Beyond the 150th: Where academic and public historians are one and the same

Becky Oakes (on the left) with Gettysburg College classmates
Becky Oakes (on the left) with Gettysburg College classmates

by Rebekeh Oakes, part of an ongoing series

One hundred and fifty years ago, the sleepy town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania became the sight of a bloody three-day battle immortalized in the American consciousness. This past March, Gettysburg College was flooded with historians eager to discuss the four transformative years that were the American Civil War. As a senior history major at Gettysburg, I was lucky enough to take part in this conference, entitled “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th,” and hosted by the Civil War Institute, the Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Gettysburg Foundation. In the weeks since the conference, I have been attempting to process not only the vast amount I learned, but also the questions we all have yet to answer.

Historian David Blight speaks at the conference
Historian David Blight speaks at the conference

This conference presented a unique opportunity for historians working in many different areas of the field to bring their perspectives to the proverbial round table. Over four hundred individuals attended, including academic historians, National Park Service employees, representatives of private historical sites, independent scholars, and students such as myself. In an environment such as this, the discussion was by no means confined to the official programs; the hallways, the buses, and the lunch table were filled with conversation as well. Of all the conclusions I was able to draw about the future of Civil War history, perhaps the most obvious was how dedicated the people who study the Civil War truly are.

The programs lasted three days and ranged from highly attended panel discussions in the college’s ballroom to more intimate breakout discussions on specific topics such as internationalizing the Civil War or training seasonal historians in the age of Holding the High Ground. (Holding the High Ground was a conference held in the late 1990s to discuss the management of battlefields held by the National Park Service; it included extensive discussion about interpreting previously ignored groups and stories at Civil War battlefields, including slaves, women, and the poor. This became an initiative adopted by the NPS.)

Some of the Gettysburg conference’s most popular programs were the field experiences, many of which examined the interpretive possibilities of the Gettysburg battlefield. Participants braved the frigid March winds to walk the muddy battlefield with experts such as Tom Desjardin, Peter Carmichael, and Scott Hartwig.

Certain themes continually came up, either from panelists or attendees, concerning what should or should not be interpreted at Civil War battlefields and other sites. Matters such as slavery, race, and gender were discussed extensively, as well as emerging ideas such as the “dark turn” towards the macabre Civil War Era studies seems to have taken during recent years. (Recently, there have been a lot of questions about how the war’s rampant death and destruction should be interpreted at historic sites. This subject made many appearances at the conference, where there were panels concerning battlefield trauma and the sounds and smells of the battlefield.)

Another question that came up a lot, and which provoked an infinite number of answers, was whether it is the historian’s job to inform, educate, confuse, or provoke. I personally find it troubling when people suggest that the answer should be just one of those things. As historians and interpreters, we should strive to both inform and provoke. It is okay for a visitor to leave with questions, but they should not leave hopelessly confused, because it is our job to educate them as well.

At a conference co-sponsored by the National Park Service, the large and unavoidable elephant in the room was the recent federal sequestration. Because sequestration went into effect only two weeks before the conference, Park Service employees were not permitted to attend the conference on government time. Since many of these employees were not only panelists, but travelling far from their individual parks to attend, this could have spelled disaster for the conference. However, this was not the case. Instead, park employees rearranged schedules and attended the conference on their own time in order to not only support the event, but also to make sure their voices were heard. Personally, as a student hoping to eventually have a career with the Park Service, I found this to be one of the most inspiring moments of the conference. Although no one can determine what the future of Civil War history holds, knowing that the dedication of individuals working at our national parks stretches far beyond their working hours makes me very hopeful.

The point of conferences was to foster not only discussion, but debate, and this conference was no exception. Many sessions tackled sensitive and controversial topics, including issues that still divide the community of Civil War historians. The biggest of these, of course, is the debate over how Civil War battlefields should be interpreted–a question that can be particularly divisive between academic and public historians. The appropriate balance between military, political, social, and cultural history is very difficult to find, if it exists at all.

Some left the conference with a sense of pessimism in regards to the future. However, I felt that the vast majority of the discussion was constructive. Although there were moments of conflict for conflict’s sake, most of the issues raised were issues that the entire Civil War community needed to consider.

For example, one of the concluding programs of the conference was entitled “An Open Letter to the National Park Service,” and during this program, the perceived division between academic and public historians became obvious. During this panel, academics suggested that public sites interpret the more difficult aspects of the war more extensively, and public historians in turn requested that the academy take a more hands-on approach to helping the public sector with practical concerns, such as funding. The major take-home message of this panel, for me at least, was that this “open letter” needs to work both ways. This discussion left many on both sides of this coin with a bitter taste in their mouths. But I saw something else as well. I saw historians, both academic and public, not only being honest about what they expected from the other, but also suggesting how they could best work together in the future. This progress is messy and confused, but it is progress, and I hope that it is the beginning of something cooperative and new.

When I was first asked to write this blog post, I was unsure of what I could possibly say that could be of any importance. I have been studying Civil War history academically for only four years, and I’ve been working part-time with the public for only three. But then I thought of the title of this conference, “The Future of Civil War History.” It is my greatest hope that I will be a part of that future, and given that the name of this blog is Emerging Civil War, I know that the authors published here certainly will be. Therefore, I would like to conclude this post by sharing my vision for this enigmatic future, a vision that I largely discovered during these three days in March:

I hope the future is a place where academic and public historians not only work together, but truly consider themselves to be one and the same. Where public historians will be in touch with academia, and where academic historians will be in touch with the pubic. Where students such as myself feel comfortable in saying that they want to be both. I hope the future is a place where sensitive topics such as slavery, gender, and death can be discussed alongside troop movements and logistics. Where those sensitive topics are no longer so sensitive. I hope our nation’s battlefields continue to be places where visitors can learn, but also places where visitors can question. I hope that those battlefields are still preserved, protected, and interpreted by the National Park Service. I hope that we historians continue to learn. Continue to grow. Continue to make progress. Continue to be relevant.

Most of all, during the bicentennial, when I attend this conference again as a seventy-one year old woman, I hope the future students of the Civil War tell us what we did wrong or what we might have done better.


Currently a senior History major at Gettysburg College, Becky Oakes has worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for the past two summers. She is also a student assistant at the Gettysburg National Military Park’s research library, and writes for the Civil War Institute’s student blog, The Gettysburg Compiler.

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