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.

Make no mistake: I enjoyed the opportunity the conference gave me to meet up with friends from all walks of history. Whether it was at the dining hall, various local establishments (including a delightful dinner at the Lincoln Diner with John Hennessy and Dennis Frye), or in after-hours socializing, it was great to reconnect with people, catch up on what’s been going on, and discuss matters of various import (as well as the usual gossip … shhhh). Moreover, for the most part, I found the sessions stimulating, even if several seemed to wander off in curious directions (this was true of the opening session, which in retrospect seemed rather disconnected with the rest of the conference).

However, I found the conference as a whole less than the sum of its parts. I found its title to be misleading (and thus needlessly controversial); I believe it was largely driven by the concerns of its organizer, Pete Carmichael, who artfully crafted it to be that way; and I believe that all of the celebration and congratulation that marked its conclusion will mean absolutely nothing if we don’t know how or where to proceed from that point.

Let me here address the first point: the misleading title of the conference. It was not about The Future of Civil War History. If it was, it would have been open to a great deal of the criticism directed its way by people who complained that they had seen the future, but were unable to see themselves in it (in large part because they weren’t invited). Now, nothing stopped these people from attending the conference and giving voice to their sentiments, but the larger fact is that the conference was really an effort to bring together groups of people to discuss how we interpret (and should interpret) Civil War sites. It would have been far wiser to advertise it that way from the beginning: it would have helped me, for example, to set aside some of the concerns I offered in my own position paper as part of the concluding session in favor of a more focused commentary (although I did just that).

That said, if it was a conversation about these issues, it would have been a particular type of conference. But it was not always a conversation. Several presentations by academics were critical of how the NPS went about its business in interpreting what was in front of the visitor. Sometimes these criticisms were but weakly concealed by words of praise for the National Park Service, in which everything said before the “however” moment simply sets the table for what’s to follow. Moreover, it would have been a good idea first to establish what was being done. These issues were highlighted at the conclusion of the first day of the conference, in which a battlefield guide asked what panelists what they thought he said as well as what he should say. The answers were halting, confused, and unsatisfactory.

It would have been a good idea had academics attended one of the field experiences then next day.  I attended two: an explanation of the staff ride model (which offers a far different use of the battlefield to educate, a function often overlooked by academics working in civilian higher education) and a treatment of Little Round Top where an academic historian (Jen Murray), a NPS historian (John Heiser), and a battlefield guide (Garry Adelman) offered a comprehensive treatment of Little Round Top.  In both cases I was fairly sure what I would hear and see, and I was not disappointed, and I even got to represent George G. Meade versus Chuck Teague’s Daniel Sickles at the Peach Orchard.  I think more of those experiences would have made the conference much more of a discussion than it sometimes turned out to be, and they would have exposed academics firsthand to what’s done on site.

That’s critically important. About a decade ago I worked with a team of historians who were hired by the Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service to help historians at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historical Site develop their interpretation of the site, including a new visitor’s center. Several years later my wife and I visited the site one wet February afternoon, with melting snow all around us.  I chose not to identify myself (I had pulled that trick years before) so that I could see what a regular visitor saw, and it worked, although some comments by my wife led to my cover being blown upon the conclusion of the tour (as these comments involved her interest in seeing the bedpost Julia named for Ulysses, a question apparently not among those for which site guides are prepared, I choose not to follow that story too far here).

Examining how to realize suggestions in practice leads to all sorts of interesting discussions … and I wish more of those discussions had taken place last week. It did not take long to understand that there was a different agenda was in place. Stay tuned.

20 thoughts on “The Future of Civil War History: Reflections (Part One)

  1. Al Mackey March 22, 2013 / 7:31 pm

    “I believe that all of the celebration and congratulation that marked its conclusion will mean absolutely nothing if we don’t know how or where to proceed from that point.”


    Quo vadis, Civil War History?

  2. Bob Pollock March 22, 2013 / 7:49 pm

    Hi Brooks,

    I’m anxious to hear what else you have to say about the conference. Personally, I enjoyed the conference, though I agree with some of your critique here.

    I may be a little slow but I don’t understand what your point is in that paragraph about ULSG. When you say “it worked,” what is “it”? That you were able to stay incognito or that you were pleased with the park and its interpretation? Did you feel that park staff had benefitted from the involvement of the team of OAH historians? Did the interpretation reflect the input of those historians, yourself included?

    Regarding the guide and the bedpost; I’ve given hundreds of tours over the last 41/2 years and I’ve never once been asked about Julia and her bedpost. Since your visit was prior to my time at ULSG, I don’t know exactly who you encountered, but I’m sure the current permanent staff know the story. As you know, the house is mostly unfurnished since the Grant’s furniture was lost in a fire in 1873 while stored elsewhere. We have to explain why the house is unfurnished on nearly every tour. This actually raises several interesting issues though. Can park guides ever know everything? Who gets to decide what is important to know? What about “seasonal” park guides; how much knowledge should they be expected to have?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 22, 2013 / 8:02 pm

      Yes, our visit preceded your time at White Haven. I think everyone present during our tour understood the joke involved concerning the bedpost. Sometimes a cigar’s just a cigar … and sometimes it is not. 🙂

      The reference to “it worked” was that I was given a tour as if I was anyone, not me. When I have been recognized, that isn’t the case, and it leads to a different experience. I wanted to see how the site was interpreted now that the museum was in place, that the house was as promised, and so on. After all, I had been to the site a number of times, stretching back to the 1990s … when I entered the much smaller visitor’s center without telling Pamela Sanfilippo who I was, either. It’s a real pleasure to see how the site has evolved, and that is due in large part to the people who work there.

      I enjoyed the conference … but it would have been a failure if it didn’t provoke discussion. What I have to say now and in my next several posts should be seen as a sign of its success. Otherwise, why bother?

      • Bob Pollock March 22, 2013 / 8:13 pm

        “it would have been a failure if it didn’t provoke discussion.”

        I couldn’t agree more!

  3. Peter Carmichael March 23, 2013 / 2:49 am

    Brooks: Thanks for your very thoughtful post. The question as to what to do next confounds me in both a practical and an intellectual way. I look forward to hearing from you and your readers on this subject.

    I would complicate your academic/NPS dichotomy that runs through your analysis of the conference. There were a wide range of public historians who were part of the event and many of them were quite self-reflective about how they practice their craft. Too often people took their observations as excessively negative and automatically attributed them to the academy. At the gender panel, for instance, the most critical commentator of the NPS was actually a former NPS employee, but in the Letter to the NPS session her remarks were assigned to an academic! (although I will say that the grading of historic sites as to how they handled issues of gender at this session failed to build a constructive line of conversation) I think we need to be more careful as to how we characterize the divide between NPS and the academy, and if that becomes the way in which we frame future discussions then we will be excluding the vast majority of public historians who work in Civil War history and who are deeply self-reflective about how they go about their business. Many of the people who said “however” as Brook put it were not just academics and I think we need to be careful about the way we generalize the academic understanding and approach to the field of public history. This was not a conference of academics vs. the NPS, and it did not play out that way. Nonetheless it is a trope that is emerging and it unfortunately distorts the wide range of conversations that took place at event. I hope that we can all take a deep breath before we parrot a party line of academic know-it-alls who come out of their bunkers to lecture real people about the real world. Such a line is popular and plays well with the anti-intellectual crowd, but it is thin and misleading.

    My last issue—at the risk of sounding defensive—is the matter of who was invited to the conference. More than 140 panelists were invited and we targeted an incredibly diverse audience. We certainly couldn’t do it all (there weren’t any panels on archives for instance), but we didn’t stop anyone from attending the conference, where they would have found a working group format that was highly conversational and committed to bringing in the audience. Anyone who feels marginalized because they did not receive a formal invite missed an opportunity to simply sign up for the conference and participate.

    I agree that academics should go in the field more. Not sure how one encourages or compels people to attend field experiences just as I would be uncomfortable to push or require public historians to go to sessions where academics read papers about their narrow research interests. But I will say that many academics did do the field experiences.

    What to do next—I have some ideas but I think it best I sit back and let you and others offer their vision so that I can then sweep in and take credit for your innovative ideas! We must find a way to bottle the energy of last weekend so that it animates the concrete steps that I hope will be articulated by the wide range of practitioners in our field.

    Thanks again Brooks for your comments. They are much appreciated

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2013 / 11:30 am

      Thanks for replying, Peter. I think these exchanges can go a long way to moving people forward in addressing some challenges that are worth considering.

      You can complicate the notion of an academic/public historian divide all you want, and it would be unfair to characterize the entire conference that way. But I am amused that the person you highlighted, as we’ll see in a subsequent post, accused me (an academic) of bashing academics, which seems to embrace the very binary you call into question. What I think one would be hard-pressed to deny is that there were times when that traditional (if problematic) divide surfaced, and I note that while several self-identified academics have jumped on this characterization as unfair (perhaps because of the way it tends to portray academics), other people have not. We all know people whose activities call into question that binary, and yet it persists in the minds of others. To criticize it as unfair bypasses why it continues to carry such resonance with some people. Perhaps it is an easy way to avoid more challenging discussions. But there was pushback, private and public, and we’d be doing the entire conference a disservice if we overlooked that instead of placing it in context.

      I have no problem with who was invited and not invited. However, I think that upon reflection the title was too broad and led to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and some resentment. I know that in the blogging community some people who see certain people primarily as bloggers were wondering why certain people were invited and others were not, and some of us have found ourselves in the middle of crossfires we did not start (some of the same people complained about the composition of the blogging panel at the 2012 session on blogging at the CWI). Personally, I have little patience with these sorts of complaints, but I can see how the title of the conference offered an opportunity to air them.

      My sense is that your objectives and the goals of the conference are best served by continuing a conversation that started at Gettysburg last week (even if many of us have already been engaged in these discussions for some time) and that the best way to do that is not by simply saying that it was a wonderful event (which it was) and leaving it at that.

  4. John Foskett March 23, 2013 / 7:58 am

    Looks like the host of this blogsite may be a “damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle” after all. Although it beats having to portray a corrupt Tammany Hall politician. I assume you ripped Teague a new one. 🙂

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2013 / 11:31 am

      Chuck was terrific in his role, and he left with both legs intact.

      • Ethan Rafuse March 24, 2013 / 3:43 pm

        Brooks’s performance was all the more notable in light of his having a dilatory biographer to overcome.

        • Brooks D. Simpson March 24, 2013 / 4:28 pm

          Well, it did hamper my ability to gain a full understanding of being a proper Philadelphia gentleman.

  5. Chris March 23, 2013 / 9:29 am

    “divide between NPS and the academy,” So we are looking at now Who Owns the Battlefield with regard to Civil War Memory? I was not able to attend the conference and live a significant distance from any significant battlefield, I can only mention what I recall on the few tours I have taken in the past when I have traveled. And from my memory they take the point of view of the soldier and the commander, fairly exclusively.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2013 / 11:34 am

      I think different people explore battlefields and other sites for different reasons, and so it is a good question as to whether a “one-approach-fits-all” strategy ends up fitting nothing. On the other hand, advances in technology offer us the opportunity to construct different experiences that do not need to rely upon the NPS or site administrators and interpreters, and we need to figure out what that means.

  6. Karen L. Cox March 23, 2013 / 1:14 pm

    I was on two different panels on Friday and therefore could not take part in one of the field experiences. What I found interesting was that in the panel I served on about interpreting memory, I felt that academics were getting the smack down (just a bit) from John Hennessy–perhaps out of frustration from his experience with SOME academics. (And if I’ve misinterpreted what he was suggesting, I am fine with him letting me know.) I thought that it was important to reply that sometimes a public historian and academic are both the same person. It certainly is in my case. I’ve worked in public history, I’ve directed a graduate public history program, and I’m an academic who publishes scholarly work. In other words, I’ve worked on both sides of the aisle. Perhaps in future gatherings of Civil War historians, public and academic, it might be useful to have individuals who understand both points of view to broker those conversations.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2013 / 2:06 pm

      The problem with the binary of academic historian/public historian is that it leads to all sorts of diversions. Knowing John, he was not frustrated with all academics, but I believe his frustration with some academics were sincere and merited … and you could see it in his comments on the penultimate panel. I can also say that John was not alone in his sentiments, and he’s a person whose own scholarship questions the very utility of the binary (as do the career examples offered by you, Anne Whisnant, and some others). But I think those of us in the academy have to reflect that this pushback is not simply a figment of paranoid reaction. The reaction I’m getting here and elsewhere from people who are firmly in public history is far different from the comments being offered by academics and people who straddle the fence. Moreover, NPS folks, other site interpreters and historians, and other people who identify as public historians do distinguish between different groups of academics, so I don’t think they are painting with an overly-broad brush. So it’s one thing to say “not me,” and another thing to say “not anyone.”

      The real challenge to me is not to note these internal divisions (and discuss them to death) but to realize that they are internal, and that we need to create real conversations in cooperative fashion between members of the same larger team. However, for academics and people involved in both fields (such as myself) to dismiss these complaints out of hand strikes me as unwise, even insensitive, and ultimately as counterproductive as it would be to obsess upon the constructed binary.

  7. Al Mackey March 23, 2013 / 3:33 pm

    This is a great conversation taking place. I think you’re absolutely right, Brooks, that the conversation that started with the conference has to continue.

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