One of the consequences of the invention of the internet, the WWW, and so on is the creation of “virtual communities” where people chat/argue/flame about things. At times I’ve participated in these groups, although I’m not inclined to do much of that now outside of one Yahoo discussion group, known as StudyoftheCivilWar. I have found most of these groups to be curious mixtures of folks who want to learn things and folks who want to express their views. Join any of these groups, and you’ll learn that many participants are refighting the Civil War or participating out of deeply personal reasons that have little to do with learning or sharing information. That’s not true of all of the participants, and it’s far less true of groups such as Study: moreover, when it comes to groups dominated by professional historians, such as H-Net’s H-CivWar, there is usually very little discussion, period, although things can get heated once in a while. At times I’ve had my undergraduates in my historical methods course at ASU join these groups so that they can get a taste of how people interested in history understand that history. They come away with several impressions, including a sense of what draws people to learn about history and chat about it, as well as a sense that many time people are just repeating the same themes and offering the same opinions.
I think professional historians often participate in these groups at their peril, but that they also ignore them at their peril. They do offer insight into popular understandings and uses of history. For example, one Yahoo group offers the following statement on its home page:
To respect the belief systems and perception of reality of both Union and Confederate here, here are the ACW definitions accepted by both :
Union : “war between geographical sections or political factions of the same nation” – the Civil War the war between the North (the union) and the South (the Confederacy) in the U.S. (1861-1865) – Webster’s New World Dictionary
Confederate : the “War for Southern Independence.” from a college/university textbook : “A Short History of the American People” – Oliver P. Chitwood/Frank L. Owsley.
I find this very interesting and revealing. First, I did not know that “Union and Confederate” could be “here.” I thought the Civil War generation had passed us by. Now, perhaps there are people who pretend to be Yanks or Rebs … or are overly fond of one side or the other (as in the case of “Confederate Romantics”), but the war is over … isn’t it? Maybe not.
I find amusing the reference to “belief systems and perceptions of reality.” That sounds so “politically correct.” But the phase begs the question: what are the “belief systems and perceptions of reality” of “Union and Confederate”? I confess that I don’t know. I doubt those are the only constructs one can have, either. Even stipulating for the moment that there are “Union and Confederate” “belief systems and perceptions of reality,” does it not stand to reason that if people are purporting to espouse such (as yet undefined) perspectives, that there are others? What about African Americans, for example? What about non-US citizens? Native Americans? How do we distinguish between antislavery Yankee, Unionist Yankee, and Copperhead? Didn’t they have different “belief systems and perceptions of reality,” too? Surely southern white unionists, slaves, and secessionists had different “belief systems and perceptions of reality” (this can be reduced to “b.s. & p.r.,” by the way). Notice that I haven’t even introduced the variables of class, gender, and ethnicity yet. Jamming everything into “Union and Confederate” distorts far more than it reveals, and it is not historically accurate.
Nor did I know that there were accepted definitions, one derived from the dictionary, another from an ancient textbook that has not been in use for quite some time. But you can learn something every day. You can also learn from these groups the range of attitudes people who read history books have about the people who write them (and here misconceptions abound, sometimes suggesting that readers project their own motives and perceptions onto writers), along with interesting conversations about historians (professional and otherwise) and academics based on sheer ignorance and which are sometimes unconsciously ironic. After all, many of the people who argue points are really transmitting what they’ve read from historians they “like,” who presumably in many cases share their own b.s. & p.r, and thus are celebrated as being far more objective and scholarly than the historians they don’t like, who must be of the wrong political persuasion, geographical origin, or whatever trait must prevent them from seeing things the “right” way. That those conversations contradict the relativist assumptions of such groups (that there are different perspectives, two to be exact, and that they are equally valid and must be treated as such) is also amusing.
Thus, one way to watch a Civil War reenactment is by joining one of these groups and throwing out a simple question. Lately those questions have involved the role of slavery in sectional division, secession, and the coming of the war, and the constitutionality of secession. There are others, of course, such as the relationship between personal racial attitudes and policies (always a Lincoln favorite) and the never-ending squabble over black Confederates (in which the proponents of a large number of black Confederates voluntarily supporting the Confederacy to support its cause rarely have the courage or integrity to make that assumption explicit). Just toss a pebble into the placid pond and watch as the ripples become tidal waves.
Please don’t think I’m picking on one group. I’ve seen discussion boards where participants have images and avatars that suggest the perspectives and preferences they hold (at least one offers promotions in rank based upon participation, and the military emphasis of these groups should remind historians of what many buffs like). Nor do I think that all participants share the same motives and interests, or that all (including many lurkers … the number of active participants is always far smaller than membership numbers would suggest) are basically acting out on their own b.s. & p.r. But I do think these groups are worth sampling, of for no other reason that to learn something about a subset of an audience that is indeed interested in the Civil War. If one of the goals of the sesquicentennial is to educate, learn, and understand, perhaps it would be prudent to grasp the range and diversity of understandings out there and grasp how people perceive the past and link it to the present, including their own sense of self, sometimes known as b.s. & p.r.