I just got back from Winchester, Virginia and the first meeting of the Virginia Forum. Warren Hofstra and Brent Tarter organized a great conference on a very limited budget. Unlike many conferences, this one had a narrow focus that made it fairly easy to draw connections between sessions covering disparate time periods and topics. The sessions were all well attended and the papers that I heard were first-rate. My session went extremely well. I shared the time with two other presenters who have recently completed the M.A. in history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The questions and comments were both thought provoking and challenging. In addition to my session there were a few other papers that addressed Civil War related topics. Caroline Janney discussed the activities of the Ladies Memorial Associations in Virginia following the war and examined why many of these women shifted from wartime aid to soldiers to the reburial of the dead and commemoration after the war. Jeff McClurkin examined Pittsylvania County’s Confederate veterans between 1860 and 1870. He is interested in how the family continued to function as a support structure for veterans following the war. Finally, Amy F. Morsman explored the ways in which community organizations counseled Virginia’s elites on the social, economic, and political changes that had taken place in Virginia following the war. All three were excellent presentations and will hopefully be published in book form at some point in the near future.
The conference did impress upon me the possibilities of pre-circulating papers. Most conference presentations are works-in-progress and the hope is that audiences will be able to offer insightful comments and/or challenges for future consideration by the author. The problem is that listening to papers and staying on top of the arguments is very difficult – especially if the session is the last of three. Conference organizers should seriously consider publishing papers on their websites for attendees to read beforehand. While this may be difficult for the larger conferences, a conference of a few hundred is manageable. Most people know beforehand which sessions they will attend. Of course this would diminish the importance of the commentator, but why settle for one careful reading when you could have upwards of 20 or more. In addition, it would leave much more time for discussion.
It looks like next year’s meeting will take place at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. I’ve been going to academic conferences for about 5 years and I have to say that early on I felt like a fish out of water. It’s nice now to be able to go to these meetings and see plenty of familiar faces. I look forward to next year’s meeting.
I’ve been enjoying the exchange between Brian Downey, Eric Wittenberg, and Dimitri Rotov surrounding the pros and cons of publishing on the web. I thought a bit about Dimitri’s comment re: the ability to publish much longer studies on the web compared with the “institutional” controls of a traditional publishing house. (By the way I thank Dimitri for his brief biography. My comment on Brian Downey’s site was unfair and I apologize.) My concern is that we are placing too much emphasis on the unlimited length of text that web publishing affords. That a 200 page book could be turned into an 800 page book does not necessarily mean that it should be done. Granted that some studies demand longer page lengths, but I’ve found in my few years of reading that 200 to 250 pages is plenty. Both the University of North Carolina Press and Oxford University Press have tended to stick to this range. As for the outreach argument it is unclear to me at this point who this broader audience includes. I have no basis for this claim, but it seems to me that history books don’t sell (apart from Goodwin and McCullough) because people aren’t really interested in reading them. We make a big stink about a few authors who sell well, but let’s not kid ourselves. As I hit the home stretch of my Crater manuscript I am under no illusions that I will make any money or that significant numbers will read it. That’s simply not why I write. I write because it helps me get clearer on complex questions and the final product serves to engage others with similar interests who are also interested in thinking hard about the difficult questions. Within the context of the Civil War very few people fall into this category.
I do believe that the web offers excellent opportunities to publish the sources that historians use and as Dimitri rightly points out we may not even be talking about the entire book; perhaps it could be used to publish the primary sources used for readers to judge for themselves. The Valley of the Shadow offers an interesting example of such possibilities because the site allows readers of Ayers’s Valley-based book to trace the references back to the original sources. This is truly what makes the book and website groundbreaking.
I hesitate to put make this final point because I am not sure that it is really an argument. There is something comforting about a printed source that fails to translate for me on an electronic format. I feel rushed on the internet as I am a finger click away from millions of interesting sites. Even when I write online there is always a tendency to hit the “Publish Post” button sooner than I should. And no doubt that has happened more than once. I see this tendency in my students who have very little patience while doing research or reading online. I am convinced that the internet has contributed to creating a new generation of impatient and/or easily distracted students.
I find reading books to be very relaxing as it creates a self-contained experience. That said, I am more than willing to admit that this may be entirely a function of my conditioning. Anyway, thanks for the thoughful discussion.
Now that I have your attention — Given the news out of Gettysburg surrounding the casino vote I thought it might be worth resurrecting part of an old post. I understand that many people are concerned about the possible fallout surrounding a casino so close to the battlefield. Many of the arguments are legitimate. What bothers me, however, is the self-righteousness that accompanies many of these arguments. We are to believe that somehow this casino represents some drastic new step down the road of economic exploitation of a sacred site. Absolute Garbage!!!! The battlefield was never simply a sacred site to Americans. The It was exploited by various groups from the beginning. Let’s at least get our history right.
The late Jim Weeks examines the marketing of the Gettysburg within days following the battle and into the twentieth century. This is important because it suggests that the current debate between the polar positions of preservation v. economic development is overly simplistic. Is a casino really inappropriate in Gettysburg given its history as a tourist destination? Consider Weeks on Gettysburg:
Gettysburg has been part of a cultural marketplace ever since the shooting stopped, and its memory has spread with the growth of consumer culture. In other words, the cultural context in which Gettysburg earned its niche as a national icon and sustains that status has been neglected. Seen from a larger cultural perspective, Gettysburg takes on new significance—not just as a site of a pivotal Civil War battle, but as a shrine shaped by an evolving consumer culture. Its story sheds light on the nature of modern pilgrimage, including trends in leisure activities, commemoration, public behavior, mass culture, and merchandizing of the past. (p. 6)
Gettysburg was never a purely sacred site cut off from the broader market forces. As I understand Weeks, the very idea of Gettysburg is wrapped up in these broader economic as well as other secular trends and values. A casino may create traffic congestion and other practical problems, but perhaps it compliments the landscape more than we would like to admit.
I believe that the preservationists are ultimately on the losing end of the stick. Please understand that I say this as someone who enjoys walking the fields and using them for teaching purposes. This is not to say that we should sit back and do nothing, just that a solution will have to be found within a broader culture that simply does not share the preservationist’s agenda. This is a nation that has little patience for its past and would much rather walk through another GAP than through the Devil’s Den. Ultimately we must acknowledge that the genie was let out of the bottle long ago.
I am learning through my own research on postwar commemorations of the Crater that the residents of Petersburg used the battlefield to attract people and businesses to the area at the turn of the 20th century. What is even more important to acknowledge is that many of the veterans of the battle, including Carter R. Bishop took the lead in marketing the battlefield for economic reasons. Bishop hoped to attract federal funds for the construction of a new military base that would bring both jobs and people to the Petersburg area. In doing so, he connected the practical benefits of locating the base in Petersburg with the necessity of preserving the areas battlefields: “If the military students of Europe think it worth while to come here to collect material for the text-books, is it not true wisdom on the part of the country to hand down intact to her soldiers . . . the most impressive volume on the Art of War?” His work culminated in the completion of Fort Lee in 1917 which is situated just up the road from the entrance to the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.
While I appreciate that Dimitri mentions me in the same post as James McPherson and Ed Ayers it is not at all clear as to exactly how I fit in. More importantly, this supposed dichotomy between Ayers’s contingency and McPherson’s Whiggism is way off the mark. Dimitri would have us believe that McPherson assumes a broad view of American history as both inevitable and heroic. I couldn’t disagree more. There is indeed an element of this in Battle Cry of Freedom, but it is clear to me that McPherson maintains a distinction between the contingency on the battlefield and the outcome of the war more generally. Back up a little and a close reading of McPherson on secession and war reveals even more contingency. Even after the states in the Deep South seceded, McPherson does not conclude that war was inevitable. There is plenty of contingency in this book and others if you read closely. McPherson does celebrate the outcome of the war and why shouldn’t he; after all, the end of the war brought an end to slavery. It wasn’t inevitable that this should have happened; in fact, few people would have predicted the end of slavery as late as 1860. McPherson’s celebratory stance seems to me a function of contingency and not some whiggish view of history in general. Emancipation did bring this nation closer to its founding principles.
In reference to Ayers I think it is important to remember that his comments on McPherson’s work are meant for the field as a whole. Ayers’s “deep contingency” sinks deeper than McPherson’s grand narrative in Battle Cry. He is interested in the view from the ground, which means that broader conclusions about the meaning of the war take on a different tone. From this far down there are as many interpretations of what the war means as there are people to interpret. This in no way implies some fundamental disagreement with McPherson. They have different research agendas.
I enjoyed reading Brooks Simpson’s personal thoughts about his attraction to Gettysburg.As I mentioned in an earlier post I am envious of people who have a connection to Civil War battlefields that go back to childhood.There are no pictures of me as a boy posing in the rocks that make up the Devil’s Den.My vacations were spent almost entirely on the beach which was just five blocks from my home in Ventnor, New Jersey.I guess you could say that I am a late bloomer when it comes to the Civil War.As a result I don’t have any sentimental connection with any particular battlefield.
Over the past few years I have spent a considerable amount of time at the Crater battlefield in Petersburg.I even made it a point to get up early one morning while attending a conference in Petersburg to walk the battlefield.It is an eerie place early in the morning.It takes some effort to imagine away the trees and fill in the landscape with the complex chains of trenches that dotted the area, but it can be done.The Park Service has made it somewhat easier by outlining the location of the forward positions.My favorite spot is the position behind the Confederate works where Brig. Gen. William Mahone’s division prepared for its famous countercharge which took place around .The view from this position is impressive and it is easy to imagine Col. David Weisiger and Mahone prepared for the charge.The postwar debates between these two men during the Readjuster years mean little during these moments.I also enjoy the view from the area around Burnside’s headquarters.From here one can imagine the scale of the initial explosion and the Union attack which followed.
The actual battle site holds mixed feelings for me as I find it difficult to conceptualize the scale of the crater.Part of the problem is that there is so little of it left.I can just as easily imagine white Southerners golfing through during the 1920’s as I can picture the close hand-to-hand combat between black soldiers and infuriated Confederates.That said, I like the gestalt between picturing the horrors of the battle and the postwar events, including reunions, reenactments, and monument dedications that took place on the same ground.
On a number of trips I’ve made it a point to sit and listen to the stories told by visitors as they make their way along the path from the tunnel entrance to the crater.I remember one particular story told by a father to his wife and children who in front of the Mahone monument proceeded to describe just how important the general was to the Confederacy during those final few months of the war.I thought about pointing out that the monument was initially supposed to be placed in downtown Petersburg, but owing to Mahone’s controversial postwar political career city leaders decided to place it on the battlefield.Rather than ruin this man’s story I decided to hold onto that little nugget.It’s a short walk to Cemetery Hill and the small chapel with its famous Tiffany windows. This to me is “ground zero” of the Lost Cause Movement.A walk through the cemetery reveals a number of important men from the battle, including Mahone, George Bernard, and David Weisiger.
The Crater battlefield clearly doesn’t hold the same attraction for me compared with the rich childhood experiences described by others.I still love the place just the same.