Harry Smeltzer, Blogging, and Civil War History

Today I received the latest issue of the journal, Civil War History, which includes a roundtable discussion about the First Battle of Bull Run.  The panelists include John Hennessy, Ethan Rafuse, and fellow blogger, Harry Smeltzer.  [I should point out that both Rafuse and Hennessy manage blogs, but they have published on the battle while it is his blog that singles Harry out as an authority.]  Lesley Gordon’s vision for the journal is beginning to take shape and I couldn’t be more pleased that she is inviting folks from outside the community of academic historians to take part.  The choice to include Harry, whose blog is about First Bull Run, suggests that blogging has the potential to open new doors for those who demonstrate competency in their preferred subject area.  I don’t think it would be a stretch to suggest that what we have before us is an example of peer review.

Most Civil War bloggers do a good job of expressing their passion for the subject.  Very few actually add to our understanding of the Civil War and this is just fine.  The beauty of the format is that one can blog for any reason whatsoever, but it is always nice to see when the hard work leads to new opportunities.

Congratulations, Harry.

Thank You, Dr. Robertson

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial “Signature Conference” hosted by Virginia Tech and organized by James I. Robertson.  I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews of the event.  As many of you know Dr. Robertson is retiring from his teaching position at Tech this year.  He has touched the lives of many and has added immeasurably to the general public’s understanding of the war.  Here is a short clip of his farewell remarks from the conference.

On a different note, I understand that some of you are having trouble viewing comments on the blog. The trouble seems to be with Internet Explorer. For now, I recommend using Firefox, Google Chrome, or Safari.

The Ghost of Karl Betts

Update: In it’s first decision since the resignation of half of its committee members, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission denied a funding request from The Guyandotte Civil War Days festival committee. It turns out that the committee invited H.K. Edgerton to give the keynote address. Clearly, the WV commission made the right decision.

Karl S. Betts was the first executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission and a successful Kansas-born businessman.  His goals were first and foremost to fashion a centennial celebration that would attract patriotic audiences and steer clear of issues related to race.  This meant battle reenactments and parades.  Most of the sesquicentennial commissions, including Virginia, have decided to steer clear of reenactments.  As I understand it, that decision has to do with not wanting to be perceived as celebrating what was a destructive and costly war as well as wanting to focus on more substantive and educational projects.

As far as I know, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission is the first case of a sharp divide between those who want to entertain as opposed to educate.  This report is based largely on an interview done with Professor Mark Snell, who is the vice chairman of the commission.  [I should note that I am good friends with Professor Snell and I trust his judgment.]

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The Problem With Civil War Movies

There seems to be a good deal of anticipation for History’s upcoming movie, Gettysburg, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott.  I am not one of them.  Audience’s will likely experience a visually stimulating and gritty depiction of the actual battle.  The goal of the movie, according to the History website is the following:

Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, GETTYSBURG strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light–a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men who put everything on the line in defense of their vision of the American future. Cinematic in scope, GETTYSBURG is an information-packed look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little-known facts surrounding the battle. Developed in collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, GETTYSBURG reflects hundreds of individual accounts of the battle–the unique voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a bitterly conflicted nation. [Click here for a preview.]

Will this movie really highlight what was a “visceral, terrifying, and deeply personal experience?”  Wasn’t Ted Turner’s Gettysburg an example of just such a movie or is the difference here that the special effects will set the Scott production apart?  I guess in the end I have trouble believing that any Civil War movie can strip away “the romanticized veneer of the Civil War” entirely.  Our memory of Gettysburg is wrapped up in all kinds of romantic memes from “Brother v. Brother” to “A Battle that Decided the Fate of a Nation.”  We don’t have a Civil War apart from our romantic notions that define its continued significance and meaning.

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Teaching Civil War Battlefields

Yesterday Brooks Simpson offered a brief reflection on why he spends time at Civil War battlefields.  He also asks of his readers why they visit these places.  Back in 2008 I was invited to give the keynote address at the National Park Services’s [FSNMP] annual commemoration in Fredericksburg.  I took the opportunity to share why I bring my students to Civil War battlefields.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.

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