Last night I heard some rumblings on Facebook and Harry Smeltzer’s blog that the June 2012 issue of Civil War Times includes an editorial on Civil War blogging by Gary Gallagher. With my curiosity piqued and the issue not yet in stores I decided to secure a copy of the editorial from the author himself. I should point out that Gary and I lived up the street from one another in Charlottesville and had plenty of time to talk about all things Civil War. He was always very honest about his view of the blogging world, as well as my interest in the black Confederate myth, and I was always straightforward about why I thought he was wrong. Nothing that I say here would make me feel uncomfortable sharing with Gary over a beer. As for the column itself, it may ruffle a few feathers, but it is relatively harmless.
First, you can’t appreciate much of anything that Gary has to say about the ascendency of the digital world without taking seriously his own self-identification as a “luddite.” It colors everything, but it has the unfortunate effect of characterizing bloggers as non-academics or engaged primarily in non-academic pursuits. Consider the following passage:
Blogging represents the ultimate in the democratization of history, and many bloggers delight in pointing out that academic historians—a group often pilloried as hopeless elitists—have lost much of their former control over the dissemination of historical information. This last notion strikes me, a member of the academic historical community, as comically out of touch with the fact that most books published by university scholars influence about the same number of people as a tree falling in deepest Siberia.
I’ve spoken of the democratization of history as well, but Gary seems to be unaware of the academic world’s embrace of blogging as a legitimate activity that enhances and even advances traditional academic goals. Spend a few minutes over at the Cliopatria/History News Network blogroll for a sense of the diversity among academic history bloggers. Blogging is but one tiny piece of the digital turn in the humanities that is gradually becoming not only more popular, but more essential to pushing the analytical and aesthetic boundaries of professional history. Organizations such as the OAH and AHA have increasingly over the past few years acknowledged the importance of blogging in the form of panels and workshops. The technology has drawn a sharp line between different generations of historians, which is clearly discernible in Gary’s column.
This unstated theme of blogging as a non-academic pursuit comes through clearly in his choice of two examples that represent what he sees as the promotion of “errors” and “shrill response” – both examples involved him personally. You will have to read the column for yourself. Some blogs do sink into gossip and worse and the two examples cited by Gary were unfortunate, but it’s nothing you won’t hear at a large academic conference. Unfortunately, by citing these two examples Gary tells us little more than that the blogosphere is a place to tune into the latest personal gossip. As in the case of any social media platform the spread of misinformation and how to counteract it is a legitimate concern, but these two examples fail to identify the underlying problems and possible solutions.
Finally, we get to the issue of black Confederates.
Attention on numerous blogs can make an unworthy topic appear to be serious. The “debate” over black Confederate soldiers is a perfect example. This non-issue is kept alive, so far as I can tell, almost solely on blogs. The best bloggers have made clear from the outset, with unimpeachable evidence to back them up, that there were not thousands of black Confederate soldiers. They argued what any scholar familiar with wartime sources knows; namely, that substantial numbers of slaves accompanied Confederate armies and worked in myriad noncombatant roles, and that these men were not soldiers “serving” in the Confederate army. Like slaves who labored on fortifications or harvested crops or worked at Tredegar Iron Works, they contributed to the Confederate war effort as part of a system of forced labor that allowed the incipient slaveholding republic to mobilize a very high percentage of its white military-age population. The nearly obsessive attention lavished on Andrew and Silas Chandler strikes me as worse than unproductive because it helps keeps alive the hallucination that large numbers of black men shouldered arms in support of the southern rebellion.
I am not going to spend time here defending my interest in the black Confederate myth; rather, I want to point out what I see as a fundamental flaw in Gary’s characterization of Civil War blogs as responsible for keeping this narrative alive. First, none of us has that kind of influence. Our sites are ready by a relatively small number of people and the link juice that helps to determine search engine rankings is relatively little. The 100,000+ matches that turns up when doing a basic key word search for “black confederate” were present long before any bloggers hit the scene and I suspect that the number will continue to increase as we move through the sesquicentennial. Of course, the basic outline of the black Confederate narrative is a non-issue for serious historians, but that is entirely different from the question of how they should respond when it appears on NPR (and here) in National Park Service exhibits (and here) and, of course, in our history textbooks. I admit to being just a bit disappointed and surprised by Gary’s failure to acknowledge that blogs can not only correct misinformation, but educate the general public regarding this controversial subject. Spend some time perusing Andy Hall’s site on the subject, which offers a primer for those interested in how to go about researching many of the men that continue to appear in these discussions.
There is a great deal to reflect on regarding the place of blogging and other social media platforms in the academic community and among history enthusiasts generally. Unfortunately, the kind of analysis and reflection that is likely to bring us to a point where we can more clearly discern both its strengths and weaknesses will not come from a self-described luddite.
[Note: The draft that was shared with me may be different from the published version.]