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.