News and Notes, March 31, 2013

And so we come to the end of the first quarter of the new year, but here are a few things worth reading (or watching):

  • Want to read an interesting essay on Confederate multiculturalism? Here you go.
  • Want to hear Ethan Rafuse on Stonewall Jackson? Go here.
  • Want to read about another Confederate flag debate? Go here.
  • Want to read an interview about Vortex of Hell? Go here.
  • Want to complicate your view of the future of Civil War history (or The Future of Civil War History)? Go here and here.

An Expression of Total Indifference

Once more the activities of the “Virginia Flaggers” in protesting the refusal of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’s decision not to fly a Confederate flag (which one has not been determined, but I guess that’s besides the point) outside the Confederate Memorial Chapel have drawn attention from several bloggers. Kevin Levin reflects on a visit to the chapel, while Corey Meyer offers a suggestion.

It is well to remember (and this has been pointed out before) that it was none other than the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who agreed to the decision not to display a Confederate flag outside the chapel (there are flags inside the chapel). The issue of what is historically correct has been bounced back and forth enough times.

I’ve been intrigued by this debate for some time. I’m interested in who supports the “Flaggers” (whether the “Flaggers” want to admit it or not); I’ve relayed some of their exploits and setbacks; I’ve questioned their logic about “restore the honor,” when in fact, no one can take away whatever honor one wants to ascribe to Confederate veterans; I’ve highlighted their lack of success and support; and I reported how one of their number came to be arrested after months of “Flaggers” seeking to provoke a confrontation.  Most important, however, I’ve asked “So what?” So what if the “Flaggers” prevailed in their efforts to have a Confederate flag flown outside the chapel? Who would really care?

Not me, for one.

The “Flaggers” will continue to put on a show for some time to come, although I note that they haven’t been to Appomattox in quite some time, and their efforts to boycott Lexington, Virginia haven’t achieved anything. No matter. These folks will find something else to complain about while claiming it’s all about Confederate pride. Let them march all they want. Let them continue to believe they are changing hearts and minds. Let them continue to present themselves as targets of ridicule. Let them continue to offer videos. Let them continue to get arrested. Oh, it may amuse me, but, as for what they do, that don’t impress me much.

Which reminds me of a song

A boy’s just gotta have fun.

Farewell to Cosmic America

Every week I click through several blogs to see what my peers are discussing (sometimes it is several times a week, depending on the frequency with which a blogger posts and how much commentary those posts elicit). Today I learned that Keith Harris has decided to end Cosmic America for reasons he can best explain at his blog.

I think that it is harder to end a blog than to begin it (although it is hardest to sustain it). There are several blogs and several bloggers who have virtually disappeared from public view, with few if any posts to their name over a long period of time, who have not faced the fact that their inactivity is telling them something. It reminds me of sports stars (Bryan Trottier and Bernie Williams come to mind) who have found it difficult to file retirement papers.

This lag between the end of a blog and the willingness to make that explicit is the same as the lag between leaving a blog and having that understood by others, as my experience in leaving Civil Warriors suggests. It takes a while for people to see that as some blogs appear, others disappear or change in fundamental ways (which is the case in several instances). Some bloggers can’t take that final step. That’s too bad. Blogging, after all, is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and for many of us it is only part of who we are as historians (and people) and what we do.

Keith isn’t going anywhere (as careful readers will note), but many of us will miss his distinctive sensibility and perspective on his blog.

Alternate Futures And The Practice of Self-Exclusion

One of the more interesting aspects of recent discussions about how the future of practicing history might look is how some people complained that they were excluded from Gettysburg College’s The Future of Civil War History conference. That’s not the first time I’ve heard this complaint: I also heard certain parties grouse about the fact that they were not invited to participate in last June’s panel on blogging at the Civil War Institute, and then there was all that whining about content and controversy/confrontational blogs. The recent comments about exclusion smack of an academic/non-academic divide that I for one find about as tired as the academic/public historian divide that I see in various places. It’s there, of course, in part because some people say it is there, in part because there are remnants of it there (enough to keep the trope alive), and in part because it seems to serve the interests of some people to keep it there as a way to complain about one thing or another.

One answer that been offered is that there was nothing preventing these people from attending the conference and making known their perspectives. That’s true, but I’m not sure how attendance without a clearly defined platform for the expression of one’s views (except in response to a presentation) would have served these parties well.  Although there was a session on digital history, there was nothing devoted to social media and blogging (for which I am thankful). Some people see the future of practicing Civil War history and engaging the public as an opportunity to talk about social media, blogging, and the like as part of that future. This is not exactly new: groups are developing smart phone and tablet apps for touring Civil War battlefields, and other fields have cell phone numbers where visitors can call up and listen to descriptions and interpretations of sites (I saw this implemented during a recent trip to Valley Forge). And goodness knows there’s enough about the theory and practice of blogging out there, even if I find that theme ultimately exhausting but far from exhaustive. Just do it, I say. If you don’t like it, no one’s forcing you to read blogs (I find humorous the declarations of people who say they don’t read blogs, but who appear to have very detailed understandings [and misunderstandings] of their contents). Let’s just move on.

However, when it comes to the world of social media, blogging, and other forms of interaction and presentation, I wonder whether those people who claim they are excluded understand that the airing of their complaints on blogsites and social media reveals that they have at their fingertips the best way to address the issue about which they complain. There is absolutely nothing preventing these people from working together to set up their own virtual conference that they would carry out online through blog entries, podcasts, and streaming video. They really can’t complain that someone’s excluding them from a conversation when they have it within their means to hold the conversations they want to hold and to share their views across cyberspace.

Part of the discussion about blogging in academic circles (and I should note that there are many more academics who consult various blogs and other social media than some people like to admit, if the feedback I get from academics who read this blog is any indication) concerns issues of gatekeeping, authority, and so on, issues discussed last June. My frustration with that conversation is how little it seems to achieve, for the same people offer the same complaints as if we’ve never spoken, and at times rely on rather dated characterizations of blog content and discussions that show me that they are truly stuck in the past in more ways than one. But the irony with complaints about exclusion from such conferences as that recently held at Gettysburg College is that the very critics of authority and gatekeeping outside the academy crave the recognition and admission that an invitation to speak would provide … when their very existence demonstrates that they don’t need any of that to do what they do. They have it in their own hands and with their own keyboards to be heard and to be the new world that they want.

In short, there’s much to discuss about what happened at Gettysburg several weeks ago, and not everyone’s going to agree on everything. That shouldn’t matter: if anything, these discussions are a sign of the conference’s success. For those of you who feel unjustifiably excluded from the conference and who claim that you have a place in shaping the future of how we practice Civil War history, be the change you want to see.

Other Ponderings on the Future of Civil War History

I came across this post by Kevin Levin that points us in a different direction than recent discussions … although it reinforces some of what I said in my prepared comments for the recent conference at Gettysburg College.

It intrigues me that a good number of professional historians are afraid of the internet when it comes to anything that goes beyond the unidirectional dispensing of knowledge and interpretation from authority to audience. I’ve heard a good number of conversations about gatekeepers and authority, so many that I sometimes think I’m living in the world described in Thomas L. Haskell’s study of the rise of the social sciences, entitled The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority (1977). The development of new technologies multiples the sources of information and opens up the opportunity for anyone to offer their own interpretations, effectively bypassing certain traditional gatekeepers. That, I venture, will be a significant part of the future of history, period, let alone Civil War history, and that seems to me something worth considering and confronting instead of avoiding.

What do you think?

The Future of Civil War History: Reflections (Part Three)

The final two sessions of The Future of Civil War History provided an opportunity for some open exchanges on what had been said and heard over the previous several days. Looking back on the program, I suspect that there might have been a better way to go about this. The penultimate session of “A Letter to the National Park Service” would have been better cast as a true conversation among presenters, and it would have been better placed at the end. The ultimate session was an exercise in frustration for me, for what had happened over the previous several days cried out for assessment, an assessment that could not be met by precirculated position papers that addressed other issues. Thus I felt that my comments, prepared in February, as well as the ensuing discussion, were somewhat out of place given the path the conference took. Fortunately, in my case I could ditch my old paper without consigning it to oblivion altogether by the simple act of posting it on this blog. Given the conversations I had and the impressions I formed over the previous two days, I asked that I be allowed to speak last, and moderator Aaron Sheehan-Dean graciously granted that request.

What was I thinking? Continue reading

The Future of Civil War History: Reflections (Part Two)

Another noteworthy aspect of The Future of Civil War History was the emphasis on death and destruction wrought by the violent acts of human beings killing and maiming each other in battle. This was no accident. Peter Carmichael, who organized the conference alongside people from an unnamed government agency affected by recent federal government actions, has emphasized for some time that we need to move beyond a “New Birth of Freedom” theme to explore other organizing principles of site interpretation, most notably his own, which he styles “A Nation at War.” That trope was everpresent at the conference, haunting it in much the same way that other ghosts reportedly haunt Gettysburg to this day.

How Can Civil War Sites Offer a Usable Past during a Time of War? was the title of the first evening session, and I’d argue it was when the conference got under way in earnest. As engaging as Cathy Stanton’s presentation was, I found Peter’s comments even more revealing, because to me they set forth his notion of what he defined as “A Nation at War.” Peter’s been emphasizing this approach for some time: he asserts that the interpretive theme that emphasizes “A New Birth of Freedom,” including the theme of slavery, its destruction, and emancipation, has prevailed and that struggle is over.

Peter and I have had this discussion before in very compressed format: Continue reading

The Future of Civil War History: Reflections (Part One)

By now many of you have heard all about “The Future of Civil War History: Beyond the 150th” conference held at Gettysburg College last week. In many ways it was a great deal of fun as well as a worthwhile intellectual experience, and Peter Carmichael, Scott Hartwig (who works for an unnamed agency), and the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College deserve a great deal of credit for that. A good number of the papers presented were engaging and stimulating, and several panels explored various issues of interest to many in attendance: many of those who attended offered glowing comments about the event (and their participation in it). Several attendees even offered sustained coverage of the conference on real time at Twitter under the hashtag #cwfuture, and you may learn something there.

Now that the sparklers have died down, perhaps it’s time for the fireworks to begin.

Continue reading

Rubble at Gettysburg

I have already posted images of the old Cyclorama building being torn down, including the collapse of its roof on March 11. But, as they sometimes say, that’s not all.

Cyclorama 020 - Copy

By the morning of March 15 workers had done a good job of leveling off the rubble, although a solid base remained, as one could see here from the North Carolina monument. Shifting to the Virginia monument, the absence of the structure was even more striking:

Cyclorama 021

Then there was the view from the Longstreet tower:

Cyclorama 022

To many visitors, the absence of the building remains most noticeable when one looks north from Little Round Top:

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One needed a zoom lens to see that destruction was still in progress.

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Up close, from due west of the building, one saw that several machines were at work, even as the base remained defiant.

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The work formed an odd contrast to Alexander Hays looking out at the Confederate attack.

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By the morning of March 16, however, the work had progressed, leaving us with this scene.

cyclorama 040And that’s all she wrote.