Blogging the Civil War: Reflections

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a graduate student in the History Department at the University of Richmond who is currently taking a course in public history.  The student asked to interview me about blogging and history and since I am a graduate of the school I was more than happy to comply.  Given that the questions are about blogging I figured that my responses should be blogged.

1) What motivated you to create this website/blog?  What, if anything, inspired or challenged you to create this website/blog?

Answer: I began blogging back in November 2005.  At the time there were only two or three Civil War blogs, but it was Mark Grimsley’s Blog Them Out of the Stone Age which inspired me to throw my hat in the ring.  What I liked about Mark’s blog was that it introduced a wide spectrum of topics related to military history to a diverse audience.  It worked to bridge the divide between more casual readers of military history and scholars working in the field.  I’ve tried to do the same thing with Civil War Memory.  I see myself as occupying a unique position as both a high school history teacher and Civil War historian.  In addition, my interests extend beyond military themes which remains the preoccupation of most Civil War enthusiasts and while I did not have specific goals in mind when I first started blogging I did hope to introduce and discuss questions and issues that are often overlooked in certain circles.  These include the topics of memory, race/slavery, social/cultural history and even subjects beyond the Civil War entirely. 

2) To what degree are you building on previous research and works?  To what degree is your research and blog new and what has it added to the research already out there?

Answer: While much of what I blog about relates to my own ongoing research projects this site is not meant as a substitute for work that will hopefully find its way into peer-reviewed publications.  My readers have offered a great deal of insight in response to posts which focus on research-related themes and I am greatly appreciative.  This is truly one of the benefits of blogging.  I’ve used this blog to help write articles and conference presentations.  [Click here for posts related to my book-length project on the Crater and historical memory.] Blogging gives you the freedom to explore ideas in a public setting in much the same way that a conference presentation makes possible.  In the case of blogging, however, the audience is much larger and more diverse.  My readers have become an integral part of the process of research and writing. 

3) How has your history degree helped you in creating and maintaining your website/blog?

Answer: I do believe that my M.A. in history from the
University of Richmond lends some legitimacy to my blogging.  This is
not to suggest that a degree is a necessary or sufficient condition for
history blogging, but given that my interests have a more academic
slant it doesn’t hurt in terms of attracting professional historians,
museum employees and National Park Service historians.  I like to think
that my advanced degrees reflect a certain level of seriousness and
passion for the subject, and hopefully this comes through in my
sensitivity to serious analysis of sources as well as an understanding
of historiography. 

4) What sources do you use for your blog?  What sorts of criteria do
you use to evaluate the sources before you post them on-line?

Answer: The most essential tool is the ability to link to
other bloggers and websites. Bloggers should be engaged in
conversations with other bloggers and the more links provided the
broader and more sophisticated the discussion tends to be.  Since the
general theme of my blog is memory I make regular use of news items to
keep track of how the Civil War continues to be remembered and debated
within public spaces.  Since my research currently focuses on the
history and memory of the Confederacy I tend to track related news
items such as the current debate over black Confederates and the public
display of the Confederate flag.  The blogging format makes it possible
to discuss a wide range of issues from the mundane to scholarly and to
write about them with a certain level of precision or in some cases
casualness. 

5) As you work on your website/blog, do you have any particular
biases concerning the sources you use?  Do these biases affect the your
work as a whole?

Answer: The theme of my blog allows me to focus and utilize
sources in the broadest sense.  This gives me the opportunity to
analyze sources not simply for credibility, but as expressions of
various forms of interpretation and commemoration.  This creates
challenges as some of my readers find it difficult to distinguish
between my commentary on sources as commemoration and memory and the
individuals they attempt to render intelligible.  This can be seen in a
series of posts about religion and "Stonewall" Jackson. On the one hand
it is absolutely essential to understand how religion both shaped the
world views of Americans before during and after the Civil War and how
religious belief was effected by the exigencies of war.  At the same
time I am very interested in recent popular depictions of Confederate
leaders in religious contexts.  In these cases, however, religion as
history tends to take a back seat in favor of a moral point that the
artist or writer hopes to make.  I am often criticized as biased for
not acknowledging the importance of religion in American history when
my point is more about how some Americans interpret the significance of
religion. [Click here for one example.]

My posts on Lee and slavery often lead to similar conclusion from a
certain quarter of my audience.  I have commented extensively on Lee’s
positive views of slavery based entirely on the excellent scholarly
studies that have emerged over the past few years.  Unfortunately, any
comment that hints of an attack on Lee’s character is interpreted as if
I am engaged in a personal attack on the general or the South more
generally.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I attribute this
not only to failure to understand my interests in memory and the Civil
War, but a misunderstanding of what is involved in serious historical
study.   

6) Do you have specific topics in mind when you are looking for
things to put in your blog, or do you put up anything about the Civil
War, which you find interesting for yourself, and which you think
others will be interested in?

Answer: I’ve left the blog wide open in terms of subject
matter.  My readers have proven to be a wonderful source for new
material as they regularly email items that they have come across.  No
doubt there are common themes and individual subjects that can be found
on a regular basis.  I am very interested in the extent to which our
national memory of the war has changed over the past 15 years.  You can
see this clearly in cities like Richmond which has had numerous debates
over how to remember the war and the issues involved.  Examples include
the Arthur Ashe monument in downtown Richmond as well as the placement
of the Lincoln-Tad statue on the grounds of Tredegar.  We are living in
a transitional time as local governments become more diverse and now
have an opportunity to reshape public spaces in a way that mirrors a
more diverse and contested past.  My current project on memory and the
battle of the Crater analyzes just these kinds of issues at the turn of
the twentieth century and beyond, but blogging offers an ideal medium
in which to share and comment on more recent controversies. 

7) What sort of audience, if any, is your website targeted at?

Answer: Without knowing whether anyone would find this site
to be of interest, I did hope to bridge the divide between academic or
professional historians and more casual Civil War enthusiasts.  From
what I can tell, based on various tracking programs, Civil War Memory
has attracted substantial numbers from both groups and I am
particularly proud of this. Spend enough time in the Civil War
blogosphere and you come to appreciate the various fault lines that run
through it.   As I mentioned earlier much of what I read and write
about falls outside the purview of most Civil War enthusiasts.
Blogging has given me the opportunity to introduce this scholarship to
a wide audience and hopefully in a way that is educational and
entertaining. 
I am most pleased by the fact that high school
teachers from around the country find what I do to be helpful.  Their
enthusiasm has led me to focus even more of my time on ways to
introduce and explore the Civil War in the classroom. 

8) How much time, on average, do you spend looking for information
to post?  Do you spend a lot of time searching for relevant/interesting
material or is it a relatively easy task for you to do?

Answer: The only conscious effort looking for material is a
few minutes each day going through news items that may interest my
readers.  Other than that most of my topics can be traced back to an
ongoing research project or one of the books that I am currently
reading.  I try to update the blog every day, which is sometimes very
difficult.  In terms of hours spent it is difficult to gauge, but
usually anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour.  I also enjoy reading
other blogs most of which are included in the sidebars. 

9) How well has your website/blog been received both by the academic
and non-academic communities (especially since your site won an award
last year)?  Has your website been helpful for your classes and have
other teachers also found it helpful as well?

Answer: I couldn’t be more pleased by the reception this blog
has received over the past two years.  Readership includes academic
historians, Civil War enthusiasts, and a fairly large number of
teachers.  It is very satisfying to  know that all three groups find
the site worth visiting on a regular basis.  Much of my blogging is
meant as a form of outreach to other high school history teachers. I
have been somewhat less successful in attracting those who find what I
do to be a threat to their preferred assumptions about how to think
about the Civil War, the antebellum South, and slavery.   Part of the
problem is that for many the central assumptions about the Civil War
and related subjects are taken almost as if they were articles of
faith.  As a result many perceive me as disrespectful (or worse) for
even asking questions that throw into doubt much of what has been
passed down from one generation to another.  Of course, I was honored
to win the 2007 Cliopatria Award for Best Individual Blog

10) Where did your interest in the Civil War arise?  Have you always
been interested in this topic, and those related to it, or was it a
passion you didn’t discover until recently (i.e. within the last 10-15
years)?

Answer: I grew up on the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey
so the study of history couldn’t have been further from my mind.  My
interest in the war is a relatively recent event.  It wasn’t until my
mid-twenties while working on an M.A. thesis in philosophy at the
University of Maryland that I was introduced to the war.  My adviser
lived in Boonsboro, Maryland – a few miles from the Antietam
battlefield – and I used to dog sit while he was away at conferences.
On my first visit back in 1994 I was left with a list of sites to see
in the area, including the battlefield and the rest is history. 

11) Why did you choose the medium of an on-line website to share
your ideas with the world?  Do you think that you would be as
successful using other media (like books or journals)?

Answer:  Refer to previous responses.

12) Do you envision your website/blog being a integral part of your
“Civil War Memory” course, such as encouraging your students to make
posts on it, or finding information to put up?

Answer: Beyond a two-week seminar that I helped to teach last spring
I have yet to fully utilize blogs in my classes.  I’ve thought a great
deal about this, but have yet to come to any firm conclusions as to how
I would utilize the format.  Other teachers at my school have
introduced blogging and are generally pleased with the results.  A few
of my students have started blogging
on their own and I encourage my students to read and comment on my
blog.  I have no doubt that I will introduce blogs over the next year
in my classes and will make it a point to discuss the experience on
this site.  The course on Civil War memory would be an ideal place to
introduce it as the number of students involved will be manageable. 

13) Obviously one topic that you are very interested in is “how
Americans have chosen to remember and commemorate their Civil War.”  Do
you see your website/blog as one of the ways that the Civil War is
remembered in this country, whether for you, the American community or
both?

Answer: This is an excellent question and one that I will
have to give much more thought.  The questions asked and topics
discussed on this site reflect broader interpretive threads within
Civil War historiography so in that sense Civil War Memory is a source
that reflects the time in which it was written.  The close to 3,000
comments provide a small snapshot of both continuity and change in
respect to how various groups of Americans think about the Civil War.
I hope to be blogging through the Civil War Sesquicentennial and no
doubt many of my topics will emerge in response to the various
activities and celebrations which will take place throughout the
country.  The way in which the war is commemorated will inevitably lead
to conflict and consensus; hopefully, Civil War Memory will be able to
track the thoughts of Americans in a way that will prove useful to
future researchers.

2 comments… add one

  • Billy Yank Mar 7, 2008

    It is interesting that you were inspired by Mark Grimsley’s blog. As you know your blog inspired me and so did Mark’s. It just happens that is was throught Mark’s blog that I found yours and began my little attempt at blogging.

    Corey

  • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2008

    Corey, — Thanks for the kind words.

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