The Future of Civil War History: Kelly Mezurek


from ECW’s Kelly Mezurek

In Northerners at War: Reflections on the Civil War Home Front, J. Matthew Gallman states that “the history of the Civil War is—in a variety of ways—a story of fundamental similarities amongst diverse people, and at the same time a narrative defined by crucial differences, both demographic and ideological.”[1] Recent news reports, Facebook posts, and historical scholarship about slave reparations, Confederate flags, and Confederate monuments demonstrate just how accurate Gallman’s statement is, and how important it is for those engaged in public discourse about the past and the present to fully understand his claim.

Such public debates may have found wider audiences due to the Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations, but they have not subsided in the post 2011-2015 years and most likely will not for some time. Websites such as Fold3 by Ancestry, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, and The Valley of the Shadow Project: Two Communities in the American Civil War, have made millions of high-quality scans or transcriptions of Civil War era documents available to the general public and historians alike, bringing a new dimension to Carl Becker’s 1931 presidential address to the American Historical Association ,“Everyman His Own Historian.”

At the same time, more people have the ability to share their interesting finds, provide their interpretations, and seek help from others for more information. Whether by the use of Twitter, personal websites, or online public forums, history is being written, disseminated, and debated outside of the formal classroom unlike any time before. This provides an incredible opportunity for anyone interested in the Civil War era who may be limited by time or resources, and for others it can expand their reach to new and more diverse audiences. “The Civil War Letters of Henry A. Allen” is a wonderful example, especially for those unable to visit the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia or who lack the patience or ability to decipher mid-nineteenth century handwriting. On this blog, historian M. Keith Harris shares his transcriptions of the letters Cpt. Allen wrote while in the 9th Virginia Cavalry, including Allen’s time as a prisoner of war.

The use of online communities can lead to serious problems, though, such as when someone uploads images, documents, or another’s writings without providing the proper credit and citations. It also demonstrates the increasing possibilities of spreading misleading or inaccurate history. This happens when individuals or groups disseminate historical sources and interpretations without including the proper context, due to their personal motives or because they inadequately reviewed the most current scholarship on the topic. Recent examples of include the role of African American men in the Confederate armies and the story of Irish “slaves.”[2]

Of course, more positive exchanges can and will occur. I recently received an email from a descendent of Julia A. Wilbur. The New York Quaker was involved in women’s rights and anti-slavery before moving to Alexandria, Virginia, in 1858, where later she labored with Harriet Jacobs to assist the former slaves displaced by the war. When reading her journals, her great grand-nephew discovered an April 1864 passage in which Wilbur describes watching the 27th United States Colored Troops march to the railroad. In more than fifteen years of researching this regiment from Ohio, I cannot imagine how or why I would ever have sought out this source held in the Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections. And yet in one email I received the transcribed entry, along with the citation, because I have a webpage.

The rapidly growing availability and analysis of online primary resources, along with the use of social media to make connections with other researchers, will help to increase our awareness of the variety and diversity of Civil War experiences. These exchanges will provide evidence and foster discussions that can expand and challenge traditional narratives, and more importantly help to fill in many of the silences—those topics forgotten, neglected, or dismissed by citizens and scholars. Although the sesquicentennial commemorations have ended, citizens and others around the globe remain interested in the American Civil War era. And the issues that led to the conflict, defined the four years of bloodshed, and shaped the decades that followed continue to have important consequences today. The future directions, and vigor, of Civil War history depend upon how we choose to integrate the vast and growing online opportunities with current practices of research in archives, speaking to public groups, and publishing in both popular and academic presses. The Emerging Civil War blog is one example of how people of various backgrounds are already working together to contribute to and shape the future of Civil War history.

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[1] J. Matthew Gallman, Northerners at War: Reflections on the Civil War Home Front (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2010), 234.

[2] See for example, multiple blog posts on Kevin M. Levin’s website, Civil War Memory, including; Sam Smith’s guest post on Emerging Civil War, “Black Confederates,” at ; a four-part series of posts by Stewart Henderson on Black Confederates, Emerging Civil War, at; “How the Myth of the “Irish slaves” Became a Favorite Meme of Racists Online” by Alex Amend at ; and “Slavery Myths Debunked” by Rebecca Onion at

4 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Kelly Mezurek

  1. I’ve seen the same thing happen in the news business as in the history business: digital technology has democratized both fields in revolutionary ways. So many people can now not only make content available but they can generate that content. The olds days where historians and journalists both served as gatekeepers is gone. The historian (and journalist) remain more important than ever, though, because they have the skills to sift through that cacophony of stuff, make sense of it, and present it in a credible way that offers meaning and context. NOT everyone can do that (although a lot of people think they can!).

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