Three Days of Talks and Not a Shot Fired

This weekend I am attending a conference hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society called “Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion.”  Last night John Stauffer gave the keynote address on abolitionism in the Bay State and today I attended three panels.  The range of topics discussed is really quite impressive.  I especially enjoyed Jim Downs’s discussion of the health challenges faced by newly freed slaves during the war as well as his thoughts about how all of this challenges our triumphalist narrative of the Civil War.  I also enjoyed Katy Meir’s analysis of the U. S. Sanitary Commission and Megan Kate Nelson’s paper on soldiers as tourists.  [Stay tuned for an announcement regarding a project that Megan and I will begin working on together in the very near future.]

Tomorrow we will finish up with three more panels, including two that include papers on historical memory by Barbara Gannon and Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai.  What is striking, however, is that this conference does not include one paper on military history.  An outsider attending this conference would have little sense that this event included four years of horrific violence. There is little sense that the men from Massachusetts ever fired a shot in the Civil War.  Of course, I am not the first person to make this observation about the place of military history in academia, but it is quite striking nevertheless.  The closest we get to a Civil War general is George McClellan’s 1863 visit to Boston.  I certainly don’t mean in any way to diminish the quality of the presentations that I’ve heard over the past two days.  As I said, I’ve learned quite a bit and I suspect that we will see many of these papers published at some point.

4 comments… add one

  • Pat Young Apr 5, 2013

    Reminds me of when I started writing The Immigrants’ Civil War series for an immigration website. My first few articles focused on immigrant communities on the eve of war. They were primarily political and social histories. My editor just assumed I would not actually write anything on the war itself, certainly no battle narratives. When I told him that I had an 8,000 word essay on Bull Run, he said I should reconsider, it was not what our audience wanted. They were interested in the ideas, demographics, and institutions, but not the fighting.

    I reminded him that the Civil War resembled modern day American conflicts over race, identity, nationalism, etc. with one major exception. In 1861 after the debates were through, Americans did not vote, they eviscerated one another. After that he never questioned the inclusion of the battles in the story of the war.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2013

      As far as I can tell pretty much every speaker/moderator is a former MHS Fellow. The line-up at least tells us something about what scholars are being given fellowships to work on at the MHS.

  • John Maass Apr 10, 2013

    The field of colonial/early US history is similar. I attended a conference sponsored by the Omohundro Institute for Early American History (basically, William and Mary) on War in the Age of Revolutions back in 2005, then one they did a few years ago on the era of the War of 1812. Both had little to do with actual military history. I have not been to one of their shows since.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2013

      Sounds like more evidence that this has everything to do with the place of military history in academia. Nice to hear from you, John.

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