How Wide Is The Gap Between Professional Civil War Historians And The General Public?

Fellow blogger David Woodbury responded to my last entry and I thought it was such a thoughtful response that it deserved its own post.  Here is his response:

You wrote:"There is no doubt that most Civil War enthusiasts assume
a set of assumptions that carry little weight within the academic
community. Just take the "debate" over the cause of secession; while
most non-academics continue to push the states’ rights, tariff,
fundamental regional differences line of thought there is general
agreement among professional historians that slavery was the salient
issue driving the national debate one the eve of and especially
following Lincoln’s election in 1860."

Kevin, I think you make too much of this divide between the academic
community, and what you imagine are the assumptions of the general
public. Or maybe, you’re just referring to a "general public" that’s
unlike the one with which I’m familiar. Maybe you’re not referring to
the United States at-large, but to the parts of the South with which
you have personal experience.

In fact, in my own experience, I couldn’t disagree more with the
statement quoted at top. The overwhelming preponderance of
non-academics I know have always embraced the prevailing academic view
that slavery was the central, overarching issue at the center of the
sectional rift, that it was what made the great Compromises necessary,
and that the perceived threat to it — the dimming prospects for
expanding slavery westward into the vast territories covering the rest
of the continent — directly precipitated secession, which in turn
precipitated an inevitable war.
The reason most non-academics take that
view is that it is the view handed down to us by academics. That was
the perspective I was inculcated with as a child in Iowa, and as a
college student in Indiana.

If anything, you might argue that the general public has adopted
assumptions that are oversimplifications of what is being pushed by
academics. But even these oversimplifications must be said to carry
weight with academics, because they are borne out of academic
arguments. For example, we might say that Lincoln’s position with
respect to emancipating the slaves was more complicated and nuanced
than the popular elementary school notion of Lincoln as the Great
Emancipator — a single-minded crusader for equality among the races.
And yet, the oversimplification folds nicely into academic histories
because the root elements are true: Lincoln was opposed to slavery, and
did more than any other man to effect emancipation. In the general
public I grew up in — and the one I live in today in California –
widespread assumptions hold that the Civil War was about slavery, and
that Lincoln freed the slaves.

If you find a disconnect between academia and the general public
with respect to secession or root causes, I’d wager it’s a regional
issue, and doesn’t apply generally.

I agree that my reference to the "general public" is vague and I am not sure I want to commit myself to trying to unpack it.  Of course I did not do any kind of survey; I based it on my own experience over the last year tracking online news items, reading letters to the editor in magazines, my students, etc. Admittedly, this is not scientific.  Anyway, perhaps other readers would care to comment on this.  Thanks David.

Balancing Interpretation, Celebration, and Entertainment In Public Spaces

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the new Civil War museum in Richmond.  No doubt some of you are getting sick of having to read about it.  The more I think about it, however, the more I am convinced that as we approach the Sesquicentennial our museums and other public spaces will be on the front lines of controversy.  The blogger over at Whig Hill recently commented on my review of the museum and in doing so made some very interesting points.  The reference is contained in a post that discusses the author’s recent trip to a conference for museum curators:

This writer grasped something that museum people frequently overlook—that visitors (stakeholders, really, in this case) arrive with their own sense of historical importance or relevance. I don’t think it’s as maddeningly diverse as the author thinks, but an extremely important reminder to people who create exhibits and take it a step further by caring how well it succeeds with the visitor.

That is, of course, my concern for the new Civil War exhibit at Historic Tredegar. Kevin Levin reviews it here and in the process, mentions the board of heavyweight advisors. Certainly a high-powered intellectual set that contains the best thinkers about the American experience of Civil War. It follows, naturally, that the big narrative is an academically sound, made-by-committee, satisfactory, snooze-fest. (Again, that’s the impression I get from Levin’s impression. I haven’t seen this yet.) The reviewer even stopped to consider how it will appeal to certain visitors; something that may not have occurred to the advisors.

If any branch of history must deal with this dynamic it’s the Civil War.  And the author’s reference to visitors as “stakeholders” is right on target. What I like about the label is the implication that people who visit museums are invested both emotionally and rationally in what they read and view.  I wonder if it is not going too far to suggest that Civil War enthusiasts are driven by a heightened sense of emotion when they visit certain public spaces such as museums and battlefields.

There is no doubt that most Civil War enthusiasts assume a set of assumptions that carry little weight within the academic community.  Just take the “debate” over the cause of secession; while most non-academics continue to push the states’ rights, tariff, fundamental regional differences line of thought there is general agreement among professional historians that slavery was the salient issue driving the national debate one the eve of and especially following Lincoln’s election in 1860. In the case of the ACW Museum, the first video on the cause of secession/war clearly challenges the assumptions of the general public.  Given that many are invested in an interpretation that does not hold much weight among professionals, I wonder to what extent museum staffs should worry about a possible clash between the work of their academic advisors and the assumptions held by the general public.  As anyone knows who follows the endless news items that cover topics related to the Civil War the question of how to think about the Civil War is incredibly contentious.

What I tried to convey in my review of the museum at Tredegar was a deep appreciation and approval of the sophistication of the interpretation.  It is intellectually demanding and it will challenge numerous assumptions held by the general public concerning central themes of the Civil War.  There need not be tension between the scholarly rigor of the advisors and the way that interpretation is conveyed to the public.  After all, the curators and other staff must work with those people who are responsible for delivering that information to the general public in various ways and this can be done in an entertaining manner.  The more I think about it the more I am convinced that museums should challenge their visitors to think in new ways.  It must respect the background of its visitors, but it must not sacrifice the quality of its interpretation for sensitivities that are rooted more in an emotional attachment to the past as opposed to a careful reading of the relevant literature.

One of the things that I am looking forward to following in the plans for the upcoming Sesquicentennial celebrations is the relative importance attached to scholarship, celebration (heritage), and entertainment.  The balance between scholarship and celebration was not easily defined as the state of Civil War historiography was limited in important ways; historians were only beginning to explore topics related to race and slavery and other social/cultural issues.  The general public was even more removed from these discussions; their interests were focused more on remembering a war whose basic outline had not changed since the turn of the twentieth century.  We are clearly in a different place as scholarly studies are much more accessible to the general public.  The availability of these studies and their accessibility has led to tension between heritage groups and academics who they accuse of attacking the South and its “history.”

The ACW Museum has clearly taken a stand on this issue and I encourage it to continue to challenge and develop exhibits that are creative and provide as inclusive an interpretation of the war as possible. On the other hand, the South Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission includes museum directors, archivists as well as the Chairman of the African-American Heritage Association, the President of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the President of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  It will be interesting to see how this commission functions.  How will they handle the inevitable problems between interpretation, celebration, and entertainment?  What will the events planned by this commission look like?

Interviewed About American Civil War Museum at Tredegar

Today I was interviewed over the phone about the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar in Richmond for an article that will appear in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.  I had a chance to make some of the points that were included in my recent review of the museum on this blog, and the reporter agreed to include the URL in the article.  That might bring some new readers to this site.  Anyway, the article should appear in the paper soon and I will provide a link if the piece appears online. 

James Clark Remembers The Crater (117th New York Infantry)

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post on neo-Confederates and the Crater.  One of my readers was kind enough to forward me a short excerpt from James Clark’s The Iron Hearted Regiment which tells the story of the 115th New York Infantry and was published in 1865. 

A colored division mount the works, and they too go forward on the charge. We watch them eagerly; it is their first fight, and we wonder if they will stand the shock. Noble fellows! Grandly they cross the field; they are under a withering fire, but still rush on regardless of fallen comrades, and the storm of pitiless lead and relentless grape that pours upon them from three sides, and gain the works with a ringing cheer. Now they sweep everything before them. Prisoners are taken, and are forced to run the fearful gauntlet of fire. A fellow comrade said he saw a colored soldier in an agony of frenzy, bayonet a rebel prisoner, and his own captain justly shot him dead. Others place wounded comrades in blankets and shelter tents, and compel the chivalry at the point of the bayonet to carry them from the field. The colored troops are greatly elated at their success, and wildly mass and crowd together regardless of all order or position." (p. 148)

It would be very interesting to survey the evolution of Union accounts of the Crater and the performance of U.S.C.T.’s.  As I suggested yesterday, a significant number of accounts penned by Union soldiers were critical of their performance.  I obviously do not know whether Clark’s 1865 account was pulled from an earlier diary or letter written at the time of the battle.  To what extent – if at all – does the date of publication in 1865, along with the strong emotions of victory and the passage of the 13th Amendment influence this account?

Neo-Confederates On The Crater

Over at H-CivWar Donald Shaffer reviews John Cimprich’s recent study, Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (LSU, 2005).  I read the book and have to say that I was just a bit disappointed.  With a title that includes a reference to “public memory” and the presence of U.S.C.T.’s I was hoping for something that would help me think through similar issues about the Crater and memory.  Unfortunately, the section on memory was much too short and provided very little information on how to better understand the evolution of accounts about the battle and massacre of black soldiers.  A short section of Shaffer’s review resonated with me:

The last chapter again highlights what is the main weakness of _Fort Pillow:  A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_–its brevity.  Although there is much worthwhile in this book, Cimprich leaves many significant topics unexplored or underexplored.  By focusing much of chapter 7 on the development of Confederate memory, particularly as it pertained to Nathan Bedford Forrest, he leaves the northern interpretation and more recent interpretations of this incident too thinly covered.  Indeed, one memory topic begging for attention, which Cimprich virtually ignores, is the recent rise of the neo-Confederate sentiments among Civil War enthusiasts and how this movement deals with Fort Pillow, not to mention its larger  view of African Americans in the conflict.

I’ve spent too many bytes on the question of how neo-Confederates handle issues of race and the presence of black soldiers in the Union army.  We know the drill: thousands of blacks fought willingly for the Confederacy and were loyal throughout the war.  Shaffer rightfully criticizes Cimprich for not discussing more recent attempts to minimize or ignore the slaughter of black soldiers at Fort Pillow  I’ve seen the same thing in reference to the Crater.  The argument typically has two parts.  First, ignore wartime accounts authored by Confederates who took part in the battle and then emphasize until you are blue in the face that Union soldiers also “massacred” black soldiers during and after the battle.  One of the best examples of this can be found at the website, The Petersburg ExpressThis passage is the result of an email that I wrote that was posted on their website.  Lucky me.

To isolate the incidents of White Confederate soldiers killing USCT while ignoring incidents of White Union soldiers killing USCT, [USCT killing White Confederates], or the murders of White soldiers by White soldiers on both sides presents incidents of USCT being killed by White Confederates as a false and inflammatory image. It makes it appear that such incidents were particular and one-sided when they were part of a much wider pattern perpetrated by both sides. You also fail to understand that Confederate soldiers served side-by-side with Blacks who operated in the Confederate military not only in support functions, but also as armed Confederate combat soldiers. The evidence of their combat service as contained in the Federal Official Records, Northern newspapers, and the letters and diaries of Union soldiers are so numerous and compelling that the National Park Service has recognized their service undertaken to research those sources and add them to the African-American History Web Project.
I want to start by saying that in my extensive research of wartime accounts I came across a number of Union accounts that expressed the worst kind of racism towards the black soldiers who took part in the battle.  A number of soldiers went so far as to explain the Union defeat as a result of black soldier’s lack of courage.  I even came across a couple of accounts where the writer admits to seeing black soldiers treated violently by their white counterparts, including one New Hampshire soldier who admits to seeing a black soldier shot as he ran from the Crater.

As I see it the problem for neo-Confederates is that while they are correct in pushing for the recognition that black soldiers were treated poorly on both sides there is simply nothing comparable to  Confederate wartime accounts.  Letters, diaries, and even newspapers are littered with accounts of how black soldiers were treated both during and after the battle.  There should be no surprise about this given the way these men interpreted the site of armed, uniformed, and angry black men.  They make clear in their letters and diaries that their presence on the battlefield clarified just what was at stake if the war were lost.  Of course racism coursed throughout the country before, during and after the Civil War. No one region had a monopoly on it. That does not, however, cancel the need for a careful study of how Confederate soldiers behaved at the Crater and why.  To ignore these accounts is to leave out a salient aspect of the battle.  In trying to nail down just how many black soldiers were shot after the battle I rely on Bryce Suderow’s article in the journal, Civil War History [(Sept. 1997): 219-24].  If he is way off the mark then let me know.

In their failure to include wartime sources the website stresses postwar accounts and usually without any analysis.  Consider this page which brings together a number of accounts purporting to support the idea of black Confederates.  No interpretation of when they were written, by whom, or why, just lay it out and hope that the reader will jump to their preferred conclusion.  Anyone familiar with the literature on postwar politics and the trend towards reunion and reconciliation understands the hazards of interpreting these sources.  It doesn’t necessarily imply that these sources shed no light on the war, but there needs to be some analysis provided.  Isn’t that was serious history involves?  Challenging accounts that help us understand what happened at the Crater and why by arguing that racism and poor treatment prevailed in the Union army does not get us any closer to understanding wartime Confederate accounts.