Gary Gallagher, ECW, and the Wild West of Civil War Blogging (part one)


I’ve had two experiences recently that have given me pause to consider the relationship between history and blogging—and, by extension, that’s given me the opportunity to reflect on our specific mission here at Emerging Civil War.

The first was a column by Gary Gallagher in the June 2012 issue of Civil War Times. The second was a conversation I had with a colleague who teaches social media, including blogging.

Civil War Times teased Gary’s monthly column on its cover: “Why Gary Gallagher doesn’t trust bloggers”—a guaranteed attention-grabber for a blogger like me.

“Bloggers are stunningly diverse,” Gary wrote. “[T]hey represent every level of expertise and a variety of ideological and interpretive stances…. Blogging sites vary widely in focus and quality.” He’s right, for sure, when he says, “Blogging represents the ultimate in the democratization of history….”

But that’s been true of the entire internet since its very creation. Literally anyone can get a domain name and start saying whatever he/she wants. With the right skillset, an asshat who knows nothing about the Civil War can still come across as an expert and then circulate his balderdash to hundreds of thousands of people.

But here’s the funny part: that’s no different than the bigmouths who used to fleece tourists in Gettysburg by pretending to be experts on the battle and then giving totally bogus battlefield tours (a problem eventually solved by the requirement for guides to be licensed). The same could be said of the writers who contributed to publications like Confederate Veteran and the National Tribune, passing off their opinion and Lost Cause commentary as fact. The technology has changed but the human impulse for asshattery remains the same.

The problem, of course, is that there’s no internet version of the Licensed Battlefield Guide Association. A reader must discern for him/herself whether a blogger is credible or not in much the same way a historian must evaluate the credibility and usefulness of primary source material.

Unfortunately, readers frequently don’t or can’t assess a blog’s credibility. They find a blog they like, or one with views similar to their own, and they keep going back without a discerning second look. (That’s how the Lost Cause mythology caught on so readily with Confederate Veteran readers and why, even today, it still get perpetuated so widely.) It’s the same way most Americans consume their news, too.

The media theory behind that is called selective exposure: people expose themselves to ideas and opinions they like and already tend to agree with.

Alas, though, just because someone has written a blog or even published a book, it doesn’t make that person an expert.

Overall, Gary’s column did little to illuminate anything for me because, mostly, he just relayed a few of his own limited experiences. The internet is like the Wild West, and you need to be careful, he seemed to say. Hardly a newsflash. But I was troubled by the way he framed his musing: “some thoughts, and a word of caution, about the general phenomenon.” In essence, he seemed to suggest that bloggers, on the whole, weren’t to be trusted.

“[M]y limited engagement with the Civil War blogging world has left me alternately informed, puzzled, and, on occasion, genuinely amused,” he concluded. “I suspect these are common reactions to the mass of valuable information and unfiltered opinion that crowd the multitude of blogs out there.”

Fast forward a few days, then, to the conversation I had with my colleague, who began by asking, “Would you consider yourself a historian?”

She went to explain that she was interested in the idea as it relates to social media, her area of professional and academic expertise. “What does a historian do, really? It seems to me that it’s not just documenting the facts of what happened, but rather, they help us make sense of the world around us,” she said.

In her work with social media, she’s begun to move away from primarily emphasizing the use of the tools themselves (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and has begun to focus more on helping students better understand the larger context. “For example, they don’t really understand the nature of the Internet,” she explained, “or what the characteristics are of the social media space or the behaviors appropriate for it. We live by a code of conduct in that space, but how did it come about?”

A focus only on tactics—how to use social media—seemed like it underserved the students. “When I first started teaching social, it was so new that people just needed to know how to use the basic tools,” she said, “but as things evolve, I can see that I’d serve my students better in the future by giving them stronger context—and context comes from history.”

I answered her initial question by saying, yes, I am a historian, but I come at my history as a storyteller, not an academic. My Ph.D. is in creative writing, after all, and my professional background has been journalism. For me, professionally and artistically, it’s always been about “the story.” In my experience, many historians have lost sight of that, and as a result, they’ve spoiled countless of people on history by focusing too much on facts: names, dates, and places, or on esoteric minutia that have no practical relevance to nearly anything.

The poet Richard Hugo once said that as soon as language exists merely to convey information, it is dying. I think the same is true for history. If we’re merely trying to convey information, we risk boring our audiences to death. That why I’ve always tried to approach history from the broader perspective of story, which then makes those facts more relatable and gives them context.

“I think it’s the same kind of mindset that’s driving your thoughts about social media,” I said to my colleague. “You feel a need to move away from the tactics—the ‘facts,’ if you will—to the larger picture. What does it all mean?”

That brought me back to Gary’s concerns about the blogosphere. Individual bloggers act as tacticians. But what’s their larger purpose? Is there a consistent, informed interpretive vision? Is there an educational component? Is it self-promotion? Armchair generalship? What kind of quality control exists?

Ironically, Gary’s column itself embodied the same basic concern he expressed about blogs. It was a collection of facts—individual experiences Gary’d had—without anything to ultimately help readers understand those facts. After all, to conclude that the internet can leave people “alternately informed, puzzled, and, on occasion, genuinely amused” is hardly enlightening.

How we respond to those reactions when we have them—that’s the real issue. How do we choose the blogs we read, and why do we keep reading them? How do we assess their credibility? How do they challenge our thinking—or do they just affirm it?

I’ll talk more about how we here at ECW tackle those questions in an upcoming post.

17 Responses to Gary Gallagher, ECW, and the Wild West of Civil War Blogging (part one)

  1. But that’s been true of the entire internet since its very creation. Literally anyone can get a domain name and start saying whatever he/she wants. With the right skillset, an asshat who knows nothing about the Civil War can still come across as an expert and then circulate his balderdash to hundreds of thousands of people

    I don’t know that it’s really the same. When the Internet started, you had to have some knowledge of HTML to post a web page. That was a reasonably significant bar to entry. By contrast blogging software is designed to avoid that bar. That’s good, but it also widens the field.

    But here’s the funny part: that’s no different than the bigmouths who used to fleece tourists in Gettysburg by pretending to be experts on the battle and then giving totally bogus battlefield tours

    Said tours didn’t reach hundreds of thousands of people.

    Gallagher may be a little cranky, but he has a larger point (or points): democratization has its own problems, much as we might laud it. And what are the limits in a democratization in an expert field?

    1. True, knowing HTML was an initial bar, but that was a bar that developers quickly worked to overcome. I think of programs like FrontPage and Netscape Composer that seems primitive by today’s standards but which nonetheless quickly made the internet accessible to large numbers of people.

      I also concede that said tours didn’t reach hundreds of thousands of people (nor do most blogs or even the most widely read Civil War periodicals–you’d be surprised). However, those tours DID reach a key audience: people devoted enough to remembering the battle that they made the effort to get to the battlefield. So, in some ways, it was a highly important and influential audience–one that was being disproportionately misinformed.

  2. Chris – Interesting points. There will always be the above-mentioned tension in the study and writing of history: fact vs. storytelling. You reference the development of the “Lost Cause” narrative as an example of asshattery run amock. Is it not at least somewhat likely that this narrative found a ready audience because of it’s value as a story told? The “truth” obscured by the narrative might have been, comparatively, a little bit more colorless, a little bit less of a “good story.” So, while history tells stories, historians must nonetheless take care that they aren’t fleshing those stories out without substantive facts, in the name of “making emotional connections.” I suspect that that’s one possible reason why modern historians’ writing is so laden with facts and figures and so dearth of “stories”: at least in part, they’re wary of inadvertently puting out something incorrect.

    1. This is a good point. I also think historians try and avoid squeezing history into storytelling frameworks. A set beginning point, a rise/crisis, maybe some foreshadowing, a climax, a set ending…a positive or negative narrative. But perhaps history doesn’t always make good stories, or instead produces infinite story lines. If you start the story of the Civil War at Appomattox, maybe it’s epic tale of reunification and emancipation. If you end it at the end of Reconstruction, maybe it’s a tremendous waste of lives for little real progress. It’s a tricky process.

      1. History is definitely messy, and “story” is just one framework that we can impose on it in order to help make a little more sense out of it. Because it is one of our oldest institutional practices that predates even language itself, storytelling is something really primal in us and, therefore, generally has more appeal to us than other frameworks that historians might use.

    2. I think that’s a good point–and exactly why historians continue to be indispensable. In the end, history isn’t just about the stories; history must be factual and the facts have to be correct. (The notion of “truth” is something different entirely, based on interpretation, and I think that’s where selective exposure comes into play and why Lost Cause mythology got such traction–it was an interpretation a lot of people wanted to hear.)

  3. I’ll throw in a few bits here. The “democratization” of history isn’t a good thing, at least as far as production goes. Everyone does not possess equal historical knowledge, the ability to critically examine sources, the ability to create new arguments, the ability to fit new arguments (the author’s or others) into a preexisting historical framework, the ability to grapple with methodology or approach, etc. etc.

    I’d also mention Civil War enthusiasts’ understanding of the conflict is almost entirely military-political. My graduate experience so far has opened up gigantic vistas of cultural, social, linguistic, ideological, material, race, class, and gender histories that are almost entirely absent from popular history, certainly popular Civil War history.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think history is more complex than just “storytelling,” though indeed that’s a huge (often forgotten) part of the equation. Not everyone can, or should, write history. And I agree with you Chris that readers need to verify the legitimacy of the authors/blogs they read.

    Of course readers shouldn’t abandon blogs, or solely read university-press books; indeed, reading lots of sources (including those that dispute your own opinions), is a GOOD thing. But all sources aren’t equal and that’s worth remembering.

    1. Indeed, all sources aren’t equal–a crucial point. I’ll talk about that a bit more in the second part of my post.

      A lot of this comes down to the unfortunate reality that a lot of people want to be entertained, not just informed. That’s a little disheartening to the intellectual in me. You point out that your graduate work has opened up huge new vistas for you, but for a lot of people, the list you offered might be a yawner. The trick is to get them to realize WHY those things are important and relevant, because to most folks, those things AREN’T, even if, to the historian, they’re vital. Once we, as historians, begin to lose our ability to communicate to the wider public, we make ourselves and our discipline obsolete–and one thing that affects our ability to engage in that communication is whether our audience believes we’re relevant and worth listening to. (There are some basic communication theories I can get into if anyone wants ’em!)

      Just because I recognize this doesn’t mean I like it; this same “entertain me” mentality means we have little time or tolerance for context or background–a problem that is slowly killing our democracy.

    2. Zac–I completely agree with you about graduate work. The academic world is infinite, and the points of view reflect this. There are so many other ways to view the war–military is just one.

  4. The Internet is changing the writing of history in almost the same way as it has changed journalism (at one time called the first rough draft of history). A few of the changes include:

    A switch from lecture to conversation: Readers expect to be involved. They are knowledgeable and know how to check facts as well as anyone. The Internet provides a place for instant collaboration, feedback and correction.

    The rise of the amateur: The problem in the past was access to sources. Sources were widely scattered. Using them required plentiful resources of both time and money. Today, more and more records are available online to researchers. Those records not already online can be requested by email from the holder and delivered in a digital format. This opens research to anyone with the desire to do so. Because everything online is connected, holes in a history story are quickly spotted.

    Everyone is a publisher now: In the past if a historian’s work didn’t reach the desired audience, that wasn’t the historian’s problem. Now it is important for the historian to be where the readers are and not the other way around. Anyone with a website, blog or Facebook page can begin publishing history. Anyone with an account can upload a history ebook and have it published within a few hours.

    Many old-line historians have yet to recognize how these changes have shifted control of writing history from the academician to the talented scribbler.

    I also think it is a mistake to regard the world of history before the Internet as some sort of nirvana. A number of old-line historians published a lot of nonsense and then won prestigious awards for doing so.

    1. Your parallels between history and journalism are spot-on. The shifts you’ve mentioned have caused a lot of consternation in the journalism field (and among many of my colleagues). The internet has opened things up in new ways, for research and for presentation, and it’s caused a crisis in the industry because beancounters have responded gleefully by gutting newsroom staffs (so, from an accounting perspective, it’s been a huge boon, but from a public service perspective, it’s been a travesty).

      I am glad history has been democratized because it has allowed more people to engage in the conversation. That said, the work of professionals remains vital because of the skill set they bring to the work. However, the work itself can’t be the end of it. Getting people to understand why that work is important/relevant is crucial; otherwise, it’s merely intellectual masterbation.

  5. It always amuses me to hear the term “Lost Cause Myth.” This is most certainly a misnomer, since the “Cause” for which Southerners were fighting was their independence, and the truth be told, they “Lost” that fight. Thus, the “Lost Cause” was/is not a “myth,” it was/is as real as it gets. Perhaps those who insist on claiming the “Lost Cause” is a “myth,” should create a more realistic term to label whatever it is they’re trying to “prove.” LOL.

    Also, the only real myth associated with the War for Southern Independence, is the one where A. Lincoln claimed to be fighting to “preserve the Union.” Actually, the original “union by choice” was destroyed when A. Lincoln chose war over peace, and was eventually replaced with the “union by force” with which we live today. Should we label A. Lincoln’s claim to have fought to preserve the Union, the “Lincoln Myth?” Now, that makes sense. Just think about it.

    1. Taken literally, yes, “Lost Cause” seems pretty real, but the connotations of the term and mythology surrounding it exceed literal definition, ergo “Lost Cause mythology.”

      Lincoln’s evolving positions on Union and slavery, and their respective relationships to the war effort, has been well documented. Not much mythology to it.

      “Union by force” is a notion that goes at least as far back as Jackson (a Southerner): “Our Federal Union–it must be preserved!” One can look at the “choice/force” discussion as far back as the Founding, though. Can’t pin that one on Lincoln, although he’s the one who finally had to deal with it through arms.

  6. Read Carl Becker’s ‘Every Man Is His Own Historian.’ written in 1935. Becker (September 7, 1873 – April 10, 1945) is a master listerner to the peoples’ voices in history

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