Gary Gallagher Assesses the World of Civil War Blogging

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.]

21 comments… add one

  • Thom Bassett Mar 22, 2012

    Well argued, Kevin. It strikes me as almost a form of wishful thinking to dismiss online rebuttals of the black Confederate mythology on the grounds that serious academic historians don’t accept that mythology. By the same reasoning, there’s no need for “popular” critiques of Charles Murray’s writing since academic sociologists don’t embrace his theories.

  • Will Hickox Mar 22, 2012

    The well-publicized flap over the “two black brigades” in the Virginia history textbook, as you point out, makes it pretty obvious that it isn’t a “dead issue” kept alive by bloggers.

  • Chris Mar 22, 2012

    I have wondered how academic historians felt about blogs such as yours, Kevin, and I think this is a really worthwhile discussion. The amount of information that you add to your website on a daily basis is impressive but I also admire your adherence to solid academic foundations and research. You provide original perspectives and create your own source material whereas a lot of blogs I have seen, rehash online material through gooogle. Like any historian you have to skim through the sources to find reliable and accurate materials that can be relied upon. That said, academic historians are needed in these discussions. They are professionals in their craft and can spend the hours and know the methodology required to write history. But I think they are missing a golden opportunity to connect with younger generations well before they reach their campuses. Your recent post/question on what is inspiring this sesquicentennial generation fits into this discussion. I teach high school students and they are online – they want their sources to be online – they share and express their opinions on all subjects online. All efforts are taken to require them to do hard paper research but it is getting more difficult as more resource material is added online. This is just a fact teachers on all levels have to deal with which can be a harsh reality. Academic historians should be online and fight that luddite tendency because they are needed – their craft and how they do it should be showcased for the next generations. In the meantime, your blog is a great place to continue really important discussions and be that connection between the academic and online worlds.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2012

      Hi Chris,

      Nice to hear from you. I think you nailed it with this comment.

  • William Richardson Mar 22, 2012

    When Mr. Gallagher made the statement ” 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.” Is he saying there was 1, 10, 50, 100, 175, 250, or 300 + Black Confederate’s ? Or Kevin are you and he in agreement that there were NO Black Confederates ? What exactly is your stance on this ? Were there NO Black Confederates ? Or are you saying there were some but not the 1,000′s or 10,000′s that many speak of ?

    Respectfully,

    William

    • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2012

      Mr. Richardson,

      Thanks for the comment. I suggest that you go through the archives of my blog for more on my position on this issue. I’ve made myself very clear multiple times and do not wish to re-hash it on this particular post. I am more than happy to respond to specific questions on other posts. Thanks for understanding.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 22, 2012

    Kevin,
    I’ve always looked at your interest in the Black Confederate Myth as an attempt to 1) find the truth on a very controversial subject and 2) compile a narrative on the history of the myth itself. I don’t see your interest in the myth as time wasted. I’m very glad you have the interest and this blog to combat those who try to spread this falsehood to the unsuspecting public.

    I also like Gary Gallagher very much. It sounds like his issue is people who do all of their research on the internet on unfounded websites and think they know just as much or more than he does, in spite of his being a PhD. university professor.

  • Brad Mar 22, 2012

    The number of blogs on any number of subjects is enormous and the problem is separating the wheat from the chaff.

    I haven’t read Prof. Gallagher’s article but the essence of his concerns may be how can you trust what a blogger says (as opposed to what a trained student of history says) because anyone can blog but not can anyone get a book published.

    If I read a work by a historian, I have a certain degree of comfort because that person has been trained as a historian and reputable book publishers (both commercial like a Penguin or university presses like a UNC) are not going to publish someone’s work unless it has gone through a bit of scrutiny. If I want to blog, I just have to start a website, no credentials needed. There is a difference. That is the reason why in high school/college, they tell you that you can’t use Wikipedia as a source; it’s suspect.

    It should also be pointed out that your defense of blogging comes because you’re a also a blogger; the criticism of bloggers from a well known authority in the field of civil war studies probably cut you to the quick.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2012

      It should also be pointed out that your defense of blogging comes because you’re a also a blogger; the criticism of bloggers from a well known authority in the field of civil war studies probably cut you to the quick.

      Please understand that I am not offended one bit by Gary’s commentary. I am not in any way insecure or defensive about my blogging. This gets at one of my main points, which is that we are way beyond whether or not blogging has a place within academia and as a way to advance the practice of history in its various forms. The train has left the station on this one. If anything, his commentary reveals a generational divide regarding the role of technology within the practice of history. I sleep very well at night. :-)

    • Ray O'Hara Mar 22, 2012

      While anyone can start a blog,
      there are trained historians doing so also.
      Like Kevin Levin and a poltroon who shall stay unmentioned as he is Kevin’s friend.
      they are both teachers and published. And to be realistic about it there are some pretty bad academics putting out stuff that is garbage. The Va text book writer wasn’t picked at random after all.

      as for Wiki. many of its articles are heavily footnoted and it can’t just be rejected out of hand anymore.

      • Michael Douglas Mar 22, 2012

        Good point about Wikipedia, Ray. I like to point out to people that the gold in Wikipedia is rarely the article itself, but in the sources cited. If someone is going to rely on the articles as an exhaustive, authoritative source he or she deserves what they get. But in a well-written article those footnoted sources are great springboards for drilling deeper into a subject. If an article really interests me I’ll read the “Talk” pages as well. They can be as irritating and frustrating as the exchanges we see between the history/heritage crowds but often contain some real gems. :)

  • Pat Young Mar 22, 2012

    Kevin,

    GG’s article strikes me as odd. I am a part-time academic who blogs extensively on immigration legal issue. Other law professors might take swipes at ill-informed blogging on the subject, but praise my own efforts to get accurate info out. The fact that I sometimes respond to what are certainly myths is seen as value added. You’re own engagement, not just with the BC myth, but with several others, is an important corrective to politically driven distortion of the historical record. It is useful not only in examining the particular case at hand, it also helps a non-historian like me understand the process of myth construction in the Internet age.

  • Doug didier Mar 24, 2012

    >>self-identification as a “luddite.” 

    True true..

  • John Maass Mar 26, 2012

    The current issue of Perspectives, put out by the AHA, has a brief column by AHA Pres. Bill Cronan, which includes a surprisingly broad definition of professional historian. GG may disagree with it, but I think you (Kevin) would not.

  • Matt Gallman Mar 31, 2012

    Kevin, I stumbled back here through the usual internet back channels

    As you not, interested readers should certainly read Gallagher’s (essentially innocuous) piece, rather than relying on the responses from other folks. But one might argue that your discussion and the subsequent comments do illustrate some of his points.

    Gallagher essentially wrote that the world of Civil War blogs includes good stuff, not so good stuff, and quite terrible stuff. That is surely true. He in fact drew no bright line between “academic historians” and bloggers, except to note that some bloggers are hostile to what they perceive of as “academic historians” (they are). Despite your comments above, Gallagher’s piece really offers no broad observations about “academics” and blogs. He does suggest that the format – with its capacity for rapid publication and its absence of any referee process – CAN produce unfortunate results, even while it also produces all sorts of valuable material. Specifically, he notes that sometimes bloggers write things that are simply untrue (and there is no editorial hand involved to check that) and on other occasions the form sometimes produces a sort of “shrill” response that might not appear in other forms, You would certainly agree with those observations. He did not propose throwing out the baby with the bathwater, nor was he drawing lines between “academics” (which typically means folks who work at colleges and universities and are assessed by those scholarly standards) and a range of other people who do history either professionally or as a private passion.

    Sometimes it does seem that the bloggers who lay claim to the highest standards are insufficiently interested in protecting those standards. Thus, for instance, Gallagher quotes a fellow who is apparently a big name in the Civil War blogging world, who posted a bald-faced lie about him. I barely pay attention, yet I have noted this guy repeatedly engaging in irrational personal animus and complete distortions of truth. Yet, other bloggers routinely link to him as if his occasional excesses are merely charming, and they seem to feel no inclination to point out that the guy can not be counted on to tell the truth. That surely contributes to a culture where “hits” are the real coin of the realm.

    Or, closer to home, John Maass (above) suggests that perhaps Bill Cronon has a broader understanding of who is a “professional historian” than Gary Gallagher. You respond by linking Cronon’s article. The reader who skims this page might reasonably conclude that Gallagher had said something about academics only counting as professional historians, and that you share Maass’s implied critique of that position. That surely seems to be what Maass thinks, and you responded without in any way correcting him. But, Kevin, you read the actual piece that Gallagher wrote, so you know that the phrase “professional historian” does not appear at all, and nothing in the essay suggests some limited understanding of who the “professionals” are. Moreover, if you are the guy who lived down the street from Gallagher and talked about the CW over beers, you surely know that Maass’s comment is wildly off base. But you say nothing to correct him.

    Not a problem, it is only a blog. On a given day you might do good things or you might not and it is up to the reader to figure it out. That is essentially the point, isn’t it?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 31, 2012

      Nice to hear from you, Matt.

      He in fact drew no bright line between “academic historians” and bloggers, except to note that some bloggers are hostile to what they perceive of as “academic historians” (they are). Despite your comments above, Gallagher’s piece really offers no broad observations about “academics” and blogs.

      I never suggested that Gary drew a sharp line between the two. I based my reading on the fact that the two examples he cited were both personal and originated from non-academic bloggers. Gary seems to be unaware of the popularity of blogs and other social media formats among academic historians. More importantly, he is unaware of how they are being used to advance the subject matter, both in terms of presentation of content and reach. As a result his critique of blogging is really quite limited.

      As for John Maass’s comment, I simply linked to the essay he cited for others to read. I do not have the time to offer detailed responses to every comment depending on when they are posted. You are reading way too much into it.

      Not a problem, it is only a blog. On a given day you might do good things or you might not and it is up to the reader to figure it out. That is essentially the point, isn’t it?

      It is indeed only a blog, which is why I find it curious that you continue to return.

  • Chuck Paris Nov 1, 2012

    I have a bit of a problem with the way that bloggers open that gift that keeps on being given to you with the zeal of a child on Christmas morning.

    It has gone far beyond “respond[ing] when it appears on NPR (and here) in National Park Service exhibits (and here) and, of course, in our history textbooks. ”

    I think that both sides have agendas (some more honorable than others). Further, the shrill give and take often strengthens both agendas.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2012

      Anyone who spends even a little time on this blog knows that I have an agenda. Thanks for the comment.

  • Chuck Paris Nov 8, 2012

    Is your blog agenda any different than your high school teacher agenda?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2012

      I am not sure what you mean.

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