Does Civil War Memory Deliver Content or Controversy?

It’s been a while since I posted about blogging, but Robert Moore’s recent post on the distinction between content and controversy blogs, along with Brooks Simpson’s response, have moved me to offer a few observations.  First, the distinction itself makes very little sense to me, especially when you take a broader look at the blogosphere.  Just spend some time reading political blogs.  Regardless of the intent of the blogger it’s the subject itself that is necessarily controversial.  Perhaps all the blogger can do is control just how controversial or confrontational the content appears to be.  I often feel as if I am in the position as I explore for myself and my readers this slippery landscape called Civil War memory.

I’ve been blogging for seven years now and I still love it.  To me, blogging is unlike any other type of writing and it should be for the reader as well.  I tend to think of it as something akin to a jazz composition.  There are certain conventions and subject matter (motifs) that I try to stick to, but within it there is hopefully a good deal of free form and creativity (solos).  I want my readers to experience as many emotions as possible as well as to reflect on what I write as I do in response to your comments.  In short, I want my readers to be entertained as much as I want them to learn something.  I love the freedom of being able to quickly share what’s on my mind even if it is not clearly articulated.  Of course, I know that certain topics are hot button issues and are likely to spark controversy, but than again I don’t see how such issues can be avoided on a blog about memory.

I don’t mind admitting that at one point I read a great deal about how to build an audience and how to bring readers back on a regular basis.  I’ve thought a great deal about blog themes, typography, blog clutter, and even the color palette that you experience.  The changes that you’ve seen to this site over the years is me trying to perfect a crucial component of this medium.  In other words, with blogging it’s never simply about the content.

My favorite Civil War blogs are well written, thought provoking, and spicy.  I don’t regularly read blogs that function primarily as archives for primary sources or offer detailed analyses of the action at the West Woods or Little Round Top.  Most of them are just downright boring and since I don’t know anything about the authors/editors of many of these sites the information itself is unreliable.   On the flip side I can think of one Civil War blog that delivers a great deal of confrontational material and almost nothing in terms of content that is worth reflecting upon.  I don’t regularly read that site either.  Blogging is whatever you make of it, but it’s a certain mix that results in a loyal and expanding audience.  It’s that mix that I’ve been playing with over the years

Whether we admit it or not it’s an audience that the vast majority of bloggers want.  As we all know most blogs die within three months owing to a dearth of ideas on the part of the blogger and especially because of the lack of an audience.  The vast majority are nothing more than echo chambers.  We want to know that people are reading, but it actually takes a hell of a lot of work to build a loyal following.  The realization that no one is visiting and that in all likelihood you have nothing of interest to say to begin with can be a huge blow to the ego.  I felt it at times that first year.

In the end and regardless of how you label or categorize what I write on this site, my hope is that you come back and come back often.  That to me determines how far the “ripple” travels.  For me that ripple includes a book, a column at the the Atlantic, and an increasingly larger network of professional connections and opportunities.  I am not just tooting my own horn, but pointing to the real power of blogging or social media presence generally.

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Interpretation of Slavery at Civil War Battlefields – Addendum

Thanks to Bryan Cheeseboro, who left the following comment in response to yesterday’s post on the battlefield preservation panel from 2002.

I found out from an episode of Civil War Talk Radio that the NPS was dealing with incorporating cause and civilians and the home front into the battlefield parks (I think it was in the episode linked below). I certainly think mention of these things at any battlefield site is a good thing… especially at a place like Fredericksburg, a battle directly affecting civilians. But for many people who are only interested in battles as military strategy or those who don’t accept that slavery caused Southern secession and Confederate war, such information will often be seen as “PC BS.”

I certainly agree with Bryan that for a certain audience recent expansion of battlefield interpretation at NPS sites might be viewed as troubling for the reasons he alludes to.  My question for Bryan and one that I will now pose to all of you is how significant is this population?  The reason I ask is because it seems to me that Jerry Russell’s claim that Americans visit battlefields only to learn only about soldiers is nothing more than an assumption and in my experience a poor one at that.  It seems to me that visitors approach historic sites with open minds and with few assumptions about what they assume will be learned.

Of course, I have not spent as much time on battlefields as many of you, but I am going to venture that it’s time we put this characterization of the battlefield visitor to rest.

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Interpretation of Slavery at Civil War Battlefields

While browsing the Museum of the Confederacy’s website I came across this panel discussion from 2002 on the interpretation of Civil War battlefields.  I attended this panel, which was held at the University of Richmond.  It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years.

I decided to watch it once again though I was struck by just how much this question of whether we should approach battlefields creatively and broadly has become such a non issue.  Ten years later and none of the concerns expressed by the late Jerry Russell and Robert K. Krick have come to pass.  Go to any Civil War battlefield and the focus is still on the soldiers and the fighting.  The only difference is that in many of these same places visitors have the opportunity to understand more and better.  Russell’s and Krick’s emphasis on Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s involvement provided an opportunity to distract the audience from the fact that NPS historians/staff have debated these issues going back to the early twentieth century.  The question of whether the causes of the war, the home front, etc. should be interpreted on battlefields is an old one.  At one point Russell actually says that any discussion of the cause of the war, regardless of whether the focus is slavery, states rights, etc., is inappropriate on the battlefield.   It really is as if the men who fought these bloody battles just fell from the sky.  Looking back it is also clear that Krick completely missed the mark. Show me a battlefield that has become a “political platform.”

During the Q&A [1:36:20] John Coski read a question directed to Jerry Russell concerning the proper interpretation of the 9-11 attacks in New York City.  I happened to be sitting next to Peter Carmichael, who wrote the question down on an index card provided by event organizers.  Jerry held to his guns and suggested that the causes of the attacks should not be discussed in any future museum or interpretive panels at Ground Zero.  Thankfully museum interpreters did not listen.

This panel is well worth watching, but it does reflect how far we’ve come.  In the end, Dwight Pitcaithley and Ed Ayers were on the right side of history.

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Robert E. Lee: Civil Rights Leader

Here is a short clip of Tom Dugan portraying Robert E. Lee.  There is a short interview with Dugan and the director, but the clip that I found most interesting was Dugan’s portrayal of Lee’s views on slavery and race.  What you get is a very loose reading of the historical record and a great deal of fantasy.

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Kate Masur Tries Again

Historian Kate Masur has published another op-ed piece on Spielberg’s Lincoln in which she responds to unnamed critics of her earlier review of the movie at the New York Times. It’s difficult to see what, if anything, is new in this follow-up piece, but in reading it I think I have a better sense of what she and other academics find troubling.  First, I am struck by the fact that the movie has enjoyed close to universal praise.  Yes, there are quibbles with the length of the movie and especially the way the last rush to include a series of events leading up to Lincoln’s death at the end, but overall it looks like Americans enjoyed the movie.  Unfortunately, much of the academic debate over the movie simply ignores the groundswell of enthusiasm for this movie.

Masur uses the opportunity to once again drive home the point that Lincoln gives us little more than passive black characters that in the end are given their freedom by Lincoln and Congress.  This is not an insignificant oversight:

[I]t is now received wisdom among professional historians that African-Americans—both enslaved and free—were active participants in debates about slavery and race and that slaves’ refusal to stay put or side with their owners had enormous consequences. As Eric Foner wrote in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”

It’s not that there are no voices of blacks fighting for their freedom, but that they are either not central enough to the story or they are the wrong voices altogether.  Consider her critique of the opening battle scene:

Even so, the scenes that feature soldiers—including the first one showing intense hand-to-hand combat and the later one in which the audience views, with Lincoln, scores of soldiers lying dead where they fell—mainly function to frame the film’s central concern: political deliberations in Washington. Violence, suffering, and death on the battlefield remind us of the stakes of Lincoln’s decisions and help us understand why he was (according to the film) tempted by the possibility of forging peace without emancipation.

I agree that they function in this manner, but they also impart a clear sense of just what was at stake for African Americans in the war and their central role in forging that “new birth of freedom.”  Masur too easily ignores this and instead offers up her own imagined scenes that she believes could have been used in the film to bring it more in line with current historiography.

Masur closes with the following:

We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.

Indeed, and perhaps that is what this comes down to.  What we see in this critique as well as others is the continued tension between biography and social history.  It’s not simply that Masur wants more voices, what she appears to want is a different kind of story/narrative altogether.

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