What is the future of Civil War history? On the surface, the question is amusingly phrased, asking for the future of something that has occurred in the past. But below the surface there is a serious matter for discussion. The Sesquicentennial was a great success, one that highlighted the Civil War and its many facets. The Sesquicentennial’s approach of commemoration and education (versus celebration at the Centennial) struck the right chord. To a great extent, the Civil War history field (broadly defined) post-Sesquicentennial will still be the same: battles, armies, personalities, home front, the United States and Confederacy at war in all its dimensions. But there is one element that needs addition: context, both within its time and within US and world history.
As historians (academic or public, especially the latter), we have to face two very important truths: schools are not teaching history as they did before, and the demographics of this country are changing in such a way that many people don’t have a direct connection to the Civil War or even understand why it is relevant. Collectively, these mean that we face an audience that increasingly arrives at the Civil War without a context or appreciation for its importance as previous audiences have had. In other words, they don’t have an answer for the “so what?” question. This means we as historians and interpreters need to provide that context and linkage as part of how we discuss the Civil War (I addressed this in this 2012 interview). Otherwise we stand to lose out on opportunities to engage people on this dynamic and highly relevant subject, with significant long-term consequences.
Speaking personally, I’ve noticed that people really respond when I tie the Civil War to events in the last 150 years. It provides a framework for people to understand these events and relate it to currents throughout our history. The Civil War Echoes series I periodically post, plus my talk last year about April 1865 and its resonances to Bataan in 1942, are examples.