The Future of Civil War History

I am very excited to share what promises to be one of the most educational and entertaining conferences to come down the pike in quite some time.  From March 14-16, 2013 the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College will host a three-day conference titled, “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th.”  Peter Carmichael somehow managed to wrangle up roughly 100 historians of all stripes for a wide variety of formal presentations, panels, working groups and field experiences.  The goal is to “facilitate discussions between panelists and the audience about how the historical community can make the Civil War past more engaging, more accessible, and more usable to public audiences as we look beyond the 150th commemorations and to the future of Civil War history.”

Please take some time to browse through the conference website.  There are plenty of opportunities to get involved, including a number of very interesting working groups that will commence in preparation for the conference.  I strongly encourage those of you who teach history, work in some capacity in public history or are just deeply interested in the Civil War era to register soon since spaces are limited.

I am super excited for this event.  It’s a chance to spend time in one of my favorite places and best of all I get to participate.  I am a panelist for a session on how to engage museum audiences and students around issues of Civil War memory and I will be chairing another session on interpreting USCTs at Civil War sites.

See you in Gettysburg.

Why Petersburg’s South Side Depot Matters

I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that we are one step closer to seeing Petersburg’s South Side Depot renovated and utilized by the National Park Service as a welcome center and as a site to interpret the city’s rich Civil War history and beyond.  It’s nice to see the involvement of the Civil War Trust as well.  While I fully support their focus on battlefields it is essential that they involve themselves in the preservation of endangered sites beyond the battlefield that can only enhance the public’s understanding of the war.  In the case of Petersburg the battlefield was the city itself.

As someone who has thought a great deal about the challenges of interpreting the city’s Civil War history the addition of this site downtown will assist the NPS in their continued effort to reach out to the local population, especially African Americans.  I explore some of these more recent challenges in the final chapter of my new book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.

Many local blacks that I interviewed during the course of my research never learned about or even visited the local battlefields, including the Crater.  One gentleman shared that while growing up he believed the site of the Crater was off limits to blacks.  Others simply believed that the NPS’s mission was to interpret and protect and interpretation that appealed to whites only.  As recent as the 1970s black students at Petersburg State University believed that the primary function of the NPS to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.”  The upshot is a history of mistrust that the NPS has worked hard to overcome since this time.

A comment by NPS Superintendent Lewis Rogers echoes these concerns:

I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me. I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg.  We want to reach out to the urban population … and to become more a part of fabric of the community. We have four sites, but most are out in more rural areas. … We want the opportunity to be right in town and be part of the fabric of the community. We hope it will also help stimulate the economy.

An NPS presence downtown will build on the addition of walking tours that have proven to be very successful and popular among locals.  The Depot itself will take this one step further by applying the necessary assets to interpret not only the battles, but the postwar period as well.  William Mahone used the Depot as an office during part of this period, which opens up a number of avenues to discuss his involvement in the railroads as well as the racial politics of the Readjuster Party during the 1880s.

All in all this is really good news for Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what they do with the place.

The Killing Fields of Gettysburg

It’s a good question and one that I’ve touched on here at Civil War Memory.  Our battlefield monuments fit into a broader celebratory landscape that is pervasive throughout our memory of the Civil War.  Gettysburg is a place where we can feel good about ourselves as Americans and our history.  It is almost impossible for me to imagine a monument such as the one at Verdun at Gettysburg and I believe it to be a barrier to fully understanding what our civil war was about.

Unfortunately, the following image, which I took during a visit to the Gettysburg Visitor Center, more accurately reflects our attitude toward how Americans chose to make war on one another.

Finding Meaning in Battlefield Minutiae

I have plenty to share about this past week’s CWI at Gettysburg College.  It was an honor to be asked to speak and I had a wonderful time meeting and talking with the participants.  Peter Carmichael has done a fabulous job as the institute’s new director and I look forward to returning in 2014 to help mark the events of 1864.  While there were many highlights that I hope to share over the course of the next few weeks the most rewarding experience of the conference was spending the day with John Hennessy on the Second Manassas battlefield.

I first met John in 2007 as I was working on the final chapter of my Crater manuscript, which addresses recent interpretive challenges on the Crater battlefield and elsewhere.  John was kind enough to meet me to talk about interpretation and since then we have remained good friends.  No one has taught me more about public history and I consider John to be something like a mentor. [Buy John’s book.]

Some of you know that while I enjoy visiting battlefields I am not preoccupied with tactical details.  I do not give much thought to the alignment of units or try to nail down exactly where they were. Give me an overall sense of what happened and I am good to go.  I’ve never given much thought to Second Manassas beyond the strategic level; in fact, this was my first time on that particular battlefield.

To watch John lead a tour is to watch a masterful storyteller, who has thought deeply about what the battlefield has to teach us.  He moved seamlessly between the strategic and tactical levels as well as the political implications of the campaign as it unfolded.  He even asked the group to reflect on questions related to memory.

We stopped at places like Brawner’s Farm, the unfinished railroad, and Chin Ridge and John went into great detail about the action that took place there.  John, however, didn’t simply describe the action that took place there and share first-hand accounts, he explained why doing so is important.  He suggested that we need to engage in a little imaginary discipline and understand that the ground under the soldiers feet at any given moment constituted the entirety of the battle.  This was a revelation to me.  I’ve always remained detached from this perspective since I was only interested in the larger picture, but for the first time I was able to see the battle as a collection of more localized encounters that were self contained for the men involved. How the broader battle might unfold is irrelevant from this perspective.  What matters is maintaining formation, holding ground, and looking after the man next to you.  The result was a personal connection to a battlefield that I have not experienced anywhere else.

Thanks, John.

Our Struggle to Commemorate the Peninsula Campaign

One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war.  With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation.  As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.

Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862.  It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor.  Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited.  Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.

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