Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: A House Divided … Why?

(this post originally appeared on Civil Warriors on January 24, 2007)

What’s a historian? Who’s a historian?  What’s the difference between a professional and an amateur historian? Who makes these distinctions? What do they mean?

I believe that these are miscast, misleading, and ultimately fruitless lines of inquiry. If there’s a meaningful difference, it is between academic historians (those housed in research or teaching institutions) and non-academic historians, and that difference is understood in part by how these people are funded, paid, and rewarded. There are professional imperatives involved in being part of the academy, as well as a set of expectations that is more or less understood. There are also different sorts of academic institutions: Eric mentions American Military University and Norwich. Each of those institutions provides a distinct service to its students and serves a particular function, but they are an alternative method to training than the model offered by the institutions where Steve Woodworth, Ethan Rafuse, Mark Grimsley, and I received our advanced education. None of us holds an advanced degree in American military history or even military history: our PhDs tend to be in “history,” and we teach and write in other fields. Mark, for example, is a military historian whose interests transcend the United States; I teach and write about political history, and in the profession people are more likely to identify me as a political or presidential historian as a military historian (my first appearance on C-SPAN, for example, was on a series on American writers: I’ve spoken at more conferences on political or presidential history than on Civil War history). My work on Reconstruction history has received a good deal of attention. I’ve taught courses on the American Revolution, the early American Republic (where I have published), the age of Jackson (where again I’ve published), American intellectual and cultural history, American foreign policy, the American presidency, American political history, and American women’s history … as well as Western Civ. Perhaps one of my most interesting teaching experiences was when a colleague in British history, apparently having decided that all civil wars are alike and therefore interchangeable, and having no interest in wars, asked me to do her lecture on the English Civil War. Piece of cake!

I’ve met Eric Wittenberg several times, and I appreciate the work he does. Much of it would not gain the recognition in academic circles that it does from readers who are interested in the military history of the American Civil War. That’s just a fact of life. It’s not a commentary on the quality of his scholarship. In fact, Eric’s training as a lawyer gives him many of the research tools he needs to be a good historical researcher. Moreover, not all academic historians are in fact researchers and writers, and several find it difficult to move past publishing their dissertation. I recall a survey conducted several years ago that showed that the percentage of historians who teach at institutions of higher education who have published two or more books is rather small, and the percentage who have published three or more books is small indeed. My former graduate student, Mark Weitz, has published five books to date, more than the two colleagues who bookend me chronologically in my department put together. Each of Mark’s books is of high quality and scholarly value: not all are Civil War-related.

I do believe that the term “historian” is abused through its too-broad application. People who comment on their own physical health do not consider themselves doctors; people who have experience with the legal system do not call themselves lawyers (although, Eric, I’ve been mistaken for one). Yet I’ve seen a lot of people who poke around websites, publish links, and do some reading proclaim themselves “historians” as if they are committed and trained researchers who explore widely, weigh evidence, and then produce contributions to knowledge and understanding (which is where I draw the line … producing contributions to knowledge and understanding). Parroting the writings of others and cutting and pasting in a discussion group does not make one a historian, folks. I don’t particularly care whether a person has an advanced degree in history: I know personally of several people, including Eric, Jim Epperson, and Dave Smith, who do good work, and none of them are professionally-trained PhD historians (they have advanced degrees elsewhere). My concern is not whether one is a “professional” or an “amateur”: these distinctions make little difference, and, as Mark, Steve, Ethan and I can testify, even so-called “professional” historians invest a lot of time and labor in certain work primarily because of the love for it (see the battlefield guide series as an example).

To me the issue is not between professional and amateur historians: that specious distinction builds walls, rivalries, and resentment where none should exist. This is especially ironic in light of the fact that many Civil War professional historians wonder whether their work receives nearly the appreciation from professional peers that it does from a broader readership, one that is enjoyed by but few of their peers. To me the question is whether one is a good historian or a bad historian. I’ve seen professionally-trained historians plagiarize, do poor research, and fail to convey their findings in a readable (let alone lucid) style. I’ve seen professionally-trained historians do great work. I’ve seen “amateur” historians do fine work, and I’ve seen them bumble and stumble, plagiarize, do poor research, and so on. To spend time and energy worrying about constructed notions of a professional/amateur divide among historians (in which both sides appear to have their axes to grind and their resentments to express) as opposed to worrying about asking questions, finding out what happened, doing good research, and conveying one’s findings as best as possible is in my mind a waste of energy and time. Don’t create resentments and rivalries where none should exist.


22 thoughts on “Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: A House Divided … Why?

  1. Anna Bishop March 15, 2011 / 7:40 pm

    Sir, how would you suggest a sophmore in High School should go about preparing to become a good, profressional historian? I am very interested in American history, especially the Civil War and would like to be one of those good Phd historians that you mentioned. What should I do?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 22, 2011 / 11:10 pm

      I’d start by saying that it’s one thing to like history, another to write it. So you have to understand that while it may be fun to read and even comment on a book, preparing one is another thing altogether.

      That said, there’s not all that much to worry about between now and the final year of your undergraduate career. Get a well-rounded undergraduate education, where an understanding of several fields can inform your historical scholarship. Take courses in writing and literature and various social sciences and humanities as well as in history, and take history courses that cover different topics. You’ll have plenty of time later to specialize.

      • Anna Bishop March 23, 2011 / 6:15 pm

        I write a blog, and I try to do what you said in not just pasting links I try to come to my own conclusions and making advancements in my learning. Thank you for the tips sir!

  2. Brad Anderson March 16, 2011 / 9:21 pm

    The problem with professional historians, is a lack of fundamental understanding of the fundamendal concept of history itself– i.e. the way things really happened, vs. the official version dictated by the regime in power.
    Specifically, the states themselves were originally founded with the clear and express intention to form thirteen free and independent sovereignties– not a singular “united” sovereignty, as was claimed by the Lincoln-regime as its basis of authorization for denying state-secession via amed force.

    This is the proverbial “whole ball-game” with regard to the entire matter of the 1861 war between the states; i.e. it is the alpha and the omega on the issue regarding the matter. However it is the one issue which so-called “historians” turn a blind eye, deliberately focusing exclusively on the endless volume of mindless minutae surrounding it. While they claim to do so in order to “objectively” cover matters from a purely academic standpoint– which is their definition of “professional history–” their lack of attention to this one issue of Founders’ intents, is conspicuous by its absence in favor of the hand that feeds them– and they find not on the side which was right, but rather on which side their own bread is buttered, both professionally and financially.

    Professionally, their education begins with a state-accredited academia– not coincidentally, the same state which triumphed in the war of which they claim to write “objectively” despite this glaring conflict-of-interest; this becomes critical when considering that “no historian is an island,” i.e. that the field of professionals does not well-tolerate dissension, and will typically “blacklist” even the most irrefutable works that clash with the professional mainstream.

    This creates a cabal of conformity, which is often known as “court historians,” ala the medieval king’s court, wherein so-called “historians” would write versions of event that validate the king and state– if they knew what was good for them; this is indeed the source of the phrase “The Emperor’s Robe,” which even modern historians thus flatter without shame… or hesitation, in the same tradition.

    This originates, of course, with the fact that the current regime has, at least since the Lincoln administration, wielded supreme national authority over the states, and naturally employs historians who validate this rule; this has led to the establishment of this cabal of elite lapdog-historians, from the 150+ years of such falsely-authorized national authority, in order to furnish the proper quota of self-fulfilling history as official dogma, which none of its members ever dare question.

    As a result, the professional historian’s very reality becomes self-fulfilling, as the community becomes detached from the very sort of objective analysis that it claims to follow; and those who seek to pursue the field, likewise follow the arbitrary dogma of the professional commity itself– i.e. again the “Emperor’s Robe–” in rejection of the evidence of their own senses, which they learn to reject as “amateurish layman’s misconceptions” in elite fashion (aka snobbery).
    In short, the lackey sees exactly what the employer-state wants them to see, while the state likewise provides the professional title or “license” to cement the delusion via appealing to pride in the ranks of elite members– as with any cult’s “inner circle,” from the Inquisition to Scientology.
    Hard facts thus become arbitrary and malleable, as the community of professional historians can commit no wrong, being the last word on what really happened– irrespective of all evidence; and any questions from “amateurs’ will be rejected with disdain as the mere products of inferior reasoning. But in any event, the professional community will gel monolithically on matters pertaining to the state, and its basis of authority– which they will either support, to a man, or else remain wholly silent.

    For this reason, objective analysis requires a separation of history and state– particularly on matters pertaining to state authority. For the political conflict-of-interest is undeniable– and those who deny it, are those most conflicted.

    • Marc Ferguson March 19, 2011 / 2:49 pm

      “For the political conflict-of-interest is undeniable– and those who deny it, are those most conflicted.”

      So, disagreement with your assertions is evidence that you are correct?

    • Al Mackey March 19, 2011 / 3:37 pm

      “The problem with professional historians, is a lack of fundamental understanding of the fundamendal concept of history itself– i.e. the way things really happened, vs. the official version dictated by the regime in power.”
      It’s been my experience that when I read these words concerning history as studied in the United States, the person writing them has not known what they were talking about.

      “Specifically, the states themselves were originally founded with the clear and express intention to form thirteen free and independent sovereignties– not a singular “united” sovereignty, as was claimed by the Lincoln-regime as its basis of authorization for denying state-secession via amed force.”
      And this statement proves this isntance is no exception.

    • Chuck Brown March 20, 2011 / 6:36 am

      In other words, professional historians are part of a conspiracy to keep the truth from emerging.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 22, 2011 / 11:14 pm

      Oddly enough, I’ve never had contact with this state-authorized history, and I’ve received no money from it to support some predetermined party line. How I’ve missed out I’ll never know. Perhaps there’s a Facebook page that will enlighten me.

    • J. March 23, 2011 / 11:24 am


      Whether one agrees or not with Mr Anderson, the secession crisis did raise–or re-new– the Federalist-States rights problem. Many liberal sentimentalists overlook that problem in favor of the slavery narrative (connected of course), and even now, they may be said to work for the …official narrative of the Federalist govt. Reading a few of the ante-bellum comments of the Confederate leaders who initially opposed secession –e.g., Davis and RE Lee, at least –it seems reasonable to assume they felt it was better to support the States-rights secessionists than submit to the Federalist state. Or something of the sort –Lysander Spooner, at times favoring abolition said the same– Abe Lincoln’s putsch was worse than slavery.

      There aren’t too many pro-confederate historians around AKAICT, or even….say historians with neutral views. The pro-union at any cost view percolates down to the public schools: kids aren’t provided with, say, Shelby Foote’s complex, somewhat ambiguous views of the CW, they get…something like what Al Mackey believes–Billy Yank in white hats, Johnny Reb in black (with horns added in some areas).

      • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2011 / 11:29 am

        The problem with your analysis is that many southern leaders were perfectly content with the actions of the federal government when those actions served southern interests. So there was no abstract embrace of state rights, but rather something akin to situational ethics.

        Spooner’s an interesting case, much like George Fitzhugh is an interesting case. I just wouldn’t make too much of either case. I think one can gain more from studying what northern Democrats believed, because they did have a significant following, just as one can learn much from the critics of the Davis regime, who by war’s end thought there was not much difference in being ruled from Washington or Richmond. That in itself suggests the contingent and qualified nature of Davis’s commitment to state rights.

        • J. March 23, 2011 / 12:29 pm

          OK, I agree they were hustlers and opportunists rather than…. statesmen or philosophers but Davis did make some comments against secession , and yet also insisted on state rights,(and Im not defending Davis, Lee, or any of them). Actually I think they were banking on Breckenridge, who was sort of the Breitbart of the time, IMHE. Or something like that. Breck. seems like a mugwump (tho he was a capable officer), if not …pedazo de m***a from my readings

  3. Anna Bishop March 19, 2011 / 2:31 pm

    So, if I’m understanding you correctly the way to become a good historian proffessional or otherwise would be to “look at things the way they really happened.” I should focus in my studies and learnings not on what people want to hear and what would make the people happy. I need to show history for what it really is. Be it happy, sorrowful, grisly , or beautiful. The way to be a good historian is to study the actuall history and not what the people want history to be.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 22, 2011 / 11:11 pm

      I don’t know people who study history to write history to please other people. I know of some people whose historical accounts are framed to serve their own agenda, which may or may not accord with the historical record. There are those who would say that Mr. Anderson’s comment fits that description.

      • J. March 23, 2011 / 12:09 pm

        I wouldn’t presume to speak for Anderson, but he didn’t seem to be saying that history teaching was typically framed for an individual agenda, but…to serve the liberal-corporate state as a whole-. The usual US History survey texts enforce the “official CW narrative” if you will (I wouldn’t go so far as some of the neo-confederates and call it socialist—but …Hillaryocracy perhaps).

        The public schools–including college/uni level—teach a sort of PC-liberal cartoon version of the CW and US History as a whole, really. (and that’s not to bless the likes of Newt Gingriches,etc). The Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemmings affair might be interpreted as such. Who cares about Jefferson’s accomplishments, thoughts, his views of the French Revolution, opposition to Hamilton/John Marshall, etc–reduce his life to TJ down on the farm with lil brown sugah…. maybe playing his fiddle afterwards.

        • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2011 / 2:53 pm

          The problem with that argument is that I’ve seen no evidence of that. As someone trained at the University of Wisconsin, where New Left criticisms of the liberal corporate state were the norm, no one advanced that argument.

          Could someone please send me the state directives on how court historians should prepare their narratives of the Civil War? I feel a bit neglected to have been left off the list. And please include for me the directives on how to teach the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. I recall that whole issue flaring up while I was an undergraduate at UVa, and somehow that’s not how I recall the discussion.

          I feel like such an outsider.

          • J. March 23, 2011 / 3:35 pm

            Many scholars have taken issue with US History survey texts currently used in high schools and colleges–not just extreme leftists or rightists (or biblethumpers, etc). Zinn said as much –though I contend students get more of Zinn’s Trotsky-lite ideology than, say, Jefferson. Or at least History visavis Eleanor Roosevelt

            As far as the Hemings affair goes, I don’t think it’s that noteworthy , compared to the politics of the Founders, the DoI, UC-Con, Hamilton/Burr etc. — There are still debates over whether it was TJ or one of his brothers. For that matter, Sally was probably 75% white anyway (white father– mulatto mama).

            Perhaps you recall James McPherson protesting the showing of rebel flags or Obama laying a wreath at the Con. dead, etc. That’s also indicative of it. To be honest, Im against the rednecks who invoke CW heroes–I don’t think many understand them (the Richmond Davis monument in particular look pretty nauseating online at least –). But McPhersonian appeals to pathos aren’t the correct way to address the issue either.

          • J. March 23, 2011 / 4:04 pm

            Word press sort of lacks for editing abilities, eh.

            Prof. Simpson– no need to comment. I’ve said enough…. and finished here for a while (and tired of yr regs insults/incapabilities)–though I think Anderson’s original post says it well though hopefully he’s not of those hiding a sheet with eyeholes cut out

          • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2011 / 5:22 pm

            I just don’t see any factual basis for Mr. Anderson’s claims. After all, Tom DiLorenzo went to a state university as well, and I don’t think Mr. Anderson would be critical of Dr. DiLorenzo.

            I’m sure other posters understand your sentiments concerning their abilities; given what I’ve read, they might say the same about you. And so it goes.

          • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2011 / 5:30 pm

            I didn’t come across Howard Zinn until graduate school, and then it was just as something to dismiss, conceding, as one does with many historians with whom one disagrees, that some of his arguments had some merit. The notion that his writings have indoctrinated generations of teachers is remarkable largely because it’s so patently untrue.

            Debates over textbooks abound. I believe conservatives in Texas wanted to remove Jefferson altogether.

            As for Hemings/Jefferson, I don’t know where you get the idea that the stories about a relationship overshadow everything else about Jefferson. Moreover, to me the actual fact of whether Jefferson fathered the children in question tends to obscure the fact that Jefferson in practice tolerated experiences at Monticello he claimed to abhor. That just magnifies the tension apparent in slaveholders complaining about being enslaved by British policy and striking out for freedom and liberty … but always with the shadow of slavery rendering things a little less distinct.

            Yes, I recall the debate over the wreath-laying ceremony. If you elsewhere in this blog you’ll see what I have to say about the man who spearheaded that movement, Ed Sebesta. Ed thinks I’m a bad man. Somehow this has not earned me the plaudits you think I might be entitled to expect from certain quarters.

          • Sherree March 24, 2011 / 5:38 am

            One of the most important aspects of introducing, as a topic for study, Jefferson’s thoughts on the population of black men and women, members of whom he, himself, held in slavery was the revelation of the enormous gap that existed between the ideas of the Enlightenment and the reality lived by some who espoused and upheld those ideals (–upheld for some, that is–) most brilliantly. “Notes on Virginia” is a difficult document to read. How could someone of Jefferson’s genius–and the author of the Declaration of Independence no less– have been so profoundly ignorant? That is not “presentism”. It is a legitimate area of inquiry. And it was the type of inquiry that those who pursued race and gender studies intended to explore early on, and did explore, in many instances. I have to agree with J on some points, though, and with several of your comments, too, Brooks, although the two of you are not in agreement. There is resistance of a political nature coming from both conservatives and liberals that does seem to involve attempts to control what we think. I don’t know if this is taking place in university settings because I have not been in a university setting for so long. It does bleed through in some blogging, however, in which there seems to be a correct thing to say and an incorrect thing to say. I don’t see that as critical thinking. In other words, if I can anticipate what a person is going to say and know what I am to answer, then we are not thinking critically, and certainly not creatively. I say this as a former student at your alma mater, Brooks, which is my alma mater, too–UVA. I graduated in 1977. I remember many things about those university years, as most people do. But what I remember most is that in spite of the outright hostility exhibited by some that women were on the grounds and in the classroom (and never from professors, I might add, at least not in my experience, but definitely from some students) and the seemingly overwhelming consensus in the English Department that women were inferior writers, (plus the changing of the pledge on our bluebook pamphlets from “on my honor as a gentleman” to “on my honor as a student” to accommodate women students, I suppose) I learned how to think–was taught how to think–to freely and creatively THINK. And I have to say, that has proven to be one of the things I have valued most in my life. At one time that is what liberal arts universities saw as their purpose–to teach students to think, thus, creating Jefferson’s academical village writ large. Perhaps this is still how liberal arts universities see themselves. I really don’t know.


            I hope that you can see the respect that Brooks has afforded you by engaging you in dialogue, which it appears to me that you do. Brooks simply asked that the personal insults cease by all. That is not too much to ask of any of us, in my opinion.

            I have enjoyed the discussion that has taken place and have learned from it. There are no absolute, definitive answers in any discipline, or in any area of life, for that matter. Even the Internet cannot change that. Only chronicle our collective and feeble attempts to make it so.

  4. Sherree March 24, 2011 / 8:02 am

    For a look into the mind of one of Jefferson’s contemporaries–although I doubt that Jefferson would have considered David Walker a contemporary, only a man born in the same era, if he considered him a man at all–click on the following link:

    Absolutely fascinating. It took both of these men–and so many more men and women–to create America. We are still creating it….ok, now I am talking to myself…..thanks to all…..Sherree

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