The Future of Civil War History: Sam Smith


ECW is pleased to welcome back guest author Sam Smith.

Not long ago, the battlefields of the Civil War were filled with smoke and blood, frightened civilians and fighting men.  Now they stand silent, hallowed by the heroism they have hosted.

As historians, we like to boast that we can still hear the guns.  We can still feel the power of the land.  But for many, the silence is deafening.  The power is lost.  As historians, we take for granted fundamental understandings that are essential to tapping the emotional reservoirs that battlefields contain. 

Imagine a first-time visitor.  They don’t have any clue.  They’ve never seen an image of a soldier.  They can’t visualize a regiment in battle line.  They don’t know how the cannons would have leaped and crashed and smoked as they sent iron downfield.  As historians, we can populate a field with imagined sights, sounds, and smells enough to create the appropriate emotional theater.  As for newcomers, our black powder smoke is their impenetrable fog.

The future of Civil War history should be accessibility.  The land will always have meaning, but for the land to impart meaning, it must be understood by its modern witnesses.  Our time spent on a battlefield is limited.  As historians, we quickly grasp the backdrop and commit most of our energy to absorbing the power and nuance of each scene.  Newcomers commit most of their energy to understanding the backdrop and most of the rest to hoping they are right, leaving far too little for them to appreciate the land’s power.

We should make it as easy as possible.  We should remove barriers to understanding and use modern and clever tools to build windows into the past.

By making these fields more immersive, visitors will more deeply connect with the power they contain.  At the Civil War Trust, we are extremely interested in putting these theories into practice in the near future.  Please offer suggestions in the comments below.

4 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Sam Smith

  1. The future of Civil War history will depend to a great extent on two factors. (1) How it is taught to children in school, and (2) How we Civil War historians and enthusiasts deal with political correctness. In both the north and south of this country, the CW is taught in less than one week in school — not one week of school, but one week of social studies classes that my last 40-70 minutes for 4 or 5 days. It’s difficult to ignite a desire to learn more about the CW period when period of exposure is so brief, and governed by curriculum goals centered around test scores. My second point is obvious and is frequently on the news. For a computer-smart generation, do we really believe that by changing the names of roads, bridges, streets, schools, counties, etc. we can delete the”late unpleasantness” from our past? We should know that hitting the “delete” button on your computer does not erase it from your computer’s memory. Both sides on my family came from Italy around 1900, so I could legitimately tell people that “I had no dog in that fight, so what do I care.” But I consider myself an American and American history and all is glory and ugliness comes with that. We are who we are today because of the Civil War. So let’s accept that, try to understand that, and try to move forward.

    1. I really can’t fathom why people seem unable to distinguish between (1) understanding and appreciating the facts of US history, good and bad, and (2) naming public facilities, etc. after figures who fought against the US and from a not-absurd point of view violated their solemn oaths. That’s especially the case when those figures espoused and fought in defense of views regarding race which denigrate large segments of our modern population. Oddly, nobody seems motivated to name these things after Benedict Arnold. Yes, he committed an act of treason against the fledgling “nation” but he also first served nobly in its cause and shares credit for the result in the pivotal battle of that war which brought the French to our assistance. If anyone doubts Arnold’s pre-1780 service, go to interior Maine in November and hike the route he took to Quebec.

    2. I don’t support the movement to remove monuments celebrating the Confederacy leaders or other people now commonly regarded as disreputable. monuments can be teaching tools, and plaques with up-to-date explanations of the monument’s original context are very useful, even essential.

      But I believe the renaming of bridges, streets, schools, etc. is a somewhat different issue. Schools and bridges are not primarily monuments, and they don’t stop existing once they’ve been named or dedicated; they last for generations (if well constructed, anyway!), and are used by generations of people with evolving values. Renaming a school, street, or bridge is not about deleting history; it’s about having consideration for the people using it.

      Modern apologists for the CSA have been guilty of some pretty flagrant “deleting” of history in their own right, and a good many of the rest of us are fed up with incessant whining about “political correctness.”

      1. In general I agree with you as to schools, bridges, highways, etc. but there are important political and economic reasons for aggressively taking this approach. If for political correctness we were to try to eliminate Confederate names from our government units, then many county names would need to be changed. This would involve linking old names (Lee County) to new names (Pine Tree County) in deeds, school districts, federal census county data, gun-death data, etc. Given the mess we have with the no fly data, this would become a morass of confusion. Politically, there are some structures whose names are linked to the historic events that occurred there. I believe even the NAACP would NOT want to change the name of the Edmond Pettus Bridge near Montgomery, AL to the “Route 80 bridge over the Alabama River.”

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