The Future of Civil War History: Jim Broomall (part two)


part two of a four-part interview

At the end of last week, we started a conversation with Dr. James Broomall, co-editor of a special issue of the journal Civil War History that looks at “The Future of Civil War History.” The journal sprang from a conference held in march of 2013 at Gettysburg College.

The conference, he said in our first segment, offered an opportunity for “a really lively discussion” among a wide variety of professionals. That did not come without some challenges, though….

JB: A really big issue is that this was during the period when the National Park Service was freezing [sequestration]. There were some restraints placed on people at the last minute because of these budgetary issues. That impacted whether they could travel east. There was someone from Andersonville, for instance, who had to be Skyped in.

CM: Did that give the conference an “Eastern” flavor? I noticed the journal tended to be quite heavy on the East.

JB: I think that because the conference was a partnership between Gettysburg College, the Gettysburg Foundation, and Gettysburg National Military Park, it did have a strong Eastern focus.

That said, I think they had a few folks from Mississippi, a few folks from Kentucky. A lot of the contacts Pete has are from Fredericksburg, Petersburg. Pete interned at Fredericksburg. I did, as well. I’m not sure it was necessarily intentional in that regard. But I do think it would be a different conversation if we looked, as many academic historians are currently doing, to the far West. There’s a very vibrant body of scholarship coming out now about that topic and about how it changes our entire perspective on the conflict.

And Ari Kelman’s recent book, A Misplaced Massacre, this monumental event that the Park Service has struggled to interpret, and indigenous peoples, native peoples, in the area had a very different understanding of that. That would have made the conference look a lot different if we had brought in events like that, for instance.

That said, as Kelman’s book suggests, it’s still an ongoing conversation: How do you interpret these sites—these difficult sites—how do you infuse these topics with critical questions, critical inquiry? How do you provoke critical inquiry among these audiences? So I think some of these broader ideas would be applicable, east versus west, north versus south, no matter how we figure it.

What’s interesting about the [journal] issue and the conference itself was the range of topics. Internationalizing the Civil War. Exploring the veteran experience. Thinking about slavery and contraband history at Civil War sites. Teaching the Civil War. Battle tactics. Sensory history. War gaming. Video gaming. There was just this really incredible range of topics, and what was so interesting is there were many people engaged in this conversation, not only through the conference itself but through social media outlets, and so it became this really kind of wide-ranging, free-form conversation that was very exciting.

CM: That makes for an interesting landscape. How do you get your arms around all that?

JB: For us, especially, we were at the closing, the tale end of, the 150th anniversary, where it’s essentially “Where do we go from here?”

Many people—observers—have suggested that the 150th wasn’t as spectacular as they hoped, that ultimately these events didn’t draw very well, that the interpretation wasn’t really that advanced. But I think one of the things we really try to highlight in the journal is that if you look at it in a broader context, especially since the 1960s celebration, which was really quite contentious—U.S. Grant the Third initially chaired the celebrations, and that went to Alan Nevins because people were so dissatisfied with how things had been going—it was still a narrative focused very much on bugles and bullets, which is fine, but there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about causes and consequences and context. And so today, especially during the 150th, we saw just this wide variety of interpretive moments and interpretive possibilities that the National Park Service, especially, but also local historic sites, state historic sites, were exploring.

It suggests there is actually a pretty good conversation going on right now between these two arenas and that there actually have been some very tangible gains made. And I think the 150th celebration looked a lot different from the 100th, especially.

CM: Do you think that was helpful, overall, to the profession? Or to helping get more people interested in Civil War history?

JB: You know, the 150th probably did not get the reception everyone probably hoped for, yet I think it was better than many people suggested. But if we want to remain relevant as a profession—if historic sites want to remain relevant—if we want to look to the future, we’re going to have to really start rethinking how things have been done and how things are going to be done. And so that has to be a conversation with a lot of different audiences at the table.

In those instances, I think the journal edition and the conference itself really demonstrate the potential. It was something I was really quite pleased to be part of. I was really quite flattered that [co-editors Pete Carmichael and Jill Ogline Titus] invited me to do it to begin with.

These types of opportunities, and these types of moments, are few and far between, unfortunately, and so I’m glad we capitalized upon them and were able to produce this.

CM: Speaking of the Sesquicentennial, now that it’s over, we’re not tied to that interpretive structure like we seemed to be. Does that open things up moving forward?

JB: I think that’s fundamentally true. The CWI [Civil War Institute] is doing its conference this year framed around Reconstruction, which is pretty crazy, actually. The CWI has been, from the get-go, pretty traditional military history, and now that the 150th is over, there’s this “What’s next” question. Right now, we’re in the middle of the Reconstruction anniversaries. There’s very little discussion about that on the same scale that we witnessed during the 150th of the Civil War itself. But I think audiences are still invested in that. I think that’s pretty neat.

And you can, again, connect that so well to military history. You want to talk about postwar trauma, reintegration, the freed people’s experience—that all connects back to wartime experiences, and so those connections are still tangible. You just have to draw them out in different ways.

Jonathan Noyalas deals almost entirely with memory at his conferences. I was just at a conference he put on at Shenandoah University’s Cool Springs branch. And it was solely on legacy and memory. And he sold it out, had a wait list.

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Audience is really important, Jim says, but one audience he and Chris have not yet talked much about is arguably the most important one of all: the general public. We’ll talk about the public’s role in the future of the field when our conversation with Jim continues.

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