I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the Future of Civil War History conference. Others have as well, such as Nick Sacco finishing his thoughts here, Brooks Simpson concluding his initial reflections here (along with excellent comments by John Hennessy and Anne Whisnant), and here, and Kevin Levin reflecting very thoughtfully here on his view.
Where Pete Carmichael would be happy is that I’m ending up more confused. Pete very famously says he likes it when his students are more confused after class than before class. Well, Pete, you should be ecstatic right now. First of all, I’m confused about what the conference was about. Was it about discussing what the study of Civil War History would look like in the future? Was it about new sources and new tools? Was it about public and academic historians coming together to sing Kumbaya? Was it about changing the way the war is viewed or interpreted? I can hear Pete now saying, “Like art, it was about what it meant to you, and each person will have a different answer.” Aaagh!
I’m also confused about some of the discussion that’s taking place since the conference–is there a split between academic and public historians? Or is the perception there’s a split a myth? Or was there a split at one point that’s been healed? Or does the split still exist beneath the surface of what we think is a healed rupture?
I’m confused about why some of the presenters chose to say what they said. I mean, come on. Why all the talk about “martial masculinity” and what I gather were some second wave feminism buzz words. But my confusion here could come from my unfamiliarity with the material. I’m going to order some reading material to deal with that. And why did the panelists in the discussion on military misconceptions not talk about military misconceptions?
None of this confusion is meant as criticism, because I haven’t changed my position that the conference was a positive experience. The more I think about it, though, the more questions I have. I’ve already decided I need to delve more deeply into Freeman Tilden and his principles of interpretation for one thing. For another thing, I need a better grounding in historical methods.
As I think more about this, hopefully I’ll come up with some conclusions I feel happy about. Do you have any answers?