The final part of a four-part interview
The current issue of the journal Civil War History tackles the topic “The Future of Civil War History”—an idea so big we had to sit down with one of the issue’s co-editors, Dr. James Broomall, to talk a bit more about it.
Jim is the director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War (GTMC) and an assistant professor of history at Shepherd University. Many of the ideas we’ve been talking with him about are ideas he himself brings into his own classrooms.
CM: How do you think all of this helps you in the classroom as you’re educating that next generation of historians who are going out onto the front lines and into the archives? That has to be a pretty great opportunity, I would think.
JB: It is! Especially where I am now, we’re kind of right here in the heart, so I try to take my students out to the battlefields, to Shepherdstown, to Antietam, to Harper’s Ferry, with some regularity. We take different approaches at those places. And for those different approaches, I have some of the best interpreters from the National Park Service or the field guides from up at Antietam, and have them apply their knowledge to the sites. And what’s interesting is that they all read the sites in very different ways.
If you take a place like Antietam, which can be read from a very traditional military lens, depending on the interpreter, you can get a very different interpretation and a very different story. It may focus on, say, the photography of the battle. It may focus on the disintegration of cohesion at the Sunken Road—and so, a very traditional military topic, but you can look at it in a very kind of social history way, almost.
In those instances, students have an opportunity to think in a different way about these sites. I think the other issue we try to bring up is how would they, themselves, interpret these sites? What exactly would you do if you were on the front line? Do you want to bring in conversations about modern-day political contests over the Confederate battle flag or not? If you’re posed with questions like that, how do you respond to them?
So I think there’s this range of interpretive possibilities that students either see or we can talk about, and the classroom is obviously the safer setting before you go out onto the front lines.
I myself did very little front-line interpretation. I did a lot of back-room research when I worked for the National Park Service. But I was exposed to the training they do and I’ve done guided tours over the years. I’m doing more of them now that I have this position with the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War. And one of the things you quickly realize is that it’s quite difficult! It’s not only difficult to convey the basic narrative of a battle, but then to nuance that narrative and make that narrative compelling to different types of audiences—there’s a real challenge there. And so it has been good to field these kinds of questions to my students to see how they might respond to these situations.
CM: Is it hokey to think, as you look at those classrooms of students, that they are the future of Civil War history?
JB: No. Maybe I’m a hokey person myself, but no, absolutely not.
I just like it here so much, this whole area is so rich in history and the students very much get that. We have a very interesting group of students here. We have a Civil War Studies/19th Century America concentration, so many people come to Shepherd specifically to study the American Civil War, and so they have this deep investment that’s actually profoundly refreshing.
I’ll go out and talk to older audiences who typically bemoan the generation of students that I teach, and so I get a lot of questions like, “Do you find that they’re disinterested” or “Are they disconnected?” Yeah, of course. If you’re an educator, you invariably deal with different types of students who have different levels of interest, but the thing that has been so remarkable since I’ve been here is that they actually have a deep investment in the past.
I mean, a good number of my students volunteer at Harper’s Ferry on their own time. This is something they do for fun on the weekends. We have another group of students who have paid internships with the National Park Service. And then through the program I run here at Shepherd, they have to go out into the field and do service type work with local historic sites, cultural resources, work with people who are out in the field. And so there are all these instances where students are engaging in a really meaningful way with this past.
And so to say that they are the future of Civil War studies is not an understatement in the least and, again, is remarkably refreshing compared to some of the things you hear or what people expect.
CM: Another of your responsibilities at Shepherd University is to organize an annual conference of your own for the George Tyler More Center for Civil War Studies. How have your thoughts about the fields shaped your work on the conference?
JB: I’m still new here. I’m still trying to learn everything. [He laughs]
I probably will take a more traditional military approach. We’re going to do a lot close-grain readings of the ground. I think we’re going to talk about a lot of small-unit action. But that said, my keynote address has gone and infused a lot more social history into the narrative, and so for me, that’s my balance.
And you know, the deeper I get into military history, the more I think you can do with it that is rather innovative, actually. And I’m not trying to disparage military history; it’s actually one of the more vibrant fields as it’s being rethought right now. As you know, there’s a lot to be learned from battles, still. There’s nothing wrong with that. I know academic historians are sometimes loath to admit that. Increasingly, people like Gary Gallagher are really making a call—a strong call—for the reinvigoration of it, and I think at least some academics are hearing that. So that’s good.
I think their issue is that there’s the perception that people who are invested in military history think nothing of causes and consequences. And I just don’t think that’s necessarily true: they get a lot more enjoyment out of talking about tactical movements and strategy, but they’re generally pretty savvy people who also know a lot more than just that.
But when they go to Antietam, they want to see Antietam—and I get that. That makes complete sense to me. When I go to Antietam, I am generally looking at the battlefield as well. So, it’s a balance.
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A balancing act, indeed: academic history, public history, military history, social history, and public interest, driven by educational, public service, and even economic motivations. As one of the young up-and-coming voices in the field, Jim finds himself situated at the dawn of the post-150th era and a significant opportunity to shape the field for generations to come.
For readers who have not seen the June issue of Civil War History, you can find a table of contents here.
Over the course of the month, ECW will continue its own exploration of the “Future of Civil War History” with a wide range of posts from our own stable of writers as well as guest posts from other notable figures in the field. Our next installment comes tomorrow evening. Stay tuned!