonably truthful account from miscellaneous remains.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. If I can use these documents to tell a reasonably truthful story about the GAR in Indiana, I will be satisfied. It won’t be definitive or beyond criticism, but it will hopefully start a conversation about an important organization in the history of Indiana and the entire United States.

To be continued…

What Does it Mean to Have “Museumness?”

For my Digital History class last week I was assigned a reading by Angeliki Antoniou, George Lepouras, and Costas Vassilakis entitled “A methodology for the design of online exhibitions.” Generally speaking, the authors have a lot of good ideas for museum exhibit designers, and the article is solid. They correctly point out that when creating a museum exhibit–whether physical or virtual–designers must take into account the audience they want to cater their content to. Within the minds of a museum audience lies a collection of competing desires for learning, entertainment, and socialization from exhibits. These needs drive an audience’s purpose for attending a museum in the first place, and I get the impression from this article that the implementation of digital technology into a museum’s exhibits has brought a sharper focus to the question of how a museum meets the needs of its audience. Whereas museums of the late 19th and early 20th century could often put a large collection of artifacts on display along with a descriptive label to fulfill the museum “experience” (making personal discoveries about the past), modern museum exhibit designers understand that their audiences often seek connections to artifacts through digital technology. Audiences have expectations about what they want to learn and how they want to see information, and finding that correct balance between tangible and virtual must always be on the designer’s mind. Furthermore, designers understand that digital technology has the potential to enhance or harm the quality of their exhibits, depending on how that technology is used.

The authors also attempt to create specific exhibit design methodologies for different types of museums (Zoos, Archaeological, Art, Science, History, etc.). They correctly argue that visitors’ perceptions and expectations of a museum are largely dependent on the type of museum they visit, and that these perceptions will determine whether learning, entertainment, or socialization will be the primary focus of a museum’s physical and digital exhibits. In order to differentiate these museum types, the authors utilize the term museumness in their discussion:

The term museumness is introduced in order to describe visitors’ perceptions on a certain physical or virtual space and whether this space forms a typical museum or not. Museumness does not form a yes or no category; rather it suggests a continuum that different museum types can have higher or lower scores. For example, visitors might consider both an archaeological museum and an art gallery as museums, but of different degree of museumness, since the former collects all the stereotypical characteristics that form the notions of museums and the latter contains fewer of those characteristics.

And now I’m lost.

I understand that there are different types of museums that exist, but what’s the point of giving them higher or lower “scores?” It appears to me that the authors are being contradictory in suggesting that a “typical museum with stereotypical characteristics” even exists while arguing that there are many different types of museums. It is also rather presumptuous to suggest that museums are some sort of static entity that never changes over time. When we speak of “typical museums” and “stereotypical characteristics,” what time period are we referring to? What was the “typical museum” to an average visitor in the 20th Century and what does it mean to us today? What are the “stereotypical characteristics” of a museum, especially when acknowledging the wide diversity of museums that exist? What are the “stereotypes” that visitors hold about museums, and how accurate are those stereotypes in actuality? How can an archaeological museum have a higher degree of “museumness” than an art museum, and why is such a distinction necessary? How can such a point be qualified, quantified, or verified? If, say, a zoo’s primary mission is to entertain, rather than educate, does that somehow make it less of a museum than an art museum? Haven’t museums always sought to entertain their audiences to some degree? Does entertainment somehow cheapen the museum experience?

I could go on, but I digress. In sum, we’ve been given a new term without having it properly defined and explained to us. I have no idea what these people are trying to argue or why I should add the word “museumness” to my lexicon. Again, I understand that different museums have different audiences and different needs that should be filled by the exhibits created by a specific museum, but I don’t know how ranking these museums based on a high or low “museumness” scoresheet helps me accomplish that goal. This article helps us think of ways in which we can create more effective museum exhibits physically and online, but the authors do a poor job of defining the key terms used in their argument, which compromises the overall quality of their essay, in my estimation. If you’re going to use new, revisionist terms in your argument, you must make every effort to define, explain, and clarify to your audience what exactly you’re trying to say.

Perhaps I am missing something here. Any feedback is appreciated.


A Few Thoughts on the Ohio University Conference

I got back late last night from the Ohio University Graduate Student Conference in good spirits. I had an eventful ride home that included severe snow flurries that diminished visibility to almost zero at various points on the trip and a GPS map that took me to a dead-end road in the middle-of-nowhere, Ohio. After getting back on the correct road, the GPS continued to tell me to go to the dead end street. The whole thing was unnecessarily eventful. That said, I think the conference was a success from a networking/thesis-advancing standpoint and I enjoyed meeting a handful of new friends and graduate students. Dr. Brian Schoen, the chair of my panel, was extremely courteous and offered some good suggestions for primary and secondary sources to look at going forward with the thesis. Plus, he’s a Cardinals baseball fan, which is awesome.

There were a few things that stood out about the experience that are worth mentioning:

1. Live Tweeting: For those not involved with the world of Twitter, Live Tweeting refers to the act of posting tweets with updates and information about a specific event as it happens in real time. For instance, just about every professional sports team live tweets updates on what is happening during their game. This idea has now transported into the world of academic conferences. In fact, it has gotten to be popular enough for some to call for a guideline of ethics for conference tweeting. The main idea behind live tweeting a conference is to post updates about what is happening: who is speaking, what are they arguing, what are some good points being made, and what are some questions you may ask the presenter? Ideally, a large number of conference attendees will all be live tweeting at the same time, broadening the reach of the conference to an online audience that may not have been able to attend.

I decided that I would live tweet the conference, but I felt like I was in an awkward position. Many of the people I spoke to at the conference did not have twitter accounts. As far as I knew, there was no hashtag under which I’d be able to tweet about the conference, so I made up my own. I tried to post updates on interesting things I observed, but I wasn’t sure whether I should include the names of the presenters, all of which I had never met before. It was also tough to find the time to actually tweet. Of course I refused to pull out my phone during presentations, but I also struggled to find time to tweet during the breaks, since I wanted to talk to others at the conference about the presentations. In sum, the utilitarianism of live tweeting at conferences is something I’m still exploring. It may be useful, it may be pointless. I’m not sure at this point.

2. Papers: There were a wide range of papers presented at the conference. There were two in particular that stuck out to me. One talked about cold-war communications between the United States and communist countries, especially the “Project Democracy” initiative. The presenter argued that starting in the 1960s the United States began to promote the virtues of democracy through “public relations” rather than the outright propaganda that dominated the rhetoric of the McCarthyist 1950s. It was an ambitious paper, and I’m still not sure what the difference is between the two, but I think it’s a topic worth exploring further. Another paper talked about Carl Sagan and his PBS television show Cosmos: A personal voyageThe guy is a little weird, but this paper had me wanting to learn more about him.

3. All Elements of the Past Should be Taken Seriously: The Keynote address was supposed to be made by Carrie Pitzulo, author of Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of PlayboyUnfortunately, a last minute emergency prevented her from attending the conference. However, another professor who had been Dr. Pitzulo’s adviser when she was a student at OU read her presentation, entitled “Reading it for the Articles: Playboy Magazine and American Sexual History,” which is a hilariously awesome title. During her research into the history of Playboy–which included mining the Playboy archives in Chicago–Dr. Pitzulo had a chance to meet Hugh Hefner in person. She remarked that Hefner and his “entourage” had appreciated the fact that Dr. Pitzulo had taken the history of Playboy seriously. That remark really stuck out to me. Whether we look at Playboy, sports, cooking magazines, politics, music, or pantomimes, historians need to take their topics seriously by giving them a proper level of agency (the power of choosing or determining) in shaping their own realities in the past. For the case of Playboy, I suppose it would do us well to try and understand Playboy’s agency in shaping the “sexual imagination” of American culture from the 1950s to today, which is something I think Dr. Pitzulo has attempted to address in her studies. A topic such as Playboy would not have been taken as a form of serious historical inquiry 30 or 40 years ago. Today, due in large part to the New Social History and a renewed interest in the history of organizations and institutions in society, topics like Playboy can be taken seriously, and that is something I can appreciate. Anything to broaden our understanding of the past helps, in my eyes.

Now that the conference is done, it is time to get back to schoolwork. Until next time…

Ohio University, Here I Come

Later today I’ll be heading out to Athens, Ohio, in preparation for the 8th annual History Graduate Student Conference at Ohio University, which will be taking place on Saturday, February 16. I can’t find any program information online, so I’ll share the invitation/call for papers I received several months ago.

This is my second conference in which I am presenting a paper, but this one will be unique for me because I don’t know a soul at Ohio University. I applied because I felt that this would be friendly environment for me to share some of my thesis ideas regarding the Grand Army of the Republic. I hope to use this opportunity to network with other graduate students and faculty in the field and receive constructive criticism on my paper.

The title of my paper is “In Justice and Not in Charity”: The Grand Army of the Republic and the First National Encampment of 1866. The impetus for writing this paper, initially, was to advance my thesis and get some of my ideas on paper. In my estimation, many historians who have written about Civil War memory(ies) have skimmed over the reasoning behind the creation of the GAR. I believe that these historians have viewed the GAR’s creation in the aftermath of the Civil War as a sort of self-evident fact, something that was bound to happen given the nasty circumstances of the Civil War. Thus, its origins are not worth probing too far. David Blight covers the GAR’s creation in one page. Mary Dearing wrote a very comprehensive history of the GAR almost sixty years ago that explored its origins a bit further, but her book is one of the most effective sleeping medications I’ve ever taken in my life. Barbara Gannon had this to say about the GAR’s beginnings, pages 20-21:

One year after Richmond fell, a handful of battered survivors of the Union army formed the first GAR post in Illinois… the life of the organization had two distinct phases. During phase one, the first decade of its existence, the GAR flourished, but accusations of partisanship and the institution of an unpopular new ritual that re-created military ranks and hierarchies led to the GAR’s decline. Mary R. Dearing, in the first modern study of the GAR, characterized the GAR and its local posts as “efficient cogs in the Republican [political] machine.” Membership dropped so precipitously that in some states the GAR disappeared [including Indiana, I’ll add]; by 1876, the organization had about twenty-seven thousand members.

And that’s it. I couldn’t help but wonder why things took the shape they did in 1866. Why did the GAR support the Republican party? Why did Union veterans feel the urge to organize? What was happening socially and politically in 1866 that may have directly influenced the GAR’s creation? We must remember that prior to the Civil War there was no such thing as a “veteran’s organization” for enlisted men. George Washington’s Society of the Cincinnati (which the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, is named after) was strictly restricted to officers in the military. Oliver Morris Wilson, a member of the Indiana GAR who wrote a book about the organization in 1905, made sure to point out that the uniqueness of the GAR lied in the fact that “the only passport to fraternity was an honorable discharge” from the U.S. military. A man’s rank was moot in the GAR, and this shift in the structure of veterans organizations in America represented a profound change regarding the very nature of veteranhood and who was entitled to share their memories of war with fellow veterans in a structured organization and with the broader public. The GAR’s creation in 1866 was not self-evident.

Here is my paper abstract for the Ohio University conference:

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic emerged as the nation’s preeminent Union veterans’ organization, with membership swelling to 400,000 by 1890. The GAR has recently become a topic of great interest to historians and several monographs have been published analyzing its history. However, these studies — while mentioning the GAR and its establishment as a Republican political organization during the Reconstruction era — have focused primarily on the GAR during the Gilded Age, largely failing to explain the significance of its founding on future relations between veterans and society. This study places the GAR’s formation within the political and social context of post-war Reconstruction to explain how a small Illinois veterans’ society formed in early 1866 was able to recruit members from all over the United States and hold a “National Encampment” in Indianapolis, Indiana within a matter of months. It argues that many veterans struggled to assimilate into peacetime society and that they often dealt with homelessness, imprisonment, and alcohol abuse. The GAR was established to provide a support system for soldiers returning home, but it also advocated for financial aid and job preferences from the government. Its members believed they were “owed” these entitlements out of a sense of justice and moral obligation for their wartime sacrifices, but many civilians considered such benefits acts of “misplaced pity.”  Several newspapers around the country also expressed fears of a military organization functioning during times of peace. Despite these concerns, an increasing number of veterans who disagreed with President Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction policies joined the GAR in order to promote veterans’ interests and vote Radical Republicans into office in order to nullify the “treasonous” supporters of Johnson. This paper is part of a thesis project analyzing Indiana Civil War veterans and the GAR.

Ironically enough, my thesis research has now shifted to looking at the GAR from roughly 1890-1920, so I’m not even focusing on what took place in 1866 anymore. I’ll make sure to explain why in the future. Regardless, the GAR’s creation would prove to be an important moment in American’s history, and I’m glad that I have the chance to speak further about it on Saturday.

I’d also like to thank Bob Pollock at Yesterday…and Today for looking at my paper beforehand and providing some much needed criticism and advice that greatly enhanced the quality of the paper.


Read the full essay at the IUPUI Digital History Blog!

Digital Public History

[Museum] specimens must be prepared in the most careful and artistic manner, and arranged attractively in well-designed cases and behind the clearest of glass. Each object must bear a label, giving its name and history so fully that all the probable questions of the visitor are answered in advance… [Museum collections] cultivate the powers of observation, and the casual visitor even makes discoveries for himself, and, under the guidance of the labels, forms his own impression… [objects] are a powerful stimulant to intellectual activity.[1]

The following words come from a posthumously published essay in 1901 on the future of museums by George Brown Goode, director of the collections wing of the Smithsonian in the late nineteenth century.[2] Today we would probably disagree with Goode’s belief that museum labels could answer “all the probable questions” of an audience. We definitely don’t want our audiences to shut up, and…

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New Blog Roll/Recommended Reading

I have created a new page entitled “Blog Roll.” Click on the link at the top of the page to see a collection of blogs that I highly recommend for your reading pleasure. If you ever find yourself in a position of boredom, have a gander at these sites. Most of the people behind them I have never met before, but their perspectives have inspired my love for learning and knowledge, and for that I am eternally thankful. To those I do know, this is a good time to reinforce my gratitude for your friendship and fruitful discussion over the years.

Time to get reading!