It’s hard not to feel like the ugly duckling of this group. After all I write about the American Civil War and as everyone knows that’s not serious history. Of course I exaggerate, but I do so to raise what I think are interesting issues surrounding the place of professional historical studies within our popular and civic culture. Civil War history occupies an interesting position that straddles both the academic and popular realms of historical inquiry, but it does so at a price. There is an uneasy tension between professionally trained Civil War historians, non-academic historians, and consumers of historical studies. This relationship is worth exploring as it sheds light on the challenges/difficulties and rewards involved in the increased interaction between the academy and the general public.
On the face of it and from a very personal perspective I value the relative ease with which academic historians and non-academics interact on so many important levels. It may not be much of a stretch to suggest that Americans feel as if they have a right to be Civil War historians. The events surrounding the Civil War are seared into our national psyche in a way that makes it easy to empathize in different directions. In short, there is a sense of ownership of the past that drives our curiosity to both read and explore on our own. While this is not unique to the field I am hard pressed to find another area of history where this connection translates to such an extent into publishing and other academic pursuits. The rewards are clearly visible: more individuals exploring various aspects of the Civil War stands to broaden what we know. It should be pointed out that most non-academic historians research strictly military aspects of the war, but this should not be frowned upon in any way. After all, it was a war. Historians such as Gordon Rhea, Harry Pfanz, Stephen Sears, Robert Krick, and William Marvel have all produced first-rate studies of the war. Perhaps no one has done more to bring the war to more Americans than Ken Burns. We can and should quibble with his specific interpretation, but the point is that thought-provoking presentations of this crucial moment in American history can be done by individuals outside the academy. Professional historians should and have embraced this fact to a limited extent. As I type the University of Virginia’s Gary Gallagher is leading his annual Civil War Conference out of the University of Richmond and involves an impressive list of historians from both camps. The next few days involve both lectures and battlefield tours in the Richmond-Petersburg area for upwards of one hundred people. East Carolina University’s Gerald Prokopowicz interviews Civil War historians from both camps on his Civil War Talk Radio. Finally, some of the most talented professional and National Park Service historians have advised the NPS on how it can broaden its battlefield interpretations without losing sight of the battle itself. Much more can be done.
The attempt to bring a more sophisticated picture of the war to a general audience does involve a number of challenges. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere the majority of Civil War enthusiasts have narrow interests that rarely take them beyond the battlefield. Academic discourse has tended towards questions of social and cultural history in an attempt to bridge the gap between the battlefield, home front, and both economic and political realms. These questions are absolutely essential to advancing our understanding of the war; however, much of this analysis tends to alienate the general public. As far as I can tell this alienation cannot be explained by an overly sophisticated jargon. Rather the interpretations themselves are seen as a threat to an ingrained and popular view of the war that involves little if no ethical/moral conflict.
Professional historians have much to teach the general public about the war, but they must continue to embrace this opportunity even if it is fraught with protests from Southern Heritage Groups and others who have much more interest in protecting a certain interpretation rather than having their assumptions challenged for the purposes of learning. Much of the criticism leveled at professional historians stems from our tendency to celebrate the war as a function of American exceptionalism. We need to move beyond this rather immature level of discourse and more fully acknowledge the breakdown in democracy and the importance of slavery and race. Unfortunately, the charge of revisionism is heard all too often. It is suggestive that for many the war is not a topic of study, but a way of life.
Professional historians are in a unique position in relationship to the general public. They have an opportunity to enrich popular perceptions of the war in a way that goes beyond what most tend to find salient. To the extent and how they do so will make all the difference.
One final thought:
I’ve been blogging since November 2005 and along the way I’ve thought about why. Interestingly enough it has only become clear in recent weeks. I am first and foremost a high school history teacher. My M.A. in history from the University of Richmond has opened up a number of publishing and speaking opportunities and I’ve embraced it. I value the fact that an M.A. has been sufficient thus far, though I am well aware that this is unique to the field of Civil War history. In that respect the easy interaction between academic and non-academic historians has been crucial to my success. I’ve tried in the classroom, speaking engagements, and publications to bridge this gap between the professional and popular study of the Civil War. In the end, however, I’ve found blogging to be the most effective method to address this divide. My readers include both professional historians and many more Civil War enthusiasts. My goal has been to share ideas and challenge the way we think about the war. To the extent that I’ve gotten away with it may come down to the fact that I am not part of the academy.