Reflections on the Future of Civil War History, Part 1

Here are my other posts on the conference: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5

I have arrived back in Indianapolis in a great mood and still reflecting on how much fun I had this weekend. The Gettysburg Conference was by far the best conference I’ve been to so far in my young career and it was a blast meeting so many great people from all parts of the world. There was a lot to digest from the conference, so I plan to spread my thoughts over the next few days in an ongoing series of posts. Here are some initial post-conference thoughts.

In his article “‘A Cosmic Threat: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the Civil War,” former NPS Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithley described the centennial activities of the Civil War (1960-1965) as a “celebration” of the war. These celebrations “focused on the themes of reconciliation and honor and bravery and a common remembering of a shared national experience.” Both sides were right, both sides fought with honor, let’s celebrate our past and let bygones be bygones, in sum. It could be argued that the general tone and purpose of the centennial activities was directly related to the social context and political problems of the 1960s. The United States was in the throes of the Cold War and wanting to present itself as a united front against the forces of communism, and the history of the Civil War presented itself as a case study to show off America’s progress as a nation, one that had continually represented itself as the world’s bastion of freedom, even when internal dissension threatened to destroy the whole experiement. However, in the quest to promote a nationalistic and reconciliationist interpretation of the war, the organizers of the Civil War centennial caved into the demands of “Southern leaders” who wanted no mention of the causes or consequences of the Civil War and no discussion on the big s word, slavery. Robert Cook even goes so far as to suggest that the centennial was used to promote and maintain racial segregation in the South, even as the Civil Rights movement began to gain steam throughout the country.

Well, this conference–along with the entire sesquicentennial so far– took on a much different feel. No, this was not your Grandfather’s Civil War commemoration. From my limited readings on the centennial, I get the impression that few questions were ever asked about the social, cultural, political, physiological, and mental challenges presented by the war. Actually, few questions were probably asked, period. This conference attempted to ask some really tough questions about the war and how best to interpret it looking forward. Rather than “celebrating” the war, the conference was very contemplative and skeptical in tone. In the age of 9/11, the War on Terrorism, deadly drone attacks, and the increased awareness of PTSD as a silent killer of our veterans, our questions about the Civil War have been transformed to reflect a darker, more somber interpretation of its legacy. Our country is overly militaristic and sick from all the violence in and out of the country, in my opinion, and I think this general concern for our violent ways has forced us to take more seriously the violence and suffering of the Civil War. Peter Carmichael, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg college, suggested that historians challenge their audiences and the broader public to question their own complicity in romanticizing the Civil War, desensitizing its violence, and depoliticizing war in general. I’m not sure how that gets done, but I agree wholeheartedly with this effort.

Questions about the social context of the Civil War–slavery, emancipation, democracy, federalism, nationalism, etc.–were discussed and should continue to be discussed in the future, but it is clear that the conference organizers intended to explore the cultural dynamics of Civil War America. When looking at a soldier’s letters, historians have typically used them to create interpretations about the aforementioned topics to explain social causation. However, they have often missed increasingly important questions about the Civil War that dominate the thoughts about our veterans today: How did the individual Civil War soldier function in war? How did his perceptions (sights, smells, sounds) shape his experiences in battle and his discussions with fellow soldiers and loved ones on the home front? After the war, how did the veteran cope with the trauma and suffering of war? What sort of realities and memories did veterans construct for themselves in the Reconstruction, Gilded Age, and Progressive Eras? What sort of role did the concept of violence play in all of this? These questions, in my opinion, were primordial at the conference.

I also agree that the cultural turn should challenge us to create new interpretations of the war, but I think there are important social questions that require further research and discussion as well. Kevin Levin and Bob Sutton pointed out to me that when looking at the theme of the sesquicentennial–“from Civil War to Civil Rights”–tensions emerge when looking at the role of American Indians, who fought in large numbers (on both sides) and did not experience the period from 1860-1960 as one of “Civil War to Civil Rights.” Looking forward, I would like to see a more concerted effort to include the stories of American Indians and other ethnic groups who had a large number of immigrants arrive to the U.S. before and during the war (Irish, German, etc.). Regarding the latter, I like what Pat Young is doing to highlight “the Immigrants’ Civil War” and would like to see more projects similar to it. During the panel on Civil War education in the classroom (the one in which I was a panelist) a teacher from California remarked that he struggled to get his students, which are largely Hispanic, interested in the history of the Civil War. Tying the current debates regarding immigration to the challenges faced by immigrants in the Civil War could help. During the Civil War, many of these immigrants were plucked right off the boat by a Union military recruiter, offered a monthly salary, given a uniform, and thrown right in the line of fire. This begs many questions regarding citizenship, allegiance(s), and civic obligations to the state that are worth asking any student, regardless of ethnicity or color. I’m interested in seeing what we can do to enhance our interpretations of these topics.

Our current job market has not given many graduate students like myself much hope for our future career prospects. I cannot determine where I’ll be next year or what the future will look like, but I very much hope that I am given an opportunity to do my little part to contribute the future of Civil War history, if not the future of the entire field. Just three short years ago I was a slightly befuddled history undergrad going nowhere fast when I was given an internship at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis. I dug into books about the war, got to meet other park service employees passionate about history, immersed myself in Civil War-related blogs, and learned from thousands of visitors who took a tour with me during my roughly one and a half years at the site. Since then, the entire scope of American 19th Century history has fascinated me and I hope to make a living talking about it.

I left Gettysburg with a tinge of sadness. I wish the whole thing would have gone on longer. This was my first time at Gettysburg, and I think I got a little closer to understanding why this place has such a pull on people. The city is most noted for hosting the deadliest battle of the Civil War and perhaps representing strong feelings of suffering for the entire nation, but this past weekend the city was a host for learning, collaboration, friendship, community, excitement, fun, passion, and humanity-feelings that I think most people experience when visiting Gettysburg today. Hopefully someday I can come back to discuss the future of Civil War history again.