This weekend I am attending a conference hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society called “Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion.” Last night John Stauffer gave the keynote address on abolitionism in the Bay State and today I attended three panels. The range of topics discussed is really quite impressive. I especially enjoyed Jim Downs’s discussion of the health challenges faced by newly freed slaves during the war as well as his thoughts about how all of this challenges our triumphalist narrative of the Civil War. I also enjoyed Katy Meir’s analysis of the U. S. Sanitary Commission and Megan Kate Nelson’s paper on soldiers as tourists. [Stay tuned for an announcement regarding a project that Megan and I will begin working on together in the very near future.]
Tomorrow we will finish up with three more panels, including two that include papers on historical memory by Barbara Gannon and Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai. What is striking, however, is that this conference does not include one paper on military history. An outsider attending this conference would have little sense that this event included four years of horrific violence. There is little sense that the men from Massachusetts ever fired a shot in the Civil War. Of course, I am not the first person to make this observation about the place of military history in academia, but it is quite striking nevertheless. The closest we get to a Civil War general is George McClellan’s 1863 visit to Boston. I certainly don’t mean in any way to diminish the quality of the presentations that I’ve heard over the past two days. As I said, I’ve learned quite a bit and I suspect that we will see many of these papers published at some point.