That was David Blight’s comment today on Day 3 of the Future of Civil War History Conference. He made the comment after Mark Smith’s presentation on the Sounds and Smells of the Battlefield.
Smith told us the nose and the ability to smell are something distinctly human because they led the face. We use the nose to breathe, modulate the voice, display character, and to smell. It’s also vulnerable and not well defended. We cannot “close the gates” of our noses. The only real defense from smell is to not breathe. Smith asked us, “What was it like to be in Gettysburg after the battle?” Cornelia Hancock would tell us. The army going to Gettysburg was so noisy you could hear them before you saw them. Cornelia, sitting in Hancock’s Bridge, New Jersey, wanted to do more with her life, experience more of the world, and do something in the war. Her brother-in-law, Henry C. Chard of Philadelphia, an antislavery man, promised to help her.
The battle brought deafening, unnatural sounds to Gettysburg. It was an impossibly loud noise. The thin line between the soldier and the civilian evaporated. The air was permeated with the nostril-stinging smell of gunpowder and saltpeter.
The intensity and the scale of the violence could be smelled. Burnt gunpowder and processed salt-peter were smelled all over. When the burnt gunpowder was mixed with dust and smoke, the effect was choking. On July 4, Cornelia Hancock went to Philadelphia, and she left for Gettysburg the night of July 5.
Smith tells us by 1860 Americans began to embrace the idea that public safety was enhanced by the control of smells. People began cleaning themselves more to get rid of smells. The funk, reek, and stench of Gettysburg was so overwhelming it seemed as though it was part of the Medieval past. Cornelia Hancock arrived in Gettysburg on July 6 and went to the local church, which was being used as a hospital. She went to see the 12th New Jersey just outside town also, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the wounded men came to her. She heard the groans and the rustle of the wounded. The smells also reached her. It was an insistent, penetrating smell. It was a deadly, nauseating atmosphere.
The smell had a feel–almost a taste. It announced the presence of the unburied dead. The stench, for Cornelia Hancock, robbed the battlefield of its glory. They were violent, aggressive smells punching their way in. Chloride of Lime was used freely, as was vinaigrette, a French aromatic vinegar used to battle the stench.
Another woman, Susan Broadhead, wrote of the smells on July 11. She wrote of horrid smells, of decaying horses, and poorly buried men. Burning the horses didn’t help with the smell. She feared a pestilence caused by the smell. The rancid soil still smelled in October.
Stephen Berry was the commentator for this presentation. He said we have not done enough to render the sensory experience of the war. We’ve had a failure, among historians, of imagination and craft. The Civil War world is visually very rich. Our failure of imagination, though, leads to inaccuracy and robs from the soldiers’ and civilians’ experiences. We must be careful not to overprivilege sight. This is difficult because even our language does that.
If we don’t get better at communicating sensory information, we do our readers a disservice. Sight misleads because it makes us seem distinct. Our gates, like our individuality, are an illusion.
Mark Smith then returned with a response and said between 1863 and now, smells have changed and our sense of smell has changed. We now have smells caused by automobiles and other results of technological advance that didn’t exist in the 1860s. The deployment of natural metaphors, such as a hail of bullets, or cannon like thunder, was common due to the primary importance of nature in the lives of 19th Century people. A tornado at that time couldn’t possibly sound like a freight train because a freight train hadn’t been invented yet. Meaning changes depending on our time and our place.
It was after this presentation that David Blight came to the microphone, moved to comment on the eloquence of the two speakers and making the comment in the subject of this post.
Then it was time for the panel discussion on New Media and the Future of Civil War History. Lloyd Benson of Furman University, who oversees the Secession Era Editorials Project, said he was a fan of crowdsourcing. He made the point that Lincoln was a digital receiver of information through the telegraph. He said we need to use open source data as much as possible because as technology changes, things can get lost. He asked, how do we deal with crowdsourcing, big data, and story telling.
Brian Martin, the COO and President of History Associates, spoke about the battlefield apps his company puts out.
Sharon Leon of George Mason University spoke about the Valley of the Shadow project. She asked how much time and energy we should spend figuring out the baseline of the audience.
She also talked about the Civil War Washington project. They are currently building things for scholars. She asked if we’ve thought of building things for interpretation. She suggested targeting something directly at interpreters, undergrads, high school teachers and students, and adult enthusiasts. Most scholarship is directed to K-12 but applicable to all.
Matthew Pinsker of Dickinson College spoke about the House Divided project. He said the story doesn’t change when we use digital media, but we have a better definition of the picture, thus using the metaphor of Hi-Def. He said they started off by taking the Papers of Abraham Lincoln from the Library of Congress, the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln Day-by-Day, putting them all together, and then adding a timeline and a map. He used Google Earth, which allows a pan and zoom function. With Google Earth there can be virtual historical field trips with 3-D models of historical buildings. For example, the Christiana Riot of 1851 was in a place that doesn’t exist anymore. Using 19th Century photographs, they created a 3-D experience for students. He said that we don’t have the freedom to wait for anything to be clear, and warned, “Don’t be the George McClellan of the Digital Age.”
Evan Kutzler of the University of South Carolina spoke about the Slavery at South Carolina College project. Digital media allow our minds to do what they do best–see patterns. He said that with the Slavery at South Carolina College project they are able to virtually tell the unknown story of slavery at an antebellum college. Digital space is contested space. New media quickly becomes old media because everything is changing so rapidly.
Anne Sarah Rubin of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County spoke about the Sherman’s March and America project. She told us with digital media, the future is now. She gave a nice demonstration of some of the site’s features.
Moderator Scott Nesbit of the University of Richmond and the Visualizing Emancipation project said the relationships between historians and audiences are changing, and asked how are they changing.
Matthew Pinsker brought up Massive Online Open Courses. MOOCs give us the ability to grow our audience. We now have the ability to have an open, interactive course with 10,000 students.
Anne Sarah Rubin said she was nervous about crowdsourcing and open courses because of the loss of control.
Lloyd Benson talked about Google Earth’s Panoramio, which allows people to upload photographs. He also said this allows people to go (virtually) to places they could never go to before and to hear voices they’ve never heard before.
David Blight, a member of the audience, commented that with MOOCs, the business model of the universities will lead to fewer professors being hired. He’s right.
After lunch I took the Interpretive Possibilities of Pickett’s Charge field experience with Pete Carmichael and D. Scott Hartwig. The weather put a big damper on things, but it was a great discussion giving some really good ideas of interpreting events during the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge and showing where the Virginians lined up for the charge. There is a persuasive case that Lee’s decision to make the charge, while not a brilliant one, was a reasonable one to make. We also talked about the motivations that led the soldiers to make the charge and came up with some great questions, such as how that killing field could, later, turn into a healing field when the veterans of both sides came to Gettysburg to shake hands with each other across the stone wall. There were some great ideas for comparing the terrain at Gettysburg with the terrain at Verdun, where every square foot was hit by shells. We also talked about what a visitor sees at the beginning of the charge and during the charge, and what the visitor doesn’t see, such as the cemetery on Cemetery Hill, which if seen would depict the price of Lee’s decisions. I highly recommend taking any tour with Scott Hartwig or Pete Carmichael.
After we returned from the battlefield I caught the very end of the Interpreting the USCT at Civil War Sites discussion moderated by Kevin Levin. During that conversation, Hari Jones of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum made the statement that in 1861, North Carolina allowed African-Americans to enlist in the state militia as musicians and cooks, though not soldiers.
After a nice reception at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor’s Center we heard a panel discussion on An Open Letter to the National Park Service: Looking Beyond the Civil War 150th. Pete Carmichael kicked it off by talking about the 1998 Holding the High Ground document, which identified the need for Civil War sites to be contextualized.
Anne Mitchell Whisnant of UNC Chapel Hill said she had optimism so far because the NPS was incorporating new perspectives and new voices and was confronting the issue of slavery.
Pete Carmichael asked, where do we go from here? The NPS has been criticized for affecting a bounded single narrative in a report co-written by Anne Mitchell Whisnant. She said the study took 3-1/2 years to complete and involved
visiting over surveying the employees from the almost 400 NPs sites. They identified a tendency to lock down on historians and stories and to identify history as something that can be “done,” i.e., finished.
John Hennessy said we have to remember the NPS goes through seasons. From 1960 to 1990 there was an emphasis on knowledge and information about the sites. They finally understood their resource. Now there was a new period where knowledge was transformed into understanding. The claim that the NPS believed there were no women at battles was a straw man.
Ed Linenthal of Indiana University said that public history is history without a net. Academics at least have the authority of giving a grade. Public historians don’t even have that. When we ask for forums we shouldn’t turn them into intellectual tribunals. This must lead to civic engagement that is fulfilling. He then talked about the term “revisionist.” Why is that a pejorative? Anyone who knows how historians work knows that if you’re not intellectually senile, you’re revising what you know with new data. He said nobody who has a doctor who doesn’t treat them with leaches screams about the doctor being a “medical revisionist.”
John Latschar said there were still some in the NPS who are only interested in who shot who, there were still some in academia with too much time to think. He said the NPS trailed about 20 years behind the academics. He said that academics spending time with the NPS was a great thing. Once he asked Ed Linenthal why Ed spent so much time with the NPS, and Ed’s reply was that he gets 30 students a semester whereas Gettysburg gets 1.5 million visitors a year. “If we don’t help you, then shame on us.”
Tiya Miles of the University of Michigan said the NPS was where she would hope it would be in terms of diversity of voices. There is a threat of the public wanting to move away from complex, inclusive narratives that we want to use.
Anne Mitchell Whisnant said there was a survey of NPS people working on history and one response was that history in the NPS is sporadic, interrupted, superb in some places, and vacant in others. There is a critical problem with infrastructure. There is no support for professional development and there needs to be a system-wide look at how we are supporting the NPS.
John Hennessy said we need to reconcile our roles as memorialists and historians. the NPS up and down the line is affected by who gave the places to the nation. He said they stick closely to the bargain made when that was done and that commemoration is part of what they do and what they must do.
Pete Carmichael asked, how would you evaluate the ability to attract diverse populations? John’s answer was that it’s awful. There is a conflict between those who embrace the current narrative and those who reject it. John Latschar said it’s only been 15 hears since the Holding the High Ground conference. The previous three generations, the NPS had taught the Lost Cause. It’s going to take a couple of generations for the effects of the Holding the High Ground conference to be seen in their entirety. They need to ensure the battlefields are accessible to all ethnic groups. The Civil War is just as relevant to Hispanics and Asians as to black folks and white folks. He said there had been, in the NPS, a sustained positive public image of the institution of slavery.
Tiya Miles said slavery is very difficult to confront, and Civil War battlefields are seen as being about slavery. She suggested encouraging people to tell their own stories, and for those oral histories to become a part of the site, and have academics partner with the Civil War sites.
An audience member identified another reason for low attendance by African-Americans–travel exclusion. While the sites may not have excluded them, places along the way did. So they would drive their big cars with big trunks and pack extra lunches so they didn’t have to stop in places along the way where they were denied accommodations. This was confirmed by Tiya Miles who said we need to understand travel history as well, and the history of travel exclusions.
Finally, the point was made that there is no place in the NPS where we confront and deal with Reconstruction.
We now get to the last discussion, the panel on The Future of Civil War History.
Moderator Aaron Sheehan-Dean of West Virginia University started off by asking are we content with the paradigm that dominates our field now?
Pete Carmichael said we have final judgments on most of the controversies in Civil War historiography, such as causation. We need to continue the cultural turn and shift our attention from content of thought to the ways of thinking and feeling, from what people think to how they think, and we need to call off the search for the real war.
Nina Silber of Boston University said she was interested in how people become invested in portraying the Civil War in a certain way. The movie, “Lincoln,” was a great moment to engage people on the war. There was dialogue on the historical errors and it was time to think about the kinds of Civil War stories people find comfortable. There was still the Great White Man leading the fight for black freedom followed by reconciliation. Have we sometimes forced a messy and complicated story into a narrative that is too neat and too cut and dried. We should be more alive to the confusion of the story and how do we put Reconstruction back into the picture?
Amy Murrell Taylor of the University of Kentucky called for more research, that our research was trailing behind our interpretive ambitions. She spoke about the Dark Turn, in talking about death, suffering, trauma, destruction, and smells, the conference seemed to be advocating. He said we don’t yet know enough of what we’re talking about, that there are sources not yet adequately mined and sources we might not normally rely upon. Subjects can be made understandable with evidence, and maybe the future begins at the traditional beginning–research.
Brooks Simpson of Arizona State University said how we remember what they did here depends on what we say about what they did here. Gettysburg is a monument to failure–the failure of white Americans to solve their differences in a democratic fashion. It also memorializes the willingness of Americans to kill other Americans, sometimes with great relish. We ask, was it worth it, and the answer depends on who is doing the answering. In the end it depends on us. Rather than tell people what to think, it should be enough to make them think. Give the public questions to contemplate.
In the Q&A I spoke about funding. Lack of funding is going to be the environment of the future Civil War History. That is something that, while not ignored by the conference, was set aside by the conference. We have sequestration now, but get used to it because government funding is going to be tougher and tougher. Money is going to be tighter and tighter. This belt-tightening is not going away. Additionally, David Blight was absolutely right. Fewer historians are going to be hired by universities in the future. This is because universities at heart are businesses, and labor is the biggest cost a business can control. The lack of state and federal funds going to the university will force the university to cut its costs where it can, and the MOOCs will allow them to cut instructional staff.
I think the panel misunderstood my point. They said they were aware of the lack of funding, but they said they would get donations, and Pete made the statement that they had to be proactive and activist and testify for more funding. That’s not going to help because the money is just not going to be available. The lack of funding will be a permanent part of the environment, and they need to think now about how they are going to operate in that environment. They need to figure out how they are going to fulfill their prescription for what to do in the future with severely reduced funds.
The conference was mixed. There were many things good about it, and there were a few things that can be improved. I hope this isn’t the last conference like this where academic and public historians and members of the public can get together. I’d love to see a DVD published as well as a book of the papers presented during the conference.
March 18, 2013: Edited based on clarification kindly provided by Anne Mitchell Whisnant in her comment on this blog. Please see the comment for more information about the survey.