The Future of Civil War History: Kevin Pawlak

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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.

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4 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Kevin Pawlak

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    One of the problems with this sort of optimism–and I mean this sincerely–is that the National Parks System has very different representatives west of the Mississippi. In California, people come to Yellowstone, the Pinnacles, Sequoia, etc. The State Park system, which is responsible for places like the Presidio (San Francisco), Fort Tejon (where Jonathan Letterman was stationed last before the war, and parts of historic San Juan Bautista–along with a bunch of other smaller, more intimate places, is that these parks have little or no staff, and when there is someone there, they rarely talk about the Civil War, even if there is an obvious connection (like Letterman, or places where future generals served prior to the war). Much of the nation has little chance to see the ACW up close, and there is such a variety of sites that it is difficult to organize something like Colonial Williamsburg.

    I may be off on my park facts, but for many people, the Civil War is not only historically, but geographically, far, far away.

  2. Tell them a story (historical account) they will remember. Well said, Kevin!

  3. rarerootbeer says:

    With the demographics of the public schools shifting strongly to hispanic in California and private schools and prep schools becoming geared toward college prep the textbooks are skipping the wars and focusing on tests and “whatever keeps the students from dropping out”. The best and brightest dont get the same amount of money and time as the students who are “at risk.” I think the Common Core approach is our best bet in social studies since it gives the students a chance to study prime source material and the internet gives the students a much better chance to find quality reading, like Emerging Civil War. The parks in California focus also on natural geography and not history. Some of it is because the Mexican War is still a touchy subject still after 150 years and there are so many immigrants from Central America that harbor anti-American sentiments. The social issues like slavery and civil rights can draw the youth into the actual Civil War fighting. Mud and Guts material doesn’t generally excite young people who’s ancestors werent involved. Women’s issues, minorities, families, passion for freedom, these subjects still ring true today. Common Core ideas that people deal with today were involved in the Civil War 155 years ago. The Civil War still has great ideas, events, and people still important to this young generation today.

  4. jhorn518 says:

    One issue I have seen in the public sector of Civil War interpretation is that younger individuals are not getting the opportunities to work in the public history field. Speaking more specifically about the National Park Service which operates a large portion of the preserved Civil War battlefields, there are a large amounts of young enthusiastic interpreters with a strong Civil War focus, but they cannot break through. The average age of a NPS ranger is at least over 50, and not going down anytime soon. There has been a belief for sometime that after the NPS Centennial is over that there will be a great wave of retirement opening doors for those young interpreters to get in. But that for the most part has proven not to be true. Regions either don’t fill positions or are forced to obey federal hiring authorities rules of hiring veterans before looking at experienced interpreters. The result of this is devastating for peaking interest in younger crowds. Older interpreters simply have a harder time connecting to younger crowds both in person but also on social media which has become more and more important for the public image of the battlefield parks. Those young interpreters are then stuck as seasonal rangers, only working 6 months a year and are unable to make enough money to really survive. Those young interpreters are usually then forced out of the system by either going to the private sector, where there are very few Civil War history related positions, or to go out west to remote NPS sites just to get into the NPS full time. The way the NPS, and battlefields in particular, are forced to hire, or not hire in some cases, is killing youth involvement and thus youth interest. I hope that this changes and share your optimism that at some point it HAS to change if Civil War interest and the NPS operated battlefields are to survive.

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