The Future of Civil War History: Phill Greenwalt


The recent edition of Kent State University’s journal Civil War History posed the question, “What is the future of Civil War history?” Some of the leading historians of the era, both in academia and in public history, pitched in with some excellent topics on gender, race, and memory.

My thoughts on the “future of Civil War history” don’t fall squarely on the subject matter itself but how historians now and in the future approach that subject matter.

For years, there has been one type of interpretive program, and one direction that knowledge flows when visitors go on those programs at national parks, most museums, historic sites, etc (and not just at history sites, but in the majority of the sites).

A ranger, guide, volunteer, or intern has disseminated the information, moving from one stop to the next, listing facts, trying to connect meanings, and being what is referred to as the “sage on the stage.” Information is passed one way. At premeditated stops or at the end of the program, the “sage” would ask for questions, and some insight would travel the other way, from visitor to guide.

The National Park Service has built its reputation on this type of great interpretation and used it as its basic fundamental building block. However, that time has passed.

Changes in teaching and learning techniques, changes in the general population of Americans, and changes in how information is gleaned and learned have made interpretive environments more diverse.

This is not a call to scratch the proven method, but a call to add other practices to it for the sake of relevancy to our visitors—for the sake of “the future of Civil War history.”

If adding new modes of interpretation programming makes one uncomfortable, then perfect! Change is uncomfortable. Change does not happen when we are complacent and content.

One technique that has become vogue recently, in the National Park Service in particular—and can be used as a medium for change—is “facilitated dialogue.” Using this interpretive tool, the interpreter sets the parameter of the program by introducing themes and questions but then allows the visitors to actively take part in the discussion and share ideas, concerns, and connections. The interpreter has to be cognizant to continue to move the conversation along and not let one visitor monopolize the discussion, a skill that comes with practice, so it should not diminish someone’s openness to try this method.

Emerging Civil War has focused in on this approach, albeit electronically, to ask controversial question—see past “Questions of the Week” –or to hold a symposium in 2015 that allowed speakers to discuss topics of the “legacy of the Civil War.” Other blogs have encouraged similar discussions.

That needs to happen at all historic sites. If we want to expand the net of people who visit these places. Public historians, park rangers, museum guides, etc., need to utilize different approaches to reach a larger audience. Yes, battlefields and historic sites will still get decent visitation as the years progress, but if we want to expand “the future of Civil War histor,y” we need to start talking with and not at our audiences to hear their viewpoints, learn from their shared stories, and create a better understanding.

Call me an optimist, but when someone calls for the removal of a statue or defaces a Civil War monument, I see a chance. (Let me bracket that by saying I do not condone the second activity and think perpetrators should be caught and punished accordingly.) But I think there is something larger to be learned, as well, that is connected with “the future of Civil War history.”

The act calls for a term I want to coin called “controversial relevancy.” Why is there a call to remove the statues? Why did that monument get “tagged” with spray paint? There is a lack of understanding and communication therein, and the sole reason is because there has been a lack of “controversial relevancy.”

As “the future of Civil War history” becomes the present, historians need to be taught that controversy, in this sense, is okay. History was messy—we are told that, we preach that, but we also need to live that at our sites to invite in various viewpoints, and in the process create a better overall picture. There may be conversations we don’t want to hear, there may be accusations that are too truthful, but in the end, “controversial relevancy” will connect people, bridge misunderstandings, and help link the present and future with the past.

I am currently going through a similar scenario in a more natural setting. Working in the Everglades, the only national park created solely for its biodiversity—i.e. to protect what is living—rangers and advocates face issues that can be categorized as “hot-button, politically sensitive topics.”

Hear of climate change? How about rising sea levels? Or maybe you have read something on water restoration? Burmese pythons and other invasive species threats ring a bell?

These are challenges that rangers like myself face every day. We see them in the Everglades, and we field questions from people who believe and those who have alternative views. Controversy. Relevancy. Fact and opinion. Theory.

Just interchange “Gettysburg” for “Everglades” and can you use the same terms? Instead of pythons and alligators, you have different, yet still potent issues to interpret and discuss.


Controversy. Relevancy. Fact and opinion. Theory.

Like the Everglades, a river of grass, the themes mentioned above will continue to roll, in some form or other, continuously on. So will Civil War history. To what degree historians and interpreters can influence that form is what will shape the “future of Civil War history.”

Facilitated dialogue and controversial relevancy are just two possible aids in doing so.

1 Response to The Future of Civil War History: Phill Greenwalt

  1. So well said, Phil. A lot of folks will be uncomfortable in the future, I’m afraid. Actually–not afraid–but welcoming the change. After all, if one does not change, it must be assumed that one is DEAD!

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