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

part of an ongoing series

Northeast Florida’s skies remain dark and grey, as heavy rains saturate the ground. Although these conditions stifle any attempt to enjoy the outdoors, they make writing an ideal pursuit. In the last installment I closed with a look toward interpretive possibilities as outlined by conference participants. Although it is difficult to describe on paper, the conference felt energetic and alive. I witnessed a lot of people excitedly moving about and talking. Bus tours departed for the battlefield as groups gathered to chat over coffee. Many participants tweeted and Facebooked in real-time. The environment felt alive. Once again, I applaud the organizers’ efforts for creating this space and opportunity.

The conference definitely imprinted the idea of unlimited possibilities in the future of Civil War history. Although most panels focused on what is being done currently, the combined experience left a distinct impression of what will come. One hundred and fifty years after the cannons have quieted the war remains vivid, alive, and compelling. And the interdisciplinary audience created a vibrant synergy in which a multitude of ideas and approaches were bandied about. Included among the areas of current and future scholarship and interpretation: gender, sensory history, African American history, trauma, the legacy of the Civil War’s centennial celebrations, violence, emancipation, memory studies, commemoration, new approaches to teaching, and technology. Panels were thematically organized, each composed of a diverse range of participants—from academics to public historians to professionals. Moderators guided the panels, as speakers (numbers varied from five to eight, typically) briefly offered remarks to ground broader discussions with the audience. As such, each panel was deeply interactive. I’d like to concentrate on several themes below to flesh out some of the discussions that intrigued me the most.

First, several panels and many participants offered comments that historicized battlefields. These spaces, most often explicitly linked to the wartime era, are composed of historical layers of which visitors aren’t always aware. Yet, think for a minute about the monuments, interpretive signage, roads, trails, and buildings that dot battlefields—since the end of the Civil War battlefields have continued to grow and change.

I noted an increased awareness of and attention to this fact throughout the conference. Some participants used sections of the Gettysburg battlefield to discuss interpretive possibilities for guided tours (as witnessed in the popular conference field experiences), whereas others examined how unit monuments at Gettysburg might be technologically linked to the communities from which the soldiers came (as discussed during a panel on commemoration). These broader topics explicitly related battlefields’ varied socio-cultural functions. John Christian Spielvogel’s presentation “Interpreting ‘Sacred Ground’: The Rhetoric of National Park Service Historical Battlefields and Parks,” for example, compared the “heroic narrative” portrayed in Gettysburg’s interpretive signage to the “savage narrative” found at Cold Harbor. In this example, the events of 1863 or 1864 were portrayed in a particular light to advance broader narratives about the war’s meaning through very specific interpretive lenses. An emphasis on the National Park Service’s (NPS) role also extended to several fruitful dialogues about battlefields as cultural resources. In my panel on battlefield rehabilitation, for instance, cultural resource managers questioned how the NPS might deal with standing structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. These buildings are, after all, more than fifty years old and offer numerous interpretive possibilities about the intersections between battlefields and the federal government. Themes of historic preservation also sparked insights into land-use policy, natural resource management, and ecology.

Second, although pertaining most specifically to one presentation, I was deeply impressed and highly intrigued by the possibilities of understanding the Civil War through sensory history. Professor Mark Smith of the University of South Carolina delivered an eloquent presentation on the “Sounds and Smells of the Battlefield,” which Professor Stephen Berry of the University of Georgia matched with an equally powerful comment. Sensory history emerged as one of the most original outlets for future interpretation and scholarship in my mind. The Civil War is, after all, the subject of tens of thousands of books and the countless volumes can tire even the most dedicated reader. Yet, Professor Smith offered something profoundly original in his address that sparked a very good discussion. Smell, in particular, largely shaped his talk. And is a subject, he noted, that appears time and again in the primary sources but is used by scholars more often for description than the subject of analysis. Yet, in trying to capture to abstractions of war, the incomprehensibility of it all, many nineteenth-century Americans turned to their senses, as they offered immediate tangibles for the sights, smells, and sounds around them. Moreover, senses convey scale: the deafening boom of cannon, the stinging smell of gunpowder, and the stench of rotting corpses. As Berry commented, historians haven’t done enough in this area. We’ve failed both in our imaginations and in our scholarship to think more expansively about the sensory experiences of soldiers and civilians. At the panel’s conclusion historian David Blight offered the brief but incredibly insightful remark: this isn’t your granddad’s Civil War. These few words encapsulate well the conference’s broader tenor.

Smith’s observations about sensory history leads to my third point about how war felt, or how it continued to hold sway over its participants and observers. The panel “Understanding Battlefield Trauma from a Long Historical Perspective” was dedicated specifically to scholarship and a museum exhibit considering how war impacted the body and the psyche, soldiers and society. But the Civil War’s long shadow, post-traumatic stress disorder, and prolonged suffering were ideas echoed throughout the conference causing some to rightly question: why do we continue to discuss and study such a horrific event? I imagine we’ll continue to investigate the conflict as long as it speaks to and resonates with audiences, and its draw continues to be magnetic. Yet, the panel on battlefield trauma rightly alerts us to the war’s darker side—something of which we are aware but not always willing to discuss. Moreover, throughout the conference participants frequently mentioned “dark tourism,” questioned the relevance of heroic interpretations, and emphasized the war’s terror, trauma, and carnage. I couldn’t help but think how our current military engagements across the globe as well as an increased recognition of PTSD among modern veterans have impacted our thinking about and interpretations of the Civil War.

Other participants will certainly have more to offer here at “Emerging Civil War.” Furthermore, a simple web search for the conference title or specific panels will yield a host of fruitful returns, for the event has sparked a lot of thoughtful commentary and extended responses. This certainly isn’t our granddad’s Civil War as technology continues to connect and promote dialogue among participants and now new audiences. Thus, I will close on a note about possibilities. For me at least, the conference offered a tangible expression of the Civil War’s continued relevance and future meaning. In this sense, then, the conference certainly struck the right tone as it compelled its participants to continue thinking, talking, and debating. Moreover, it demonstrated that despite diversity among participants, no matter how disparate their ideas, we are each attracted to an episode that demands explanation and endures over time. And in the end that might by the war’s greatest irony: it offers today a point of connectivity and commonality.

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

  1. Meg Thompson says:

    Concerning the idea of a sensory interpretation: I was a participant at several 125th Civil War events, including First Manassas. While wandering around “behind the lines” I heard the distinct jingle and creak of harness. I looked up, and a small group of reenactors were guiding a team of horses across a small creek. The horses were pulling a cannon. They had been trained to respond to 1860s commands, and those were being issued at appropriate times. It was hot, humid, and there was no sound except the grasses underfoot and the scene in front of me. I thought that these fields had waited a long time for the return of those sounds, and I thought of Whitman’s “Cavalry Crossing a Ford.” I will remember this until I die.

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