A Call To Grimsley, Woodworth, and Simpson

One of the more popular themes of this blog is the emphasis on rethinking our traditional assumptions surrounding the military side of the Civil War. I’ve argued for a broader perspective that takes into account the social, economic, cultural, and political factors as crucial elements of any battlefield analysis. Along the way I’ve no doubt attracted readers as well as alienated others. Given Mark Grimsley’s new blogging endeavor with fellow historians Steven Woodworth and Brooks Simpson I thought it would be worth asking them to consider taking up this contentious issue. The issue would give three Civil War historians, who each have approached the battlefield from different angles, a chance to raise questions and engage the large number of visitors who read our blogs. As a way to get the ball rolling I thought it might be helpful to quote from Peter Carmichael’s recent article in the magazine America’s Civil War (May 2006).

Traditional military historians argue that any discussion of social cultural or political history within the context of military history study taints the main subject, and the significance of the actual battle or campaign can be overwhelmed and lost. However, scholars such as Gary W. Gallagher and James McPherson, among others, believe both threads can be blended to produce beneficial history that can explain where men fought and died as well as the deeper significance of the participants’ experiences. They have worked closely with historians at National Park Service Civil War sites, helping the staff to reconceptualize battlefield interpretation. While a consensus is still lacking, it is clear that many National Park Service historians believe traditional narratives fail to fully convey the importance of their respective sites.

Gettysburg superintendent John Latschar who has been in the forefront of this debate, has observed that visitors receive information about where the men shot each other, but they rarely learn why the shooting and killing mattered.

This quest of find deeper meaning in Civil War battle history is not new. In the late 19th century, novelist Stephen Crane, for example, was frustrated by dry military accounts. He wanted his readers to confront the raw, conflicting emotions and dark horrors of combat. Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which draws heavily from the Battle of Chancellorsville, overturned the romantic view of the Civil War. Crane’s protagonist, Henry Fleming, reminds us that Civil War soldiers shaped historical events as much as powerful external forces acted upon them. (p. 40)

Carmichael’s analysis stresses the connection between both published and public history. I am interested in reactions on both fronts from our group of three. I hope they take this up as I believe it is an important issue as we approach the Civil War Sesquicentennial celebrations. How do we want Americans to think about the Civil War and what do we want them to leave with following visits to battlefields? I look forward to their responses.

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