Blogging the American Civil War or Who Said Blogging Would Never Lead to a Free Lunch?

Today I am presenting the following paper at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians in New Orleans, which is meeting as part of the Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association.  I am speaking along with Mark Grimsley and Anne S. Rubin on topics related to the Civil War and the Internet.  The meeting is taking place over lunch which should help to explain the title.  Given the time constraints imposed on the three of us there was a great deal that I had to leave out. 

There is an ongoing conversation that is taking place covering just about every aspect of the Civil War.  Twenty-four hours a day/seven days a week you can sign onto a host of message boards, wikis, chat rooms, social networking sites, listservs, and blogs and discuss just about every conceivable topic related to the Civil War from the ever-popular battlefields and commanders to complex subjects such as secession, slavery, emancipation, politics, and the role of women.  The level of interconnectivity and amount of information sharing brought about by the web 2.0 revolution is both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing in that it allows anyone, regardless of education, to take part in Online discussions and debates.  It is a curse because it allows ‘everyman to be his own historian’ regardless of background and education to contribute to the Web.  In short, the Web works as a powerful tool to mobilize opinion even if much of it is misinformation.

In November 2005 I launched a weblog (or blog for short) titled Civil War Memory. I was strongly influenced by Mark Grimsley’s award-winning Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, which remains one of the most popular military history blogs.  I knew of Mark’s scholarship, specifically the Hard Hand of War, but what impressed me most was the application of the blogging format by a seasoned Civil War historian as a form of outreach.  BTOS addresses complex issues and abstract ideas related to military history and does so in an intellectually stimulating and entertaining manner.  I set out to do the same thing with Civil War Memory. 

As the title suggests Civil War Memory focuses on the intersection of public history, memory, historiography, and what I call Civil War culture, which includes topics related to living history as well as ongoing controversies surrounding the display of Confederate images and the battle over public spaces. Over the past three years I've managed to engage readers from all walks of life, including professional historians, history educators, archivists, and National Park Service personnel as well as a wide range of Civil War enthusiasts.  My regular readers come from every state and as far away as Italy, India, Australia, Japan, and Poland.  On average 450 people visit Civil War Memory each day.

I occupy an unusual and perhaps unique position within the Civil War community.  While my credentials include an M.A. in history and I am employed full time as a high school history teacher my interests mirror those of academic historians.  I spend most of my time wrestling with questions more closely rooted within the academy and I’ve even tried my hand at publishing with some success.  Still, since I identify myself first as a high school teacher I tend to see myself as an outsider.  It is this perspective that drives my blogging. My primary goal for my blog from the outset was, and continues to be, to introduce and discuss questions that typically find more of a home within academic circles.  This involves introducing a wide range of studies, mainly published by university presses, to an audience whose primary interests rarely extend beyond the battlefield.  Such topics include, in addition to historical memory, gender and cultural studies as well as new approaches to the study of battles and campaigns – the so-called “New Military History.” I do my best to direct my readers to the most talented and respected historians in the field based on the conviction that only by reading reliable secondary sources do we come to a sophisticated understanding of the past.  Some of those historians such as Peter Carmichael and John Hennessy have authored guest posts related to their own ongoing research projects.  I fervently believe that Civil War enthusiasts are willing and eager to embrace non-traditional subjects if approached in the right way.  After talking to Mark Snell, who is the Director of Shepherd University’s George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War and a regular reader of my blog, about the success of Civil War Memory he decided to devote one of his summer seminars to the topic instead of focusing on a battle or campaign.  It was a risk given that most of the participants are interested in battle tours.  For three days in June 2007 I, along with John Coski, Kurt Piehler, William Blair, and Tom Clemens lectured on aspects of memory and toured Antietam and Washington, D.C. with a focus on how public spaces have been used to remember the past.  I can’t tell you how many participants approached me at one point or another during the seminar to thank us for introducing these ideas or for pointing out that it was the first time they had thought about the war in this way.  Blogging has also put me in touch with high school history teachers from all over the country. This has led to workshops through the TAH Grants Program with history teachers to introduce them to ways they can introduce the study of memory to their students.    

The questions and subjects that bring us together at professional conferences deserve to be discussed in wider circles.  After three years of blogging I no longer think strictly in terms of a dichotomy between the interests of academics and the general public.  I move freely, for example, between discussing Stephen Sears’s explanation of the outcome at Antietam to Edward Linenthal’s analysis of the distinction between sacred and secular space at our Civil War battlefields to debates about Confederate nationalism between historians such as Gary Gallagher and William Freehling.  Civil War Memory has also become an integral part of my own writing and research.  The blog has become a place to test ideas and along the way I’ve been able to introduce readers to my own research on memory and the battle of the Crater, as well as William Mahone and the Readjusters. 

More importantly, Civil War Memory is a place where you can find information on the most popular and pervasive Lost Cause myths that continue to resonate in certain communities.  No subject has received more attention on my site than the myth of the black Confederate soldier.  The subject functions as the perfect case study for a blog devoted to how Americans have chosen to remember their Civil War.  Much of my attention has been devoted to challenging the Lost Cause-inspired literature, the organizations that perpetuate these stories and why, as well as introducing the latest scholarship by such historians as Bruce Levine.  Peter Carmichael recently shared a conference paper on the subject, which garnered the highest number of reader comments to date.  My approach has been not so much to dismiss these stories, but to bring to bear a sharper analytical focus for those readers who are willing to step back and proceed with care.  I am convinced that the discussion which ensued in the comments section is hands down the most sophisticated dialog on the subject to be found on the Web.

The real benefit, however, is the potential for long-term influence as students and Civil War enthusiasts alike spend more time gathering information through key word searches on the many web browsers now available.  Given the popularity of the subject within the Confederate heritage community it is not surprising to learn that a Google search for “black Confederates” would send you immediately to a list of their own websites, many of which are hosted by individual chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who are this subjects most vocal advocates.  Two years ago you would be hard pressed to find one of my posts ranked within the top 10 Google pages, but that has gradually changed with an increased number of hits as well as links from other websites and blogs.  When I searched last week for “black Confederates” I found the first in a series of nine posts that I did this past summer on a news story out of North Carolina about a grave commemoration for a so-called black Confederate by the name of Weary Clyburn. The event was organized by a local chapter of the SCV.  Do a Google search for “Civil War Memory” or “Civil War Sesquicentennial”, search for a prominent historian in the field and more than likely your list will include a post from my site.  The point is that high traffic and links from external sites can turn a blog into a useful site within a system that does not rank based on quality or credentials.

Attention to sensitive topics such as black Confederates does come with its share of challenges and frustrations.  As many of you know all too well, the decision to engage the general public in discussions about the Lost Cause and other topics is a walk on the slippery rocks.  For some the simple act of asking questions or engaging in interpretation about the evolution of certain narratives is perceived as a threat to the identity and understanding of specific demographics, especially those with a regional affiliation or historic connection with the South.  For a blog devoted to how Americans have chosen to remember the past and the political implications of those choices this often leads to heated exchanges.  I’ve been the target of just about every insult in the book that would apply to a carpetbagger from New Jersey who dares to write about Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and the rest of the gang.  At the same time blogging has helped to clarify for me the language and generalizations that I perhaps wielded too easily for some time.  I’ve become much more sensitive to the fault lines within our Civil War community and have refrained from employing the neo-Confederate label, for instance, to dismiss or minimize those who approach the past from a very different set of motives.  As much as I would like to think that I’ve convinced readers to question certain Lost Cause dogmas I must admit that my readers have forced me to acknowledge my own biases and assumptions about the past as well. 

You may be surprised to hear that the most common insult hurled in my direction is to accuse me of being an academic.  Regardless of how many times I remind my readers that I am a high school teacher and not a college professor they continue to identify me with historians who they believe are best characterized as liberal-socialist-northern revisionists, who are anti-religion and anti-South.  No matter how much I want to be “Joe 6-pack” they pull me right back into the room with you people. 

This constant refrain, while worth a few laughs, ought to concern all of us in this room for what it reflects is a fundamental misunderstanding of the historical profession as well as the research process and the dissemination of that research through various types of publications. Many Civil War enthusiasts simply do not understand what is involved in the writing and research of critical or analytical history.  Although some of this suspicion of academia is a product of the politicization of history that has taken place over the past few years, much of it can be attributed to too few professional historians engaging the general public directly and specifically on the Internet.  This problem is especially acute within the Civil War community where the mistrust of professional historians has been fueled by Confederate ideologues that have mastered the art of mobilizing public opinion through misinformation.   As long as they monopolize the Internet they will control how the general public views all of you in this room, including NPS personnel and those of you who work in public history.

Please understand that I am not here to convince all of you to leave with the intention of starting your own blogs.  Blogging takes time, patience, and even a certain psychological profile.  What I will say is that it matters that Brian Dirck is blogging about Lincoln at A Lincoln Blog, and that Mark Grimsley, Brooks Simpson, and Ethan Rafuse blog together at Civil Warriors.   As a group I like to think that we are not only raising the level of public discourse and introducing the general public to subjects each of us can claim some expertise in, but that we are redefining the idea of what it means to be historians and teachers.  Constructive dialogue is always desirable.  The failure to engage the general public reinforces their perceptions of academic historians as aloof and arrogant.  Most importantly, as John Coski noted at last year’s meeting, it “reduces the prospects of persuading people to entertain new ideas” and maybe even picking up one of our books. 

One final thought. With the Civil War Sesquicentennial right around the corner it is crucial that state commissions, professional organizations, and historians think critically and imaginatively about how to use the Internet to educate the general public.  The numbers of Americans who will attend a conference, museum exhibit or read a book between 2011 and 2015 will pale in comparison with the reach of various websites.  I believe we have the opportunity and responsibility to contribute to and shape that content.

4 thoughts on “Blogging the American Civil War or Who Said Blogging Would Never Lead to a Free Lunch?

  1. Craig

    So are you saying that when some local historical society cites your online work, referencing it mistakenly to someone who’s been dead for a hundred years, it might reflect less their inability to conform to rigorous standards of academic practice and more their unwillingness to engage in open active dialogue with someone other than those who share their concerns about your work?

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Hi Craig, — I was wondering if you could clarify your comment for me. Perhaps my brain is not yet firing on all engines because I don’t have a clear sense of what you are asking. Thanks

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  3. Craig

    I wrote a much clearer version with lots of specifics but it quickly got very long-winded. So I generalized instead. Have a look at http://www.cameroncountyhistoricalcommission.org/StoryOfUnionForces.htm

    It’s a recently updated article written by Norman Rezoff,the commission’s secretary. Take a look at the References, particularly the one concerning Fredrick Buker, Memoirs of a Union Soldier. The link for that reference goes to my webpage, written five years ago. That webpage has a defunct link to Buker’s memoir and a number of observations I made concerning that memoir. Note that very few of the other links to online sources in that Reference list are active links. Buker’s memoir now has a new server through a Clark County Wisconsin history and geneology website. Mark Knipping’s ‘History of the 27th Wisconsin Volunteer Infanty Regiment’ was published online about a year ago, although the book itself is still an unpublished manuscript. Buker’s memoir is almost impossible to follow without a detailed understanding of where the regiment was, what it did and when.

    An updated link for Buker’s memoir and a link to Knipping’s regimental history are on my blog which you can access linked to my name at the top of this comment.

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