Back From New Orleans: A Short Report on the SHA

I had an absolute blast in New Orleans this past weekend.  It was great to see old friends, meet new ones, and listen to people present their research.  The best part, of course, is that the meeting was held in the "Big Easy".  New Orleans has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina, but it is clear that it is still on the road to recovery.  The downtown area is alive with tourists, but the spark of the city is difficult to find.  This was my first trip to New Orleans since 2000.  I couldn't help but think in comparative terms of before and after as I walked and jogged through the French Quarter each morning.  Those residents that have come back and are working hard to bring the city back to life ought to be commended.  They love their city and go out of their way to ensure that visitors walk away with at least a flavor of the sites and sounds.

Most of my time was spent away from the conference rooms in restaurants and the occasional bar.  Of course, I can't go into full detail about the shenanigans that took place between Friday evening and the wee hours of Saturday morning - reputations are at stake here.   Let's just say I was relieved that I was able to get to my talk on time and in relatively good shape. 

My session on Civil War blogging went quite well.  It was a true honor for me to be asked by George Rable to address the members of the Society for Civil War Historians and to sit on a panel with Mark Grimsley and Anne Sarah Rubin, both of whom have done outstanding work in the field.  I've been a member for about four years.  The organization has come a long way in that short span of time and I look forward to watching it expand its focus and membership in the coming years.  I was especially pleased to meet so many regular readers after the luncheon talk who voiced their enthusiasm for my work here on the blog.  What I enjoyed most about the weekend was having the opportunity to spend time with Mark Grimsley to talk about the place that blogging occupies in our respective worlds.  We discussed both the potential and pitfalls of the blogging format as well as how it has come to shape (for better and for worse) the way we write and engage in research.  Our conversations have given me a great deal to think about and, no doubt, you will see this discussed here in the coming weeks.

The annual meeting of the SHA is by far my favorite academic conference.   You get to spend a long weekend with a fairly large group of very talented and passionate historians who are eager to share their work and make new connections.  I always leave with a burst of energy, new questions to ponder and some new books to read. 

Blogging the American Civil War or Who Said Blogging Would Never Lead to a Free Lunch?

Today I am presenting the following paper at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians in New Orleans, which is meeting as part of the Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association.  I am speaking along with Mark Grimsley and Anne S. Rubin on topics related to the Civil War and the Internet.  The meeting is taking place over lunch which should help to explain the title.  Given the time constraints imposed on the three of us there was a great deal that I had to leave out. 

There is an ongoing conversation that is taking place covering just about every aspect of the Civil War.  Twenty-four hours a day/seven days a week you can sign onto a host of message boards, wikis, chat rooms, social networking sites, listservs, and blogs and discuss just about every conceivable topic related to the Civil War from the ever-popular battlefields and commanders to complex subjects such as secession, slavery, emancipation, politics, and the role of women.  The level of interconnectivity and amount of information sharing brought about by the web 2.0 revolution is both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing in that it allows anyone, regardless of education, to take part in Online discussions and debates.  It is a curse because it allows ‘everyman to be his own historian’ regardless of background and education to contribute to the Web.  In short, the Web works as a powerful tool to mobilize opinion even if much of it is misinformation.

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Calling All Artists

Strain1

How about a Civil War print that includes Lee, Jackson, Davis, Sherman, Grant, and Lincoln in prayer together?  Would anyone buy it?  I am sort of imagining something like what happens on occasion at the end of a football game where members of rival teams briefly join in prayer. 

Print by John Paul Strain

Letter to Historians Regarding Wilderness Walmart Controversy

Today I received a mailing from the Civil War Preservation Trust asking me to sign an enclosed statement addressed to Lee Scott, President and CEO of Walmart.  It looks like I have  been included in a group of historians asked to voice their concern about the proposed Walmart supercenter on the Wilderness Battlefield.  I don't know why I am being included, but perhaps it has to do with my previous posts on the subject [and here].  Anyway, I approve of the statement and plan to sign and mail it tomorrow.  Here is a short excerpt:

As a historian, I feel strongly that the Wilderness Battlefield is a unique historic and cultural treasure deserving of careful stewardship.  Currently only approximately 25 percent of the battlefield is protected by the National Park Service.  If built, this Walmart would seriously undermine ongoing efforts to see more of this historic land preserved and deny future generations the opportunity to wander the landscape that has, until now, remained largely unchanged since 1864.

The Wilderness is an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved.  Surely Walmart can identify a site that would meet its needs without changing the very character of the battlefield.

There are many places in central Virginia to build a commercial development, there is only one Wilderness Battlefield.  Please respect our great nation's history and move your store farther away from this historic site and National Park. 

Now who could disagree with that?

Hey Richard Norton Smith, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself

0104_historians_bh Richard N. Smith admitted today, in an interview on C-SPAN that he has not voted in the last two presidential elections.  Smith was interviewed by Brian Lamb along with Douglas Brinkley to put the ’08 Campaign in historical perspective.  So, why does Smith not vote?  He prefaced his comments by saying, “I think it is important not to lie to people.”  Smith believes that it would compromise his position as historical adviser for PBS’s Newshour campaign coverage, which he has done for the last eight years. Smith said something to the effect that he felt conflicted between having to answer questions about his personal political views and his role as historical adviser for PBS.  Apparently his political-historical commentary is somehow rendered more legitimate because Smith does not vote.  Can someone please tell me how such a position trumps your civic duty to vote at a time when we are lucky to get 52% of eligible voters to the polls?  C’mon..the guy writes presidential biographies for crying out loud.

Steinwehr Avenue Businesses Are In Trouble..

not, however, because of the move of the Gettysburg Visitor Center.  By now all of you are aware that the new VC has opened at a location further removed from the schlock shops along Steinwehr Avenue and has implemented a plan to charge admission [pdf file] for the new movie and Cyclorama.  Local business owners have complained about both of these decisions as an explanation for decreasing foot traffic and sales.  Let me suggest that their real problem is a lack of imagination:

In the meantime, the business owners are brainstorming other ideas to attract visitors – including locals – to Steinwehr Avenue.  Crist said it's not often that a local stops by Flex and Flanigan's.  "If I get 10 local people in my store a year, that's amazing," he said.

One suggestion is a Christmas tree competition. Participating
businesses would each decorate their own tree, and visitors would vote
with money on the winner. Donations could go to a charitable cause.  "That's one way we might be able to get some people in," Crist said.

Let me suggest that the blame for poor sales ought not to be pinned on the NPS's decision to move the VC nor for its decision to charge admission.  If there is any blame to be assigned it must go to the members of the Steinwehr Avenue Business Alliance who failed to plan for a move that was years in the making.  Good luck guys.  You are going to need it if the best you can do is a Christmas Tree competition.

Civil War Memory Stats or Why Blogging Matters

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I am collecting some basic statistics about Civil War Memory for my upcoming talk on Civil War blogging and thought I would share them with my readers.  Compared to political blogs and other high-profile sites the number of visits and page views is trivial, but within the history blogosphere I assume it ranks somewhere in the middle.  Right now this site attracts around 450 unique hits a day.  As a military history blog (broadly defined) it ranks very near the top.  This blog's Technorati ranking is 62, 589 with an Authority of 96, which measures the number of links from other blogs over the last six months.  The smaller the number, the better. 

One of the points that I hope to make is that the battle for Civil War memory or how we approach the history will be won or lost in cyberspace – including blogs, listservs, message boards, etc. – and not in books, conferences and other traditional forms of public outreach.  This is a tough sell since my goal is not in any way to instill feelings of guilt in my audience.  My purpose is not necessarily to convince one person in the audience to pick up blogging, but to share my experiences engaged on the front lines and how that experience reflects a changing public discourse about what it means to talk meaningfully about a crucial moment in this nation's past. The numbers speak for themselves.  Of course, the numbers don't tell us anything about what readers have learned – if anything – or whether they will return at some point in the future.   For me the numbers reflect the potential or promise of blogging.  It's a powerful tool that can expand a historian's ability to reach out to fellow academics as well as, more importantly, to all corners of the general public.

Blogging has given me the opportunity to join public debates about some of the most controversial subjects within the Civil War community such as black Confederates.  Hopefully, my posts have helped to clarify the complexity of the subject as well as the broader questions of memory that have come to shape our national and regional narratives.  More importantly, I've heard from countless readers that the focus of this site on issues surrounding memory and public history – subjects that are typically discussed only in academic circles – have not only enriched their understanding of the Civil War, but of history in general.  

With the Civil War Sesquicentennial right around the corner I think it is crucial that state commissions and other professional organizations think critically and imaginatively about how to use the Internet to educate the general public.  The number of Americans who will attend a conference, museum exhibit or read a book between 2011 and 2015 will pale in comparison with the reach of various websites – much of them filled with myth and propaganda.  Let's reach out.