Civil War history has perhaps never been so prevalent to Americans than it is today. With the close of the sesquicentennial and the onset of the so-called Confederate culture wars, the story of our nation’s greatest struggle still resonates with us today, probably in more facets of life than we realize.
While it has been said by some that the conclusion and beginning of these two significant events will diminish the war’s time in the public eye, I believe that Civil War history is not in as much trouble as some believe. Rather, the Sesquicentennial can only have a positive impact on the field’s future and eventual growth, while the reexamination of the Confederate flag and other such topics will only ensure that the war remains close and personal to millions of Americans for years to come.
I cannot say what trends will emerge in the field over the next year, decade, or century, but there will obviously be an ongoing discussion of new stories and new interpretations. Even if new caches of documents, letters, or photographs are discovered, the major shifts in the interpretation of the Civil War will come from new historians looking at people and events in new ways rather than the unearthing of fresh sources. We are a product of our time, and the ever-shifting times will change our views of the war.
This prompts the question: how do we increase the number of people interested in studying the Civil War? I get it at nearly every Civil War event I attend—a middle-aged man or woman approaches me, asks how I became interested in the Civil War, we chat, and before they walk away, I hear, “It’s great to see young people are interested in this stuff.”
It is no secret that history sites are struggling to attract—and are thus aiming their interpretation at—children, teens, and young adults. This deficiency in the attendance of one group of visitors is one of the main reasons many fear the decline of interest in the Civil War. However, the demographics of visitors to Civil War sites will ebb and flow like almost anything else. This is where we as historians factor into all of this.
Attracting more people to our field can be a slow, arduous process, but persistence pays off. While goals should be loftier, I steadfastly believe that if I can “hook” one child, young adult, or anyone else in any program I give, I consider it a success. Will I ever know what is a successful program versus one that is not? Rarely—but if every tour guide, speaker, or volunteer could pique the interest of just one visitor every day, Civil War history will be in fine shape for the future.
Now, how do we make our historic sites relevant and memorable to people? In the past year, my eyes have been opened to the art of telling a story. That’s what it all boils down to in the end. We are all simply storytellers. However, we do not have to paint the landscape, the people, and the events for our audience. If they are at a historic site, part of that piece of the job is complete. Our job is to bring the story to life using that place. The story brings the place to life, and the place drives the story.
Most of our visitors will not remember the classic narrative depicting “who shot who.” But if we can tell them a good story, whether it be a sad one, a funny one, or a serious one that they can connect in their minds to a battlefield, a person, or an artifact, we can leave them with a much more memorable impression.
The field of Civil War history will inevitably have its spikes and declines in interest. I believe that the next several years will only continue the rise we have seen in recent years in the interest of the field. Call me an optimist, but now has never been a better time to be involved in this field.