I thoroughly enjoyed presenting my paper, "Why The Civil War Still Matters" at my school this past Thursday. Over the past few years I’ve spoken at numerous Civil War Roundtables in addition to more academic settings such as the OAH, AHA, and SMH. I have to say, however, that Thursday must go down as my most enjoyable speaking engagement to date. You just can’t beat speaking in front of colleagues, students, and other friends. A fellow faculty member offered a very flattering and heart-felt introduction and the questions at the end were excellent.
Part of my paper touched on the way we think about our own Civil War compared with civil wars in other countries. I made the point that while we glorify our own in a way that steers clear of any negative assessments of our own institutions we find it easy to criticize others. The first questioner asked whether people in other countries engage in the same type of myth-making about their own civil wars as we do. Of course, the answer is yes, but it would be interesting to do a comparative study of this process. The most interesting question came from a student. I do not teach this student, but we’ve talked a bit since he is interested in the Civil War. He responded to the sections of my talk which focus on our fascination with the Confederate flag and the debates surrounding its public display. He started by noting that he has a Confederate flag hanging on his wall at home. (I thought this was a particularly brave comment to make, and a testament to the environment of free-inquiry that the faculty at our tries to maintain at this school.) This student made the point that he does not identify the flag with racism, but with the bravery of the soldiers. His question revealed a curiosity as to how I could spend all my time researching the war rather than reveling in its glory. At one point he asked how long I planned to continue researching the war. Without losing a beat I responded: "For the rest of my life and hopefully then some." I then went on to respond to the rest of his comment, which I prefaced by noting was one of the clearest expressions of this particular viewpoint. I noted that as a historian my job is not to get lost in stories, but to focus on their historical accuracy. Many of these traditional stories about Civil War glory can no doubt be used as expressions of specific virtues, but I noted that it is always important to remember that the job of a historian is to question and question again everything in hopes of understanding her subject better. I closed by suggesting that many of the stories we grow up with, while comforting and awe inspiring, often betray a certain simplicity and bias. In the end, the stories that historians often uncover are much more interesting and meaningful even if they contradict childhood dreams. I haven’t seen this student since Thursday, but I hope to follow-up our discussion with some kind of reading.
I should note that much of this talk was based on previous posts. Having the opportunity to present ideas in a more relaxed forum and consider responses from readers made a real difference to the development of this paper.