Blogging My Way Through the Past and Present

With trimester exams completed I am now looking forward to my spring break week and the opportunity to recharge before the final push toward the end of the year in May.  I hope to get in a bit of writing on the Crater manuscript and a solid week of jogging.  On Tuesday I head up to Shepherdstown, West Virginia to visit with Prof. Mark Snell’s seminar, “The American Civil War in Memory and Remembrance” at Shepherd University.  I first met Mark Snell back in 2005 at the annual meeting of the Society for Military History in Charleston.  Mark chaired a panel on the Civil War and memory that I took part on that also included Ken Noe and Keith Bohannon.  Since then we’ve remained friends.  I very much appreciate Mark’s enthusiasm and support of this blog from the beginning as well as his encouragement of my own research.  In addition to teaching history, Mark is the director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University.  The Center is currently engaged in a number of projects, but I do want to take a minute to plug their annual conference which will take place this year in Petersburg in June.  I am very excited about it since I am once again joining a stellar faculty that includes among others, Earl Hess and Will Greene.  Check it out if you have a chance.

Mark has assigned my blog as regular reading throughout the semester and he thought it might be worth having me visit with his students to discuss various issues related to the format and its place in the profession and the broader culture.  While I’ve discussed the role of blogging extensively over the years on this site, and even addressed a group of academic historians last year, this will be my first opportunity to engage undergraduates who may not be headed down an academic track.  In preparation for that trip I’ve been perusing the archives for a few posts in which I discuss how blogging fits into my career.

What follows is a 2008 interview that I did with a graduate student at the University of Richmond who was enrolled in a Public History course.

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.  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.

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 will 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.

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