The June 2016 issue of the journal Civil War History is a special issue with articles that contain samples of the conversations held during the 2013 “Future of Civil War History” conference held in Gettysburg. I previously blogged about that conference here, here, here, here, here, and here. The articles also build on those conversations and update the information to the present.
I think it’s worthwhile first of all to go back and revisit some of the comments around the blogosphere regarding the conference.
You can see the reflections of a Gettysburg College undergraduate student here.
You can see a discussion with Pete Carmichael regarding the conference:
You can also link to the sessions here.
With the release of the new issue, the Emerging Civil War Blog began a new series of comments, this time on the issue and its articles, with retrospective on the conference. It began with Prof. James Broomall, who is one of the guest editors of the new issue. He has four articles in the series, which you can see here, here, here, and here. Kevin Pawlak has an article here. They plan to have articles all month long.
The issue begins with an article by the three guest coeditors, Pete Carmichael, Jill Ogline Titus, and James Broomall, titled, “The Future of Civil War History.” After a short overview of the conference they tell us, “The essays in this special issue of Civil War History build on several of the key themes that emerged from the conference: embracing the democratic and civic potential of historical thinking; reaffirming the power of place and the importance of specific, focused stories; integrating military, political, social, cultural, and gender history; and encouraging collaboration among historians working in different settings without minimizing differences in outlook, mission, and audience. Together, the essays gathered here point to a powerful and positive conclusion about the future of the field. Classrooms, battlefields, and historic sites–not to mention cyberspace–have all become dynamic places of study and interpretation where visitors, students, and professionals are forging historical narratives of greater intellectual depth and wider accessibility.” In tracing some of the NPS interpretation evolution, they tell us, “In 1998, National Park Service Civil War battlefield superintendents met in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss how they could expand the scope of battlefield interpretation beyond tactics, strategy, and mutual heroism and provide visitors ‘the opportunity to explore the fundamental contexts and meanings’ of battlefield resources. As Robert K. Sutton later observed, the theme of reconciliation had cast a long shadow over the interpretation of Civil War battlefields. Looking to the future, superintendents proposed that battlefield sites establish their place in the war’s broader historical context; incorporate social, economic, and cultural issues into narratives; more fully consider the war’s causes and consequences; and look to the Civil War’s continued relevance. As Dwight T. Pitcaithley recounts, once news of the ‘1998 gathering and Congress’s direction spread, heritage groups with particular interest in Civil War battlefields and the Lost Cause interpretation of the war began responding.’ A stream of at times vitriolic letters flowed into Park offices. Many letter-writers were especially opposed to the new emphasis on slavery, thereby demonstrating just how contested the past had become.” This resulted in two NPS documents, Holding the High Ground and Rally on the High Ground. These two documents led to extensive and dynamic changes in how the NPS interprets the Civil War. “The gloomy prediction that Civil War battlefield parks would take a nosedive into irrelevance because of a blinding commitment to traditional military history has never come to fruition. Thanks to the Holding the High Ground initiative, and the subsequent surge in collaboration between academics and public historians, today’s Civil War parks do much more than feed the buff’s insatiable appetite for guns and bugles stories. Every Civil War site managed by the NPS positions its unique story within the social and political context of the war. Many parks carry their narrative forward into the period of Reconstruction and beyond. The move toward a more expansive interpretation has in no way diminished the decisive role that military forces played in the struggle for Union and emancipation. By stressing military history, … historians and visitors can reflect on the political and social imperatives of war and how they shaped command decisions on the ground.”
In the next essay, Emmanuel Dabney, Beth Parnicza, and Kevin Levin discuss “Interpreting Race, Slavery, and United States Colored Troops at Civil War Battlefields. Emmanuel and Beth are NPS rangers and Kevin is an educator and one of my blogging colleagues. They start with the Centennial of the Civil War and a quote from A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights and labor leader: “There is no doubt that this whole Civil War Centennial commemoration is a stupendous brain-washing exercise to make the Civil War leaders of the South on par with the Civil War leaders of the North, and to strike a blow against men of color and human dignity.” They tell us, “Centennial event organizers attempted to walk a tightrope as they struggled, in the face of widespread racial upheaval, to promote a ‘reconciliationist narrative’ of the war that steered clear of tough questions related to slavery, race, and the service of United States Colored Troops (USCT).” These authors also bring the Holding the High Ground initiative into play in their essay. “Moving forward under this new mandate, many Park Service historians took advantage of the scholarly consensus that located slavery as the central cause of the war and began to develop programs devoted to slave culture, emancipation, and the black men who pursued freedom by enlisting in the Union army. Drawing on the ‘new military history,’ they also sought to demonstrate to visitors the way that battles and campaigns affected life on the home front, shaped (and were shaped by) political events, and influenced the actions of enslaved people throughout the Confederacy. These interpretive shifts have not been without challenges. A relatively small, but vocal Confederate heritage community voiced opposition from the beginning, charging that the Park Service was engaged in ‘indoctrinating’ the general public with a ‘politically correct’ narrative that sought to bring shame to the descendants of Confederate soldiers. Not surprisingly, divisions among Park Service personnel also surfaced early on within individual parks, between staff who remained committed to a traditional understanding of battlefield interpretation and those willing to embrace a more expansive view of the proper scope of site interpretation. it is undeniable, however, that the winds of change favored the latter.” They go on to discuss several of the interpretive changes both in programs and in media projects and exhibits. “With a few exceptions, visitor reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Roughly one person per month will express the belief that the NPS went overboard in its emphasis on slavery at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center, but a majority of visitors leave the new exhibits informed and excited to visit the battlefields, just as the staff intended. Yet the rumor that circulated during the renovations at Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center that the NPS had removed all firearms from the exhibits in response to an order from Washington reveals disquiet among some observers about the changes unfolding at the park. Interpreters responded to this rumor by explaining that the park’s criteria for selecting artifacts for inclusion in the new exhibit required that each piece must have either a compelling personal story attached to it or a connection to a story of national significance.” The authors discuss charges of “politically correct” exhibits and talk about techniques used with visitors of different demographic groups. They also deal with cases of visitors who have a lost cause viewpoint and deny the centrality of slavery despite the overwhelming evidence for it, and deny a massacre of black troops happened at the Crater, despite the overwhelming evidence showing it did happen. “Using multiple accounts that reinforce each other has proven a particularly helpful way to showcase the horror of the battle. When confrontation does ensue, other visitors sometimes step in to remind the angry parties that their guide clearly referenced the source materials bearing testimony to the events of the battle.” I thought this essay did a great job of letting us know what’s new in interpretation and how it’s going.
In the next essay, Dr. Ashley Whitehead Luskey and Ranger Robert [Bert] Dunkerly discuss “From Women’s History to Gender History: Revamping Interpretive Programming at Richmond National Battlefield Park.” I have to confess I was stuck in a very limited paradigm until I read this essay. I had always looked on Gender History and Gender Studies as solely dealing with women. It never occurred to me that it would include men, though it would seem obvious from the term “gender.” It was a “kick myself” moment for me because I had limited myself by my own lack of thinking about the subject. This essay talks not only about women’s roles, but also about perceptions of what it meant to be a man in the 19th Century. The authors seek to expand all our outlooks. They start off, “Traditionally, the concept of historical inclusivity has revolved around the ‘holy trinity’ of race, class, and gender. Such frameworks have enormously enriched the breadth and depth of both academic and public histories, filling in critical gaps in African American and immigrant history, the history of the working classes, and women’s history, among others, and populating historical narratives that formerly championed elite, white males with women; the poor; and a variety of racial, ethnic, and otherwise marginalized social groups. However, far too often, many historians–both public and academic–have narrowly conceived of ‘race, class, and gender’ strictly as social categories rather than as cultural constructs or as perceptual lenses through which individuals understand themselves and their world. Such conceptions have resulted in interpretation that is so intensely focused on including the experiences of various races, classes, and genders that it has neglected to address the specific cultural trends or ‘ways of perceiving’ that have shaped the way individuals have engaged with, represented, and ultimately made sense of those experiences. We need to help our audiences move away from the static notion of gender as something that simply prescribes roles for men and women in everyday life and toward understanding that gender is a fluid concept that shapes how people navigate the political and material realities of their particular historical world. In response to calls for greater emphasis on gender history, numerous Civil War sites have revamped their programs and exhibits to include the stories of female civilians, soldiers’ wives, and nurses associated with the site. This shift reflects the popular notion of equating ‘gender’ with ‘women’s history.’ Although this limited understanding of gender has diversified the historical narrative in important ways, it has often failed to truly engage visitors with how gender itself shaped the way a particular event unfolded or was understood by its participants–that is, how notions of masculinity, womanhood, respectability, duty, and honor, to name a few, shaped the behaviors of historical actors in the moment and the ways those actors internalized, and ultimately represented, particular events. Such interpretations also forego the chance to interweave gender history with the history of race and class, among other topics, and open discussions of identity. Interpreting how competing notions of gender were contested within a class and racial framework will help our audiences appreciate the choices that historical actors made within their political and social surroundings as they saw and understood them.” That’s a lot to take in, but it encapsulates what I said. The popular notion of gender studies is that it’s the same as women’s studies, when it’s so much more. It’s also more than what people of different genders experienced. It’s also how their genders affected the way they viewed and interpreted their surroundings and experiences, and how their views of their gender roles helped determine their actions. “In recent years, frontline interpreters at Richmond National Battlefield Park have sought to revamp the ways gender is incorporated into interpretive programming through tours and talks, both on and beyond the battlefields, that challenge visitors to analyze the events that took place there through broader, gendered prisms of honor, respectability, duty, and dignity. Such prisms address not only the roles gender played in how events unfolded but also how they were experienced, and ultimately represented and remembered, by historical participants and observers alike. Soldiers on both sides, for instance, played out heroic dreams in their headlong charges during the Seven Days’ campaign. Tours of the Seven Days’ battlefields, however, are not exclusively excursions into gender history but rather an attempt to explain how the act of organized killing was inspired by military discipline and generalship, and acted out with manly fervor.” In discussing Cold Harbor, the authors bring up the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery’s charge during that attack. “The story of this attack lends itself particularly well to a gender analysis of the battle, for it illuminates the problem men who had never been in battle before faced in trying to uphold high ideals of male courage under fire. … The regiment, like so many heavy artillery units, had never before seen combat, and it received jeers and scoffs from veteran units who, upon seeing it arrive to join Grant’s army, noticed the soldiers’ handsome, pristine blue uniforms and red artillery cufflinks and ridiculed them for being a ‘band-box regiment’ of dandies who knew nothing about fighting. Despite such ridicule, and despite their own understandable nervousness prior to the June 1 assault, the men of the 2d Connecticut looked excitedly to the attack that evening as a means to prove their manliness and gain the honor and respect of veteran units. The attack of the 2d Connecticut, then, should be understood in its proper context through the gendered prisms of masculine honor, duty, and bravery against the backdrop of the military and political imperatives of the Overland campaign as a whole. Rangers sought to provide such an understanding by engaging visitors in dialogue about current scholarship on masculinity and soldiering, and about how the Connecticut soldiers and officers represented their experiences on the battlefield during the June 1 assault.” This essay gives us a glimpse of how more NPS sites will interpret soldier and civilian experiences and viewpoints in the coming years. I have to say it’s an exciting prospect, because we’re going to get fresh ways of viewing this war and its participants.
In the next essay, “Relevance, Resonance, and Historiography: Interpreting the Lives and Experiences of Civil War Soldiers,” Pete Carmichael begins by recounting his experience as a living historian at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park and having to endure the ignorant comments of some lost causers who visited the site. He tells us, “I left Appomattox in 1985 with a question that has followed me throughout my career as a seasonal historian, a graduate student, and as a college professor: how can I make the history of Civil War soldiers resonate with my diverse audiences while also keeping it relevant to their daily lives? Scholarly studies in soldier ideology–beginning in the 1980s along with the rise of sensory history and the emergence of the new-revisionism in the late 1990s–have satisfied my inquiry. No longer do we search for a single common soldier. He does not exist. In books and at national parks we showcase the lives of many soldiers, and their stories reveal that northerners and southerners were deeply ideological, but they were also confined by physical coercion, by cultural and organizational forces, both perceptible and imperceptible, all of which shaped their choices in a relentless struggle to survive.” He tells us, “Every Civil War veteran knew that ideas about manhood, patriotism, comradeship, devotion to family, and hatred for the enemy could inspire but not control how a man fought. The ground truths of war–the actual collision of weaponry, tactics, training, and generalship–almost always trumped culture in determining what was possible under fire. The early war promise of ‘death before dishonor’ was not the battle cry of a frenzied zealot seeking martyrdom. Nor did such militant rhetoric inspire heroic gestures that appear to us as foolhardy acts of self-annihilation. The actual mechanics of Civil War combat usually offered individuals a realistic chance of living out dreams of individual bravery without dooming them to futility. Dreams of courageous action, inspired in part by a militant manliness, could be lived out under most tactical circumstances, even when facing massed firepower.” He also talks about the use of material culture in teaching about the war. He talks about using replica artillery shells, a soldier’s sewing kit, and other artifacts to interpret the war and the lives of the common soldiers. “Although academic Civil War historians have been slow to embrace material culture, public historians have been in the lead, moving beyond the show-and-tell approach in their living history demonstrations. Former NPS interpreter David Larsen’s ‘Gun Talk,’ which can be found on YouTube, is a brilliant example of telling big stories through a single piece of material culture. In this program, Larsen does more than just go through the steps of loading and firing a weapon. In his hands, the Springfield musket becomes a symbol of industrialization and a representation of how the factory production of weapons fostered generational differences over craftsmanship.”
Here’s that video:
Pete continues, “Just as I as finishing my seasonal career at Richmond National Battlefield Park in the late 1990s, a propitious shift occurred roughly at the same time in Civil War soldier scholarship and in the NPS’s interpretive philosophy. Largely because of the work of James M. McPherson, who demonstrated that Civil War soldiers on both sides were deeply ideological, highly political, and intensely patriotic, no one could continue to claim with the slightest degree of persuasiveness that Johnny Reb and Billy Yank were mere instruments of conniving politicians and inept generals. Modern-day cynicism about government numbed audiences to the idea that historical actors actually had faith in their institutions and were willing to risk their lives for the nation-state.” Pete has suggestions for the future of Civil War history as well. “As a field, we continue to insist that public historians listen to their audiences, that they need to share authority, but when it comes to military history sites, public historians have been told by academics to subordinate visitor needs that center on a deep interest in knowing ‘who shot whom and where.’ So how do we tap our visitors’ passionate interests in traditional military history, when we all recognize the limitations of focusing on strategy and tactics in isolation? I think we need to create gaming situations that place visitors in the wheelhouse of war and thus enable them to have the joy of discovery through choosing their own adventures. My gaming blueprint would largely pivot around what-if scenarios, giving the visitor a chance to make different command decisions within a very specific social, political, and cultural context. This promises to satisfy the visitors’ craving for knowing what happened on the ground, but a sophisticated gaming experience will also give them altitude on a battle so that they will explore the nature of war from a range of perspectives while considering the political and human costs of warfare. A visitor, for instance, could assume the character of an officer in Davis’s Mississippi brigade during the Gettysburg campaign. He or she would follow the unit to site-specific locations where they would be ‘transported back’ to the ground level of the war.” This is a lot like the staff ride experience covered in a later essay of the issue, but it would also encompass more than just command decisions.
The next essay, by Prof. Jonathan Noyalas, is called, ” ‘The Broader and Purer Purpose’: Lessons from the Shenandoah Valley’s Monuments and Battlefield Landscapes on Introducing Elements of Civil War Memory to General Audiences.” He starts by framing the problem of engaging a general audience on the issues of Civil War memory. “Personal experience,” he says, “and anecdotal evidence demonstrates that general audiences are more likely to read a biography of a general or traditional campaign or battle study than a book on Civil War memory, perhaps because these works are deemed too academic or pose challenges to stories passed down in families. Despite the apparent disaffection general audiences might have toward issues of Civil War memory, there are ways historians can meaningfully engage the millions of individuals who visit Civil War sites annually, broadening their understanding of the conflict’s meaning, and introduce them to the complexities of what Stuart McConnell has dubbed the ‘geography of Civil War memory.’ Perhaps the best introduction historians can offer general audiences about issues of historical memory is to encourage tour participants to look more critically at the one feature that dominates the landscapes of most Civil War battlefields, cemeteries, and communities impacted by the conflict–monuments. While it is difficult to quantify the extent to which monuments have been used in interpreting the memory of the war, personal experiences and observations at various Civil War sites reveal that historians and guides frequently do not fully utilize the richness of the commemorative landscape to introduce visitors to various aspects of historical memory.” Monuments serve a number of functions. They mark [sometimes inaccurately] unit positions, they assist in following the general flow of a battle, they are pieces of art, they memorialize heroic deeds, and they do other things also: “The design and language on many Civil War monuments, as well as the commemorative addresses and newspaper coverage that accompanied their unveilings offer a tangible window into examining a variety of issues including the complexities of postwar reconciliation, contested memory among veterans, and the ideology of the lost cause. Monuments provide an unparalleled opportunity to help visitors better understand not only the events of battle and their lasting significance for those who experienced them but also the fact that historical memory is a constructed and contested reality.” Professor Noyalas uses monuments at Shenandoah Valley sites as examples in his essay. He often gives tours and uses monuments as an opportunity to engage his audience in topics related to memory and the war’s legacy. “Additionally, discussing monuments with general audiences affords an opportunity to open a dialogue about perhaps one of today’s most controversial topics–the display of Confederate symbols. While many Union veterans embraced the idea of reconciliation, some could not fathom the public display of Confederate flags and held nothing back in exhibiting their disdain. These veterans believed the display of Confederate flags disrespectful to the Union that they sacrificed to restore.” Monuments also provide an opportunity to discuss the lost cause myth and the falsehoods developed around it. “The bronze tablet dedicated in 1927 on the Fisher’s Hill battlefield as part of an effort by the Virginia Statewide Battlefield Markers’ Association to commemorate the efforts of Confederate soldiers on twenty-five battlefields throughout the Old Dominion provides a good example. The tablet plainly made the case that only overwhelming numbers–and not the strategic abilities of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan and Gen. George Crook, the tenacity of the Army of the Shenandoah, or the ineffectiveness of Gen. Jubal Early and his command–gave Sheridan his second victory in the Shenandoah Valley. After grossly exaggerating the size of Sheridan’s army at sixty thousand men, approximately twice the size of Sheridan’s actual strength, the monument states in part: ‘Through the Advantage of Overwhelming Numbers, the Federals Won the Victory.’ Additionally, inscriptions on Confederate monuments often illustrate another element of the Lost Cause–that although defeated, the outnumbered Confederate forces fought and died on a morally superior plane in defense of southern and states’ rights.” This essay gives us a lot of food for thought, especially for public historians who engage with general audiences on a regular basis.
It just so happened I was able to see firsthand an outstanding example of what Professor Noyalas was getting at. Here’s Ranger Dan Vermilya giving a superb battle walk at the Gettysburg National Military Park on Monumentation and Memory. Unfortunately, it was a windy day, which interfered greatly with the video quality. The first video shows Dan quoting from a speech by a veteran of the 1st Minnesota at the dedication for their monument on Cemetery Ridge near the Pennsylvania Memorial. The speaker stresses reconciliation as the most important factor and reunion as the important result of the Civil War. The second video is in the National Cemetery and shows Dan talking about the monument to the 1st Minnesota located there. He then brings up a commentator who stressed the end of slavery as the result of the Civil War, thus showing a conflicting memory of the war even on the Union side.
The final essay, by Christian Keller and Ethan Rafuse, is titled, “The Civil War Battlefield Staff Ride in the Twenty-first Century.” They tell us, “The staff ride consists of an in-depth study of an historical campaign through systematic reading of related primary and secondary sources, followed by an extensive visit to the actual sites associated with the campaign. In contrast to battlefield tours, which entail listening to a guide describe and explain events, the staff ride requires extensive student participation and emphasizes analysis and discussion in order to sharpen critical thinking skills on matters such as the effect of terrain on operations, the range of factors that shape command decisions, and the timeless human dimensions of warfare.” Staff rides aren’t tours of the battlefield. Different staff rides also have different specific purposes, depending on the level of the participants. “The general purpose of a PME [professional military education] staff ride, whether it be at the service academy level (i.e., West Point), intermediate level education (Command and General Staff College), or at the War Colleges, is to hone and inspire critical and creative thinking skills as they pertain to issues of command and control. History is therefore used as a means by which the ends of stronger cognitive abilities–as they relate to military leadership and management–may be realized. Specific movements of regiments and brigades, human-interest stories, designs of monuments, and sub-tactical decisions made by colonels and majors may have some merit in certain staff rides, but most often the battlefield in question is more valuable when analyzed through the eyes of the principal commanders and their civilian masters. This is accomplished by participants’ immersion in pertinent primary and secondary sources in the weeks prior to the ride, which allows them to better appreciate and synthesize the experience of walking the historical ground. All three levels of war (tactical, operational, and strategic) are in play during a successful ride, and indeed a good facilitator will guide participants toward understanding how the three levels conflated into a nexus at certain times and locations on a given field. Contingency, the role of chance, and military fog and friction as defined by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz should also find their way into the group’s discussions.” They go into the two basic methods for staff rides, the role player technique and the Socratic dialogue method. “the role-player approach, which faculty from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College generally follow, allows each participant to become a historical leader for the day and, hopefully, gain a deeper appreciation of the thinking behind that leader’s specific actions and synthesize that knowledge for the rest of the group during the ride. The staff ride facilitator sets the stage at each stand or stop on the chosen battlefield by offering geographic orientation, pinpointing key landmarks, and sometimes painting a brief verbal picture of the action that took place there. Then he turns the discussion over to the students, who, playing their respective military or even political leaders, remark on their specific roles and/or decision-making at that point in the campaign or battle. A strong facilitator will allow the key players to speak first, thereby providing the group with a good starting point for learning about that particular stand’s significance, and progress toward secondary and tertiary players as applicable. Not everyone, therefore, speaks at each stand, and not every stand lasts the same amount of time, but near the conclusion of each the facilitator should interject a question or two about how understanding the history might assist in modern military decision-making. … In the Socratic dialogue method, the Army War College’s preferred staff ride model, specific roles are not assigned beforehand, but students are given substantial primary and secondary source readings focusing on the key decisions made by leaders at the strategic and operational levels of war. … The American Civil War thus becomes a perfect laboratory in which to explore issues of current strategic importance, such as how leaders deal with rapid change, challenging command and civil-military relationships, troublesome allies, ethical and ethnic problems, the difficulty of securing political objectives after military victory has been achieved, managing potentially hostile civilian populations, and the influences/constraints on military strategy created by diplomatic and informational power.” Staff rides, the authors tell us, aren’t there to give the students formulas for various situations. No one will say, “Lee did this in this type of situation so you should do the same thing.” The objective is to think about the decisions and to sharpen the thinking of the participants. Perhaps other historians can adapt this type of approach to their teaching about the Civil War.
The issue was very thought-provoking, and I think there are some excellent take-aways from it. I would like to see more dialogue about directions scholarship will take in the future. The conversation should continue. Perhaps the editors of Civil War History will devote another issue to the subject, this time featuring reactions of historians.