This should not be read as an exercise in self-indulgence, but as some thoughts in preparation for a talk that I must present to a room full of academic historians at the annual meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians this coming October in New Orleans.
There is an ongoing conversation concerning just about every aspect of the Civil War and it is taking place with little involvement on the part of academic historians. You can find these discussions on countless message boards, listservs, blogs and privately maintained websites. Topics range from the ever popular battlefields and commanders to complex questions of secession, emancipation, the law, and the role of women. The content of these debates and discussions reaches a far larger audience than any published book or journal article and yet academic historians for the most part continue to write for one another even if a few of their titles appear on the bookshelves of the local Barnes and Noble. I don’t mean to impugn all academic historians. It is worth noting that there are individuals in the field who have made it a point to reach out in various ways, whether it is speaking at a local Civil War Roundtable, leading a battlefield tour or speaking to groups of students. It is worth pointing out that those who specialize in the Civil War and related subjects are lucky to work in a field where there is such a deep interest on the part of the general public.
The question is whether academic historians should be more aggressive in engaging the general public more directly and if so, how. A related question is whether this can be done in a way that makes a difference through showcasing a historian’s specialization or current research interests. I’ve found blogging to be an ideal format in both regards. This blog has been in operation since November 2005 and during that time I’ve maintained a focus on a fairly narrow range of subjects related to memory and public history. Throughout this period I’ve engaged readers from all walks of life, both within the United States and as far as Italy, India, Australia, Japan, and Poland. If my stat counter for Typepad is an accurate indicator of daily visits than Civil War Memory attracts just under 1,000 readers each day. A little over half are regular readers with the other half visiting as a result of a keyword search – the largest percentage having Googled their way to the site.
It is this latter group that I want to briefly discuss. It is impossible to know why these individuals are searching for information on a given subject, but the popularity of certain searches based on Google’s page ranking system presents one way to gauge the relative success of a blog. Consider a search for the phrase "Civil War Memory" which was popularized a few years back by David Blight in Race and Reunion. Given the title of this blog it should come as no surprise that it would appear close to the top of the list, but in this case it is ranked at No. 1. Other topics that have received a great deal of attention include both the Civil War Centennial and Civil War Sesquicentennial which are both ranked at No. 2. Keep in mind that Google does not rank a website based on content but by the number and quality of the links to that site. As for my current research on the battle of the Crater a Google search for "the battle of the crater" or "William Mahone" ranks this blog’s category page for that subject at No. 11. [Note that these page rankings are time sensitive and are likely to change.]
One of the most controversial and misunderstood subjects has to do with so-called black Confederates. Over the past few months I’ve focused a great deal of attention in hopes of challenging some of the central assumptions which continue to lead to dangerous misrepresentations of race relations and less than satisfactory interpretations purporting to explain the presence of large number of black southerners within Confederate armies. A Google search for "black Confederates" lists a post from this blog at No. 17 only after a number of websites constructed by various SCV chapters. On a related note a search for "Stonewall Jackson slavery" lists this site at No. 6. My point in listing these searches is not to toot my own horn, but to point out that history blogging has the potential to reach a large audience that tends to look for information through search engines such as Google.
Professional historians are trained to contribute to a body of scholarship through careful research and thorough analysis which is ultimately judged in the form of a monograph or journal article. This must remain the core of the profession, but at the same time, historians are increasingly aware of a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse. As I’ve pointed out before, with the Civil War Sesquicentennial set to begin in 2011 Americans will be confronted with important questions about how to think about and remember this important moment in our nation’s history. Published studies will no doubt increase as they have in connection with the anticipation of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth; however, it is likely that most people will not follow up their curiosity about a particular Civil War subject by purchasing or reading a book.