Tag Archives: research

A Missouri Slaveholder Predicts the American Civil War

I am currently doing research for a journal article on Missouri politics before the Civil War (more info on that is forthcoming) and came across this remarkable Letter to the Editor in the Daily Missouri Republican, which was actually the most popular Democratic newspaper in St. Louis. It would be really useful as a primary source in a classroom setting. The letter, written by “Slaveholder” and published on August 4, 1860, is a remarkable document for three different reasons:

  1. It demonstrates that the leading issue on the minds of Missourians leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War was the status of slavery, particularly its westward expansion into new federal territories. Just about every day in the newspapers slavery was the main topic of concern in the 1850s and early 1860s.
  2. It captures the concerns of proslavery border state residents who feared the election of Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge as much as Republican Abraham Lincoln.
  3. In many respects it correctly predicts the consequences of the Civil War for Missouri. The state would experience the third most number of battles during the war (behind Virginia and Tennessee) and slavery would be abolished by the state legislature in January 1865, less than five years after this letter was written.

Here is an excerpt of the letter:


In Support of Academic Historical Scholarship That is Clear and Concise

A few months ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of Suhi Choi’s recent book about the Korean War and how it has been remembered in both the United States and (South) Korea. Choi, a communications professor at the University of Utah, employs public history techniques throughout the book to analyze oral histories she conducted with victims of the No Gun Ri massacre, media accounts of the massacre, and various monuments that have been erected in both countries to commemorate the war as a whole. I enjoyed reading the book for its content and arguments, but what I enjoyed the most was its brevity. Clocking in at 115 pages of main text and five chapters, the book was a quick read (with the exception of some jargon-y passages throughout) yet thoroughly researched and intellectually stimulating. The book’s shortness reminded me of the Southern Illinois University Press “Concise Lincoln Library” series that has published numerous short studies on various aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life that are typically between 100 and 150 pages long.

While I acknowledge that different historical topics require studies of varying length and depth (I currently have one book on my nightstand that is more than 800 pages long), I find myself increasingly supportive of the idea that academic histories, generally speaking, should be shorter and more concise than what they typically are now. I am no expert on publishing books with an academic press, but I’ve been told by those who’ve been through the process that they normally don’t accept anything less than 75,000 words, or roughly 250 to 300 pages. That makes sense because most PhD dissertations end up being about that length, but I think there should be some sort of system in place to encourage and publish more scholarship that would be more appropriately covered in a study between 100 and 150 pages.

As a scholar who regularly reads books from academic publishers, I crave the analysis, interpretation, and detailed research that such books offer to their readers. As a reader, however, I am more likely to go back to a short book and read it again in the future, whereas with a longer book I feel less inclined to read it in full or go back to read it a second time. It’s important for me to read as many print books as possible to get a more comprehensive understanding of historical topics that fascinate me, but the presence of thoughtful online essays and history blogs has changed how I read and reduced the amount of time I dedicate to reading full-length print books. I admit that nowadays page length plays an extremely important role in determining what I read next. 150 pages is more often compelling to me than 500 pages.


A Parting Gift From General Grant

Frederick Tracy Dent (1820-1892). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Frederick Tracy Dent (1820-1892). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Yesterday my friend and colleague Bob Pollock and I took a trip to Southern Illinois University Carbondale to conduct research on the papers of Frederick Tracy Dent, the brother-in-law of General and President Ulysses S. Grant. Bob is currently researching the Dent family and has been writing extensively about this research on his blog Yesterday…and Today. We didn’t really find any documents within the collection to help answer our questions about the Dent family, but we nonetheless found some really interesting material, including letters from Grant, William T. Sherman, James Longstreet, and Frederick T. Dent himself. Bob discussed some of our findings here.

Frederick T. Dent was born on December 17, 1820, in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up at the White Haven estate that is now the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. He attended the West Point Military Academy and was a graduate of the class of 1843. During his time at West Point Dent befriended and was roommates with Ulysses S. Grant, a fellow 1843 graduate. When Grant was sent with the 4th U.S. Infantry to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis following graduation, Fred invited him to meet the rest of his family at White Haven. Ulysses met Fred’s sister Julia at White Haven in the Spring of 1844, and it was here where Ulysses and Julia fell in love and began a four-year courtship. Their wedding took place in downtown St. Louis in August 1848 and the marriage lasted thirty-seven years.

Fred had a stellar forty-year career in the U.S. military. He served in the Western frontier and the Mexican-American War during the antebellum years. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 he stayed with the United States military and started the war out west. Following Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant-General in March 1864, Dent was appointed an aide-de-camp on Grant’s staff. Following the war he was promoted to Brigadier General of the U.S. Army in 1866, and he served as a “military secretary” for Grant during most of his Presidency (1869-1873). If you wanted to meet with President Grant, you had to go through Fred first (this fact became evident yesterday as we sifted through numerous letters from people seeking Fred’s assistance in securing an interview with Grant). Fred retired from the U.S. military in 1883 and later moved to Denver, Colorado, where he died in 1892.

In the course of our research we stumbled upon a touching letter written by Frederick Dent Grant to Frederick T. Dent in March 1886. Fred Grant was Ulysses and Julia Grant’s oldest child and Fred Dent’s namesake. Ulysses had died on July 23, 1885, exactly eight months prior to this letter, and Fred Grant had an important message for his uncle:

New York
March 23d 1886

Dear Uncle Fred,

Just before my beloved father died he gave some instructions about what he would like done. Among these wishes was one about you. He said he wanted to send you a little present in memory of old and happy days. That he had grown very fond of you, and that if Mother could spare it he would like her to send you $500[,] which I now enclose to you with her love.

Mother says if you and Aunt Helen can come she would like you to pay her a visit. All join in love for you and yours[.]


Your Nephew
Fred Grant

Ulysses S. Grant never forgot the assistance, kindness, and companionship his brother-in-law provided him throughout a more than forty-year friendship. Through this relationship we can see the generous character of both men.


Does Digital Technology Encourage Data Democratization?

big-dataA recent classroom discussion regarding digital technology–more specifically, who has access to this technology–has been lurking in my head over the past 24 hours. Here’s why.

My interactions with digital technology during my time in high school (2002-2006) were fairly unremarkable for someone who was raised in Midwest Suburban-town, USA. There was no such thing as a SMARTboard and, with regards to my Social Studies classes, we never utilized digital technology in any capacity whatsoever. All tests were done on paper and all educational material came in the form of big, bulky textbooks written circa 1995. Yet my school did have a computer lab (which was greatly utilized by the science teachers, but hardly anyone else, which is telling) and I was encouraged at home to use computers, the internet, and all digital technology to my advantage.

It was interesting hearing some of my classmates share their experiences during high school, which were not the same as mine. One person remarked that they went to a fairly affluent high school that will be completely eliminating paper textbooks and giving all of their students iPads next year. Conversely, another person told us they went to a rural high school that had next to nothing in terms of technology and history textbooks that were written in the 1960s. Considering that we’ve all graduated from high school within the past seven or so years, I would surmise that this digital divide remains a fixture in our educational landscape today.

To be sure, digital technology has provided the impetus for some remarkable efforts to democratize data, by which I mean the ability for all people in society to have access to voluminous collections of data (books, articles, graphs, and perhaps most importantly, information). In their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig point out on page 4 that:

Online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entree before. The analog Library of Congress has never welcomed high school students–its reading rooms, no less its special collections, routinely turn them away. Now the library’s American Memory website allows high school students to enter the virtual archives on the same terms of access as the most most senior historian or member of Congress.

This is great and truly exciting for those of us who have grown tired of solely relying on a bland, passive textbook to guide our lesson plans in the classroom (although I think the textbook itself should still be used, albeit in a different role). Yet I feel that my ongoing discussions with students and teachers around the country suggest that perhaps digital technology is widening the gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The schools that had the money years ago had the nicest classrooms and the newest textbooks. We are now seeing today that the schools with money are the first ones to get SMARTboards, iPads, and easy access to these online resources. Meanwhile, the poor schools continue to rely on old textbooks from the 1960s and are lacking funds to buy digital technology now or in the foreseeable future. Thus, as we increasingly rely on digital technology as an integral part of our lives, those who grow up without access to or education in these technologies end up being thrown into a workforce in which their skills fail to match those desired by employers in all types of fields. Furthermore, it doesn’t help when websites with valuable research and information put up paywalls that restrict access to a limited number of “paying customers” who can afford the frequently excessive fees these sites charge.

This discussion on the digital divide is particularly relevant right now. Several states are considering the possibility of dropping the General Education Development (GED) exam amidst great changes in the test format and cost. The creators of the GED want to remove the pencil and paper aspect of the test and go completely digital. The cost of the test will be doubled in many states to $120, and in Missouri the test will cost $140. The President and CEO of the GED Testing Service has rationalized this by stating that, “the GED was in dangerous position of no longer being a reflection of what high schools were graduating,” which is true to a certain extent. Yet an employee of the Missouri Career Center aptly summarized the challenges of digitization by replying that for many GED students, “Transportation is a challenge. Eating is a challenge. For them, coming up with $140 for an assessment, it’s basically telling them, ‘Forget about ever getting this part of your life complete.'”

I’ve been reminded this semester that we must look at books as a technology as well. I don’t know a lot about the history the book, but I can imagine that many hours of study have gone into questioning whether or not the advent of the book and the Gutenberg press in the 15th century has contributed to a democratization of access to data and information throughout history. We’re having that same discussion with digital technology now, and there are no easy answers. More than anything, I’ve been taught to study and understand the power interests behind the creators of digital technology. Textbook companies have adopted digitization and are now creating textbooks for iPads, but these companies can now charge exorbitant fees every year to the schools that buy this software, rather than having the schools buy paper textbooks every five or ten years. Likewise, companies that created standardized tests for our students have a financial interest in going paperless and offering their tests on computers exclusively, which leads to increased costs and jobs for people with computer and programming skills, which are often filled by people who had access to computers when they were younger.

Who, if anyone, loses out in this process? Are we actually using digital technology as a tool for democratization, or is the opposite actually occurring?

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.


What Constitutes Historical Scholarship in the 21st Century?

Earlier this week I was alerted via Twitter to an incident that demonstrates an unfortunate disconnect between the historical scholarship of digital historians and what some members of various university committees charged with determining tenure for school faculty consider “historical scholarship.” Sean Takats, a history professor at George Mason University and director of research projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, outlines the story on his blog The Quintessence of Ham (great name, by the way!)

I am still new to the Digital History game, but I know enough to know that if you’re going to involve yourself in the history profession going forward, Dr. Takats is someone you need to familiarize yourself with. To my understanding, he helped design the popular researching program Zotero, which he still oversees and directs today. I myself use Zotero to help organize my sources when engaging in research projects, and it’s been extremely helpful in organizing all of my resources for my thesis on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. The program does a lot more than organizing sources, but I haven’t taught myself how to use those tools yet.

Dr. Takats recently went before the Faculty Governance committee at George Mason to determine whether he would be granted tenure. The story ends happily, as the committee voted 10-2 in his favor, but it appears as if the primary reason he won tenure was because he wrote a book on French Enlightenment cooking. There is nothing wrong with this, but one gets the impression that the gravity and importance of Takats’s work in digital humanities may not have been fully understood by some in the committee. To wit:

The com­mit­tee also rec­og­nized [Takats] con­sid­er­able work at the Rosen­zweig Cen­ter for His­tory and New Media as it relates to projects such as Zotero and the sub­stan­tial funds he and his col­lab­o­ra­tors have raised to help sus­tain them. Some on the com­mit­tee ques­tioned to what degree Dr. Takats’ [sic] involve­ment in these activ­i­ties con­sti­tutes actual research (as opposed to project man­age­ment). Hence, some deter­mined that projects like Zotero et al., while highly valu­able, should be con­sid­ered as major ser­vice activ­ity instead.

So a monographical study is considered “research,” but digital work is considered “service,” which may not meet the standards for obtaining tenure. This discrepancy is questionable at best. The Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media is the foremost institution for digital humanities in the United States and its contributions to the world of digital history have fundamentally altered the way we look at and educate people about history. Their work is most definitely historical scholarship based on sound “research.” Sure, the “research” probably involved things historians didn’t necessarily have to deal with in the past: computer programming, code, GIS, metadata, digital preservation, etc. Yet it demonstrates the harsh reality that the types of “research” historians will undertake in the future will undoubtedly incorporate these elements. We won’t be researching the past the way we did in the 19th century.

A new publication called The Journal of Digital Humanities recently published a collaborative letter to the American Historical Association (AHA) calling for a redefinition of what constitutes “historical scholarship.” Here’s an excerpt:

Digital tools are transforming the practice of history, yet junior scholars and graduate students are facing obstacles and risks to their professional advancement in using methods unrecognized as rigorous scholarly work. Their peers and evaluators are often unable or unwilling to address the scholarship on its merits. Opportunities to publish digital work, or to even have it reviewed are limited. Finally, promotion and tenure processes are largely built around 19th-century notions of historical scholarship that do not recognize or appropriately value much of this work. The disconnect between traditional evaluation and training and new digital methods means young scholars take on greater risks when dividing their limited time and attention on new methods that ultimately may not ever face scholarly evaluation on par with traditional scholarly production.

This issue directly affects all of us in graduate school. I am writing a master’s thesis that will be roughly 70-100 pages, but I am also helping to create a digital project about travel in Indianapolis this semester (more on that in the future). If I were to be in Takats’s position twenty years from now, would such a digital project be taken seriously by a tenure committee? Would it be addressed on its scholarly merits the same way a book is?

The question of impact also merits attention. Academics and the universities in which they work want people to take history seriously, and digital history has the potential to make a strong impact on the general public’s relationship with the past. Within the next year, will my master’s thesis or my digital project garner more interest? As much as I want my thesis to be read and taken seriously by a large audience, I am going to predict that a much higher number of people are going to visit my Indianapolis travel website. Likewise, Takats’s Zotero program is used by almost every single student in the IUPUI public history program. I don’t think any of us own his book on French cooking, although I know for fact that a few of my cohorts would find that very interesting (myself included). The point is that digital projects garner larger audiences that may not have as much of an interest in reading thesis papers, scholarly journals, or academic monographs.

Looking forward, I will be curious to see how the standards of historical scholarship will change for graduate-level students and faculty seeking tenure. For programs like public history–where we are being trained to actively engage with the public in a non-academic setting–how will universities incorporate digital history into the curriculum? How will they help to create digitally literate graduates? Will there be room for the traditional thesis paper in one’s academic training, or will digital projects completely overshadow the curriculum? (or will it remain status quo?)  When looking at the credentials of a historian, will people look at the number of books a historian has written or the number of digital projects he or she engaged in? (or both?)

If projects like Zotero continue to be considered service projects by university leadership groups, then I’m worried that our colletive definition of historical scholarship will stymie further developments with digital history. Digital humanists will lose resources, funding, or support for projects that are vital to the entire humanities profession because they will not receive the academic support needed to push these projects forward. I have a feeling it will take more time for some academics to understand and adapt to dh, but we are already running short on time. We need a redefinition of historical scholarship NOW.