Day One of the conference is in the books. Sequestration is affecting the conference. The National Park Service has decreed that its employees cannot attend conferences in order to save money. That means that any NPS employees who were going to travel any significant distance can’t do so because the NPS won’t reimburse them. It also means that any NPS employees locally can’t attend on the NPS dime but rather have to take vacation time to attend or attend on their own time without being in uniform, and must pay for their own attendance, even though the conference is one their attendance benefits the NPS.
The first part of the conference program was a panel discussion on Popular Misconceptions About Civil War Military History. Panel members were Earl Hess of Lincoln Memorial University, “Citizen” D. Scott Hartwig, who when he is working is the supervisory ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park, Jennifer Murray of University of Virginia Wise Campus, and “Citizen” Troy Harmon, whose job when he is not on his own time is as an interpretive ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. The moderator was Dr. Allen Guelzo, the Luce Professor of History at Gettysburg College. This was a little disappointing. Only Dr. Guelzo seems to have understood the subject of the panel, because he’s the only one who really addressed misconceptions in detail. He talked about what he considers the three most significant misconceptions: The American Civil War being fought by soldiers who were equipped with technologically advanced weapons they didn’t understand; the American Civil War was the first total war or modern war and this was almost exclusively a Northern invention; and the Civil War was managed by West Point-educated generals who represented competing theorists, with the older generals being influenced by Jomini and the younger generals being influenced by Dennis Hart Mahan, and only with the advent of simple, uncomplicated attrition did the war come to a conclusion. He also talked about some lesser myths: that the bayonet was obsolete, that the cavalry was the eyes and ears of the army, that confronting the enemy army instead of places, like Lincoln wanted, was the wisest choice, that lengthy sieges foreshadowed what would happen in World War I, that the armies were nonpolitical entities, and finally that Ulysses S. Grant was an unthinking butcher while Robert E. Lee was a cultured gentleman. He made the point that so many “innovations” can be demonstrated to not be innovations when one looks at military history in its entirety and that total war was impossible with the weapons of the time.
Earl Hess said that his book on the Rifled Musket challenged the old interpretation of the rifled musket, then made the point that there were several audiences. One was the professional and scholarly audience, which he said accepted his reinterpretation of the use of the rifled musket easily. The second was the deeply dedicated audience, those who attend Civil War Round Tables regularly, who attend symposia regularly, and who regularly visit battlefields. This audience also accepted his thesis easily. The third audience is the slightly dedicated audience. This audience lingers at battlefields and they only attend round tables now and then. They didn’t readily accept his thesis. The final audience was the very casual, large, widespread audience. They are the most difficult to reach because they don’t do much reading and instead rely on knowledge they already believe they have and don’t accept reinterpretations that challenge their beliefs.
Scott Hartwig also identified different groups–military groups, school groups, family groups, and individuals. These are the groups he comes into contact with in giving tours at the battlefield. He said there is a general lack of understanding about the civil war, about military issues, maneuvering, and tactics, but there is a keen interest. People want to understand these things. Their knowledge is generally based on a movie or a novel, most likely the movie “Gettysburg” and the novel, The Killer Angels. Scott made the point that movies and novels are departure points to use to discuss the real battle. People are very interested in logistics, but they don’t understand it. They ask how the armies got to Gettysburg, which is logistics. Strategy and tactics are safe topics, but when we remove politics from the discussion we rob the battles of their meaning. Scott said the depth of knowledge of the presenter combined with the way the information is presented is what determines the success or failure of the presentation.
Jennifer Murray also said people have no idea today about how the military operates. She made the point that only about 1% of the population today gets any military experience. Many historians ask questions such as was the Civil War a total war or was it not a total war? and other “either-or” questions. She said we have to mess up the either-or paradigm and allow for questions that recognize the complexity of the subject where the paradigm takes into account several factors being true simultaneously instead of being mutually exclusive.
I thought Troy Harman was the most disappointing member of the panel. He talked about how artists draw faces by first drawing an oval and then drawing a cross inside the oval, forming squares within the oval. He said that we don’t have to stay within one square. We can pass any subject matter we like to a Civil War audience to make the subject relevant. He said we should get rid of artificial boundaries between combat history and technological history, environmental history, and human psychology. He mentioned that there was a water source that sustained the soldiers, their animals, and allowed the artillery duels to take place. There were rail lines in Gettysburg that were targets for the rebels. He said there was a lot of emphasis on slavery and that presenters should present what he said was “the other half,” which he identified as the rise of capitalism in “the North.” He said that capitalism pushes free labor. This was very disappointing because it injects, in my view, a political misconception. While the economic differences between sections was one aspect of the sectional conflict, to claim that it was equivalent to the protection of slavery as a cause of the war is, in my opinion, completely wrong. By claiming this was “the other half” of causing the war, Troy lost a great deal of credibility with me.
Dr. Guelzo asked, “If logistics are important, how and where and in how many different ways can we tell the story of how they are so important? Troy referred us to Kent Masterson Brown’s book on Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg. He said logistics supports the armies and explains how they got to Gettysburg. I thought his answer was very weak. Jennifer Murray referred us to Earl Hess’ book on the Western Theater, which gives a great amount of detail on logistics of the armies. Scott Hartwig said that it’s important to understand logistics so we understand how armies move, and he gave the analogy that he often uses. He gave the example of State College, PA, where Beaver Stadium holds over 100,000 people. He said, imagine that you have to move all those people from State College to Harrisburg, and in Harrisburg you have to arrange for places for all of them to stay, you have to feed them, you have to make sure they have water, you have to make sure they have fuel for their vehicles, and you have to make sure all their personal needs are taken care of. Most people look at that as a nearly insurmountable task, and that’s how they can get an understanding of the incredibly complex and difficult job of the quartermaster. Earl Hess said the notion the ‘North” had unlimited logistics was wrong, that “the North” had limits that shaped their strategy. He used Sherman’s March as an example. His 350-mile-long supply line linking Atlanta with Louisville was inadequate. He had to cut loose from his supply line. Dr. Hess said we have to create linkages with other topics. Dr. Guelzo mentioned that in his study he came across forms that had to be filled out and books of instructions on how to fill out the forms, indicating that the army didn’t march on its stomach, it marched on paper, and that paper was difficult to complete properly.
Dr. Guelzo then asked if there was a relationship between the lack of knowledge and the decreasing involvement of Americans in the military. Earl Hess said there was something to that, but there were also a number of other reasons, that he had noticed that Civil War Round Table audiences were usually older. Scott Hartwig said he saw attendance nationally dropping off, and Civil War Round Table membership dropping, but doesn’t think the decrease of military involvement had much to do with it. He said he felt popular culture drove it. The Ken Burns series, The Killer Angels, and the movie “Gettysburg” all spurred more attendance when they came out. Jennifer Murray compared it with interest in World War II where people have more of a familial connection with family members currently in their lives. This is absent for the Civil War. Troy Harmon said we have to appeal to diverse backgrounds of people who have fields of expertise different from the presenter.
Jennifer Murray made the point during a Q&A from the audience that if someone sees a movie and then as a result of seeing that movie reads a history book or visits a historical site to learn more, then Hollywood has done us a service.
After supper, Cathy Stanton gave a presentation on How Can Civil War Sites Offer a Usable Past During a Time of War with a commentary from Pete Carmichael following her presentation. She went a long way in her presentation and talked about a lot of things, but didn’t get to the topic until the very end of her talk. Having said that, though, her talk was very thought-provoking and powerful, and I was happy to hear it, though it was more appropriate to another forum. She spoke of her experiences and outlook as a pacifist, feminist Canadian looking at the US and then moving to the US. She talked a lot about the US having a “martial masculinity” approach, said that our contemporary outlook was shaped by the Baby Boomer generation of men who were unsettled by tectonic changes taking place in society and thought that this “martial masculinity” approach was their idea of what it was like to be a man and to be manly. She spent time as a reenactor and wrote her master’s thesis on reenacting. She related reenacting to militarism and the “martial masculinity” of Americans. She mentioned the National Park Service’s “Holding the High Ground” program of the ’90s as being another example of “martial masculinity.” She said the reenactors seemed to be going in the opposite direction of the scholars, but they handled changes such as including women well by putting aside political differences in favor of nonpolitical discussions about which buttons were more historically accurate. She talked about participating in silent vigils of antiwar protest during the Iraq War. At the very end of her talk she prescribed, as a way to offer a usable past, three things: recognize there is a gender blind spot at these sites, talk about a masculinity that argues against the idea of weapons being equivalent to power, and tolerate the existence of contradictory views of warfare. In his commentary, Pete asked if there was an antidote to the perennial seductiveness of war, said the public appears to be trapped in the romanticism of war, but also made the point that many academics spend much time debunking the notion of American exceptionalism except when it comes to the dark areas of human history–the bad stuff. And then those things become uniquely American. Pete said we shouldn’t try to recover the Real War because that leads to a romanticism of the war. He then said in the interpretations that he would like to see there wouldn’t be a political agenda involved. In my question I made the point that as a man I didn’t think masculinity was bad at all and then asked Pete, doesn’t EVERY interpretation at a site have a political agenda? Let’s think about this. An interpretation necessarily decides what to include and what to leave out. Those decisions are political decisions because there is a message to be put across. Pete’s message is of the cost of war, which, let’s be honest, would no doubt tend to make people think twice about supporting a war. Now, that may be a good thing. I’m not arguing against that view. I’m just saying that’s a political agenda, no matter how well-intentioned it is or whether it’s right or wrong. Even if we try to take all political messages out of a presentation, we’re making a political choice and there’s a political agenda behind it.
All together, though the presentations and panel discussions strayed away from the stated objectives, I was happy with the first day, as it stimulated a great deal of thought and led to some interesting discussion.
You can see Cathy’s work on reenacting here.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions.