What ESPN Classic Teaches Us About Civil War History

Hindsight is always 20/20. We look back at historic events possessing information not available to the participants. In hindsight, things that were important at the time have faded while others assume a larger importance.

I suggest we need to try and read history forward – focus on what people knew at the time and not look back at it from our modern perspectives. That brings me to my title, for we have an excellent model on TV for how to do that. ESPN Classic (and NHL Network, among others) re-run old game telecasts, so you can re-live great sports moments. Among events replayed in the last few weeks include the 7-game 1993 Campbell Conference Finals between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Wayne Gretzky’s L.A. Kings; the “Thrilla in Manila” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier; the 2014 BCS National Championship, won by Florida State over Auburn; the 2013 Iron Bowl with the famous kick return at the end; and the 2003 AL Championship Series, decided on a Yankee home run in Game 7 to beat the Red Sox. When you watch these events and forget how they end, the drama and tension of the moment comes back. I have found myself rooting all over again, as if seeing it for the first time.

That is how you read history forward. Forget the results and allow yourself to fall back into the story, discovering how it ends along with the characters you’re reading (and/or in my case, writing) about.

As a few examples:

– Looking back through the prism of the rest of the war, Irvin McDowell’s march to Manassas in July 1861 is incompetent; reading forward, we realize it is the largest army ever moved in the history of the United States to that point

– Looking back through two world wars, it is no great thing to maneuver multiple armies on a field of battle; reading forward, we see that Lee in 1862 and Grant in 1863 were breaking new ground by doing just that before Richmond and at Chattanooga

– Looking back we know Lincoln won the war, so his statement about Stones River being a victory which “had it been a defeat instead, the nation could have scarcely lived over” doesn’t seem to make much sense; reading forward we see how defeat at the polls and on the battlefield in November and December 1862 had rocked the North on the eve of the battle, which occurred at the same time of the Emancipation Proclamation’s release

– Looking back we know Grant would be successful in taking Vicksburg; reading forward, we get a sense of what an all-or-nothing option crossing the Mississippi River south of the city really was, and the moral courage it took to make that decision

– Looking back we know that the CSS Virginia by herself was incapable of destroying the Union blockade fleet and shelling Washington City, and we also know that the Monitor would be available to oppose her; reading forward we get a sense of the terror the Virginia inspired by the destruction of the Cumberland and Congress on March 8, 1862

The next time you pick up a history book, try to read it forward. It will give you a better flavor for the times and hopefully more understanding of the people who lived it.

2 Responses to What ESPN Classic Teaches Us About Civil War History

  1. An outstanding and thought-provoking post. I’d share it with my post-1865 American history students if it didn’t mean having to take up class time explaining these campaigns.

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