Update: I just wanted to take a second to encourage all of you to read Pete Carmichael’s presentation in its entirety. The last thing I want is for you to read this post as some kind of hatchet job. His thoughts regarding battlefield interpretation deserve a careful read and perhaps in the next few days I will have the opportunity to explore it further.
I almost want to apologize for this post because apart from the recent Civil War Times editorial by Gary Gallagher I haven’t thought much at all about this subject. Unfortunately, I missed a really good public history panel at the OAH that included Peter Carmichael and Ashley Whitehead, both of who discussed what they see as the future of battlefield interpretation. [Thanks to John Rudy for posting a transcript of their talks.] I encourage you to read both of their talks because I am only going to poke at an ancillary point made by Pete at the beginning of his presentation.
So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.
On the one hand I agree with much of this. Teachers and public historians are no longer up against a widely-held framework that attempts to justify the Confederacy. At best, they are echoes of the lost cause. I also agree that the veracity of the black Confederate narrative found on hundreds of websites is not in any way a concern of academic historians and at best on the radar screens of a “small minority” of the general public.
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I recently accepted an invitation to take part in the Civil War Institute’s annual conference at Gettysburg College, which will take place from June 22-26, 2012. Unfortunately, my move to Boston prevented me from taking part in this past year’s institute so I am very excited about being able to attend this time around. The theme this year is “The Civil War in 1862″ and it will explore, among other things, Civil War tactics in 1862, The war in the West, debating self-emancipation, and the 1862 campaigns of U.S. Grant. I’ve seen a preliminary schedule and the sessions look to be very interesting and the presenters are all well-respected scholars. I will be taking part in a panel with Brooks Simpson and Keith Harris on Civil War blogging so that should be a lot of fun.
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Over the past three days I’ve come across two references that place Robert K. Krick, squarely in the camp of Southern historians. The reference is meant not simply to denote field of interest but a “pro-South” or “pro-Confederate” bias. As many of you know Krick worked for 31 years as the chief historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. These claims are made with apparently no attempt at verification; it’s as if his body of scholarship speaks for itself in terms of his place of birth. Of course, Krick is not native to the South; rather he was born and raised in California. Before proceeding let’s be clear that Krick’s work on the Army of Northern Virginia is essential reading for any Civil War enthusiast. In short, few people know more about Lee’s army than Krick.
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There is an interesting moment in this talk by Peter Carmichael where he fields a question by a woman, who is apparently concerned that he is being overly critical of the South and the Confederacy. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to hear the question. I know a little something about being accused of holding the Confederacy and all things Southern in contempt. It’s a strange accusation that I will never truly understand.
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It’s nice to see that the latest installment [airs tonight at 9pm] of PBS’s American Experience on Robert E. Lee is getting its fair share of attention. A few months back PBS mailed me a preview copy of the documentary. In fact, I talked with producers of the show about three years ago and even suggested a number of the historians who were utilized as commentators. Of course, I have no idea whether I was influential in their final choice. I’ve read a number of very good newspaper and blog reviews and I tend to agree with the the overall positive consensus. No doubt, the usual suspects will cry foul by accusing the producers of revisionism and political correctness; however, in the end, it’s a solid documentary based on the best scholarship. I could quibble with some minor points, but that would miss the documentary’s target audience. With the official beginning of the sesquicentennial there will be an increased demand for entertaining and serious documentaries and this one sets a high standard.
What I value about this series by American Experience is their commitment to ensuring that their programs are based on the latest scholarship. Today I showed a bit more of the History Channel’s “America: The Story of Us” which included commentary from Brian Williams, David Baldacci, and Al Sharpton among others. It was a complete joke. Tonight you will hear from Gary Gallagher, Lesley Gordon, Peter Carmichael, Michael Fellman, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, and Emory Thomas. All are talented historians. I don’t have a direct line to the past. Just about everything I can claim to know about the Civil War is from reading the scholarship of others and, in the case of Lee, from reading these historians. In fact, apart from my own research interest, I don’t really know how to engage in historical discourse apart from scholarship that I’ve read.
So, if you have recently been bitten by that Civil War bug sit back and enjoy this documentary and the next time you are in your local bookstore or Online check out one of these titles:
Read, people, read.