The Future of Civil War History: An Interview with Dana Shoaf (part two)


part two of five

We continue today our conversation with Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf on “The Future of Civil War History.” Dana and I spoke at the very beginning of June.

Yesterday, during the first part of our conversation, Dana said the recent culture wars over Confederate memory were an educational opportunity that was largely being lost. People were using social media as a way to express their frustrations, fears, and angers without any real dialogue to support it. Little actual discussion was happening.

Chris Mackowski: You say that, and I think that a lot of the professional historians I know are almost afraid to touch it because it’s so controversial, such a hot button.

Dana Shoaf: Yeah, have academics seriously discussed it? There may have been serious discussion of it, but I am not aware of it.

The conference of the Society of Civil War Historians is being held this weekend in Chattanooga—are you familiar with that?

CM: I am.

DS: Are you a member?

CM: I’m not.

DS: I am. I think I’m a member. It may have lapsed. (laughs) I’ll renew.

I wonder if there’ll be a panel discussion about it. I don’t know if they think it’s too popular.

May I ask you a question?

CM: Yeah.

DS: Why are you not a member?

CM: You know, that’s a great question. Any time I’ve looked at their conference proceedings, the topics have seemed so esoteric that they’re so far beyond my own experiences on the front lines doing tours and speaking to roundtables. I just don’t see most of it as relevant.

DS: I think the last one I went to was in Richmond. I really go just to catch up with these people in person, you know? And talk to them about writing for the magazine. I don’t go to a lot of the sessions because most of them don’t interest me. This is a topic for a different discussion, but I wish the Society of Civil War Historians had more members beyond the academic realm. I wish, for example, more museum and NPS people belonged to it.

CM: I think the academy is drifting away from public interest—I’m kind of interested in bridging that gap—but it seems you’re really in tune with what people want to read about, what people are buying, that sort of thing.

DS: There’s a lot of academic stuff that’s done that the readership does find interesting, but academics. . . . (trails off) I’ve heard this argued two ways.

Civil War academics do a much better job than historians of other periods of history in reaching a public audience. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past years building relationships with professional historians, and I am very fortunate that a good number of academic historians write for the magazine, and many people I’ve asked are eager to do so. Folks like Gary Gallagher and Susannah Ural write regularly for Civil War Times. Lesley Gordon, Keith Bohannon, Catherine Clinton, Jonathan White, Jonathan Noyalas, have written for the magazine. I could go on.

And a number of universities sponsor conferences that reach a wide audience. And think of the recent film, The Free State of Jones, based on the book of the same name by Victorian Bynum.

But there are panels at conferences that feature really arcane topics related to the Civil War period that a popular audience wouldn’t be that interested in—or people like you and me, necessarily. I do think there are some academic historians that consider themselves Civil War scholars that don’t like the popular end of the Civil War spectrum.

CM: To me, that speaks to something that I think is central to this notion of “Where is Civil War history going?”—that tension between serious, scholarly study versus the popular interest.

DS: Academic scholars don’t write many battle narratives. And why is that? If you look at battle narratives that have been published in the past fifteen years, how many of them have been published by Ph.D.s? Look at Gordon Rhea. He’s an attorney. There’s Eric Wittenberg. Andy Trudeau. David Powell. There’s you. You’re a professor, but you’re a journalism professor; you’re not a history professor.

Gary Gallagher would agree, I think, that academics have shown relatively little interest in taking military history seriously. They don’t seem to value it.

CM: I hear that a lot, talking to a number of people. But it seems that’s what the general public eats up.

DS: Yeah. You’re involved in bringing sides together, and you’re an academic. What’s your impression of that?

CM: Almost scornful: If a lot of people are interested in your stuff, you must be selling out, or you must not be doing something worthwhile. That notion of being conscious of audience—as writers, you and I are conscious of audience all the time. That just doesn’t seem to be a concern for a lot of academics. Most of them are just writing for each other, not for wider audiences.

DS: I talked about this at a conference once. I think it was a Society of Civil War Historians conference, and my topic was about the gulf between academics and the popular audience. And a lot of people took issue with me. James McPherson leads battlefield tours. Gary Gallagher leads battlefield tours. Etcetera. I’ve amended my view since then.

CM: I think there’s that handful of people you and I could both name who are sort of “celebrities” in the field—McPherson and Gallagher and some others who are college professors—but I can’t think of maybe more than a dozen who are doing it regularly for the public.

DS: You ask where the future of Civil War history is going. It almost sometimes feels like some academics—this is a really general statement—would almost feel happier if it wasn’t as popular. I don’t know.

*     *     *

When their conversation continues, Dana spends more time talking with Chris about the disconnect between academic history and the general public—and how military history can play a role in improving that connection.


2 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: An Interview with Dana Shoaf (part two)

  1. While I have never attended a Society of Civil War Historians meeting, I am now a member, and hope to attend one in the next couple of years. I’ve heard a lot about the tension between academic and popular history in the Civil War community, but have not witnessed much of it firsthand.

    I do attend a small gathering (20 or so) every year, the Historians of the Western Theater of the Civil War, who have been very welcoming to historians of all stripes. Most members are academics (active and retired) but they do include folks like myself who are writing basically to scratch our own itches, not necessarily to further any career goals. I think this welcoming attitude is pretty healthy, and largely fostered at the outset by the group founders, John Marszelak and Michael Ballard.

    Perhaps because interest in the Western Theater is by and large much less than in the East, our group cannot afford to leave any potential members out of the boat.:)

  2. Chris,

    Congratulations for publishing the interview with CWT editor, Dana Shoaf. Perhaps he might consider having an edited version of the interview published in the magazine. As one of its many subscribers, I would think that the subject matter would interest its tens of thousands of readers.

    While it is true that most academic historians don’t write much military history, one might add the names of Kenneth Noe and Earl Hess to those mentioned in the interview. Fifteen years after its publication, Noe’s treatment of Perryville remains the best written (and likely definitive) account about that unappreciated battle, while the prolific historian Earl Hess was recently named the winner of the prestigious Tom Watson Brown prize, awarded by the Society of Civil War Historians.

    Tom Grace

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