The Future of Civil War History Is Not On the Battlefield

think-digital brainTomorrow I hope to finish up an essay that I was asked to write for one of the Civil War journals over a year ago about the the influence of digital technologies on how we write and research history and how that has fueled the myth of the black Confederate soldier.  At the end of the essay I take a moment to suggest ways that academic and public historians as well as history educators generally might address this myth, not by jumping head first into the very places where these emotional debates are taking place, but by re-considering what it means to educate the public at a time when everyone can be his/her own historian on the Web.

This is something that I’ve written about extensively on this site, but it has been on my mind quite a bit since the recent conference in Gettysburg.  I haven’t had much to say about the conference, not because I don’t believe the issues are important, but because I believe the front lines of the future of Civil War history will be drawn elsewhere.  The stories we tell visitors and the questions we leave them are all worthy of passionate and even fierce debate, but from where I sit the education that takes place on Civil War battlefields and other historic sites will impact a very small percentage of people.  There was a sense throughout the conference that the Rally on the High Ground Initiative, with its emphasis on slavery as a cause of the war and focus on some of the tougher questions of race, eventually brought Civil War sites out of the dark ages of the Lost Cause.  There is a certain amount of truth to this even though individual Parks such as the Petersburg National Battlefield had begun making significant interpretive changes by the early 1980s.  Much of the conference celebrated these developments and focused on how we can build on these recent interpretive shifts.  Peter Carmichael set the tone for many of these discussions by arguing forcefully that we need to help visitors look beyond our manicured landscapes along with monuments that reinforce what he believes to be a sanitized view of war.  I agree with Carmichael on the whole.

Public historians (broadly speaking) should be pleased with where they find themselves right now, given the history of interpretation at Civil War sites, but we would do well to remember that any claims to authority vanish on the interwebs.  The amount of time visitors spend at historic sites and museums with intelligent and qualified guides pales in comparison with the amount of time spent online.  What I would like to see in the coming years is for public historians and museum educators to shift their focus somewhat from content delivery to the teaching of skills that assist people in the gathering and assessment of historical content, especially online.  Empowering history enthusiasts at historic sites and museums and through their websites must include finding creative ways to teach how to properly interpret a primary source and how to evaluate the historical content of a website.

I am not for a moment diminishing the importance of place or the power of the connections that visitors forge at historic sites such as Gettysburg.  If anything, I am trying to reinforce its importance.  What I am suggesting we need to acknowledge is that the learning process of visitors begins long before stepping foot on a historic site and will continue long after the stories told fade away.  That process has become more and more for the average reader much more difficult to navigate owing to the democratization of history that has taken place as a result of the revolution in digital technology.  As history educators we need to rethink what it means to do public history or what it means to serve the public.

In the end, my worst nightmares about the public’s understanding of Civil War history are far removed from historic sites such as battlefields.  The future of Civil War history will be determined by each individual and the choices he/she makes about what to believe based on the quality of a Google search and the ability to assess the content that is returned.

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5 comments… add one
  • Ron Baumgarten Mar 29, 2013 @ 5:33

    Kevin–Interesting food for thought, as always. As a “self-taught” amateur historian, I often wonder about what professional historians are taught in school about research and interpreting sources. I have some experience to draw on given my social sciences background and my legal training, but as you seem to indicate, it would be worthwhile to spread the word on the web as to the standards of the profession. I certainly would love reading about this subject. Has any thought been given to possible free on-line courses on such matters? I am forgettting the name of the website, but I know there is some very successful compay that offers a broad array of classes on a multitude of subjects. Of course, if such sites are created, how do you drive traffic to them to ensure that the Civil War public (or history public) is finding them and reading them?

  • Christopher Graham Mar 28, 2013 @ 16:54

    Lots of talk in my department this semester about “threshold concepts in information literacy” and how digital humanities skills need to be integral to entry/101 level introductions to the history discipline. This leans a great deal on how to utilize a variety of digital archives, search engines, etc., and discern the usefulness/authority/reliability of items found in such places. At its basic level (e.g. aside from sorting, analytic, and data mining power offered by computing), this seems like an extension of traditional archival work. (I don’t intend to oversimplify it all.)

    I’m just thinking aloud here trying to get my bearings, but as any good public historian will tell you, artifacts and landscapes yield a different type of historical information … you know the drill. So how do we utilize the intangible effect of battlefields “in the gathering and assessment of historical content” in the distributed, digital, age? How can history producers (students) harness the immediacy of those artifacts and landscapes on the web?

    I’m sure these are painfully simple question and has probably been asked and answered thousands of times elsewhere. Anyhow, I look forward to your forthcoming piece.


    • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2013 @ 2:23

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the comment. I am glad to hear that this is taking place in your department. You are absolutely right that it needs to be introduced at the entry level. Professors cannot assume that their students are coming prepared with even the most basic digital literacy skills. We need to be introducing these concepts to students at a very early age. In my own work with students and history teachers I’ve found that it doesn’t take much to get folks up and running. There are a few guidelines that can steer people away from falling victim to misinformation on the Web. Ultimately, and I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying it, but teaching students how to access and assess information is probably more important than the content of our courses. It reinforces the very things we value in an open and democratic society. All of us desire an informed citizenry.

      • Christopher Graham Mar 30, 2013 @ 5:52

        “Ultimately, and I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying it, but teaching students how to access and assess information is probably more important than the content of our courses.”

        I know what you mean, and agree %100.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 30, 2013 @ 6:11

          I say this, in part, because it is usually the history department that engages students in larger research projects. At some point other disciplines will need to take up this charge, especially science. In fact, it’s safe to say that teaching students how to access reliable scientific information is much more important for their lives beyond school entirely.

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