Beyond the 150th: Retreat from Gettysburg: Reflections on the Future, Part I

part of an ongoing series

Humidity thickens the Florida air as darkened skies cast a pall over the day. It is, in sum, a typical early spring day in the “Sunshine State,” which feels sometimes like a misnomer. But I cannot help but smile, for I’ve just returned from “The Future of Civil War History” conference held between the 14th and 16th of March in Gettysburg, PA. I am now refreshed, rejuvenated, and excited for the future of Civil War-era studies. Although still young, at least in academic years, I’ve attended a good many conferences but never encountered anything quite like the event organized and hosted by the Civil War Institute, Gettysburg College, the Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Gettysburg Foundation. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t extend a very big thank you to Peter Carmichael and Jill Titus, especially, for the tremendous effort.

I’ve been asked to write some remarks about my experience, which I’m only too glad to do. But at the outset I should note that the conference included many concurrent sessions and field experiences, thereby limiting my exposure; moreover, so excited to see many old friends I often found myself in building halls or at local coffee shops engaged in conversation while the conference rolled on. Fortunately, several other conference participants also writing for this blog will help complete the vision, and I have some tangible takeaways that I’ll offer in a two-part essay. Today I’ll make some broader observations, while the next installment will examine specific themes and sessions.

To start, the conference created a working forum for academics, public historians, professionals, and independent scholars. This is no small matter. Rarely do such diverse groups, in such large numbers, come together. Certainly other conferences afford similar opportunities but seldom with such focus or vigor. I sincerely hope this model spawns offspring. This feat alone demonstrates to me the conference’s overwhelming success and suggests a bright future. But, why these groups were brought together wasn’t always clear.

Since I participated in a panel I know firsthand that Pete and Jill created a series of pre-conference exercises to promote a dialogue and prompt discussion—an excellent idea and useful tactic. But at the conference, among different groups, an emphasis on, say, pedagogy versus practice created murky waters, which suggested some ambiguity in purpose. Brooks D. Simpson has insightfully observed elsewhere (see his comments about the conference at: http://cwcrossroads.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/the-future-of-civil-war-history-reflections-part-one/) that the conference was less about the future of Civil War history and more about how we interpret, or should interpret, Civil War history and Civil War sites. This distinction is important, and a very similar notion struck me while in Gettysburg. I’d maintain that the conference intended to create meaningful conversations about both current interpretation and future possibilities, but fruitful dialogue didn’t follow always. Some panels, certainly, hit the right tone largely because of the specific participants, whereas competing discourses mired others. That is rooted partly, in my mind at least, by a continued disconnect between academics and public historians, which leads to my second observation.

I am currently a professor of history employed by a regional university where I teach, among other things, courses in public history because of prior employment and training. I am, therefore, always interested in intersections between academic and applied history. On the one hand, the conference proved heartening. I was part of, and witnessed many productive discussions among folks working anywhere from big colleges to battlefields. Again, the conference organizers must be commended for creating an interdisciplinary space. And only similar efforts in the future will continue the conversation. Moreover, in an important sense we are all public historians, at least in my mind. On the other hand, though, academics and public historians still often talk past one another, which is, in part, understandable.

Although broadly connected by the pursuit of and passion for history the resulting products from each discipline are very, very different. I’ve been in both camps and had to use different skillsets to satisfy specific audiences or accomplish particular projects. This became clear during my panel’s discussion on battlefield rehabilitation. I could, for instance, theorize about potential approaches, whereas fellow panelists working at Civil War battlefields had to find working solutions to real problems while adhering to budgetary constraints. We came at the issue from different perspectives entirely, but perhaps the panel itself created a middle ground. I sincerely believe we had an interesting conversation about rehabilitation and perhaps that is enough. But throughout the conference I often wondered how abstract discussions could become tangible projects or working solutions. Obviously, such products were beyond the conference’s scope or purpose but I wonder about the payoff. Intellectually, yes, the environment was incredibly stimulating and extremely worthwhile but practically the outcome remains less certain. Perhaps the forum itself was enough to promote continued dialogue and the onus is now on the conference participants to foster that discussion, which grounds my final point.

Readers of this blog are connected by a shared passion for the Civil War. But I sometimes wonder about the war’s continued relevance or question what else can be said. The conference dispelled such concerns entirely. From luminaries in the field to burgeoning practitioners, I heard time and again new perspectives, enlightening insights, and provocative problems. What were some of these ideas you ask—well stay tuned for the next installment.

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One Response to Beyond the 150th: Retreat from Gettysburg: Reflections on the Future, Part I

  1. Pingback: Canadian Military History – Friday Roundup: News, Archives, and Useful Links on the Study of War and Society – April 5th 2013

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