The Future of Civil War History: Eric Wittenberg

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My worries about the future of Civil War history are much broader and much larger than those cited in the articles in Civil War History. I spend a lot of time on the road, speaking to Civil War Roundtables and other similar groups. I’ve traveled to a lot of places—Ann Arbor, Michigan and Bloomington, Indiana in one recent week—and have met a lot of people along the way. One alarming trend that I have spotted in recent years is the graying of the audiences that come to hear me speak or attend my tours. The audiences get older and older, and I see fewer and fewer young people in the crowds. When I first started doing this almost 25 years ago, the crowds were much younger, and I saw many more younger people in the audiences.

I fear for the future of Civil War history because I am genuinely concerned that the ranks of people interested in these events are rapidly thinning without a lot of younger people coming up from behind to take their places in line. I am concerned that there will be fewer and fewer young people who can tear themselves away from their video games long enough to be interested in history. I fear that they won’t buy and read books. I fear that, unless their parents drag them along unwillingly to visit places like Gettysburg, they will never set foot on a Civil War battlefield where the spirit just might move them to be interested in the events that occurred there. And most of all, I fear that there will be no one to take our places at the table of Civil War scholarship when our time to step away from the table comes.

These are the things that keep me awake at night, worrying about the future of Civil War history. I view questions such as why some people refuse to study Civil War memory as just a subset of the bigger question of precisely where we go from here, and who will follow along in our footsteps. I’m 55 years old now, and I’m not getting any younger. Shortly, my 19th and 20th books on the Civil War will be published. My legacy is secure, but I worry a great deal about who’s going to come along behind me and pick up my cudgel when it’s time for me to ride off into the sunset.

I have no answers. I wish I did, but I do not. I just know that unless something changes, the future of the serious study of the Civil War may turn very bleak indeed.

About Eric J. Wittenberg

Award-winning Civil War historian Eric J. Wittenberg focuses on cavalry operations in the Civil War.
This entry was posted in Speakers Bureau, Ties to the War and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Eric Wittenberg

  1. Robert Thompson says:

    Eric,

    I too fear for the future but believe that the problems facing the field of Civil War History are much more nuanced. I was just at Gettysburg for the Civil War Trust’s Annual Conference as one of the scholarship awardees. I can tell you that one issue young people experience, especially in their senior high and undergraduate years, are the feelings of dismissal by many veterans of Civil War scholarship. This seems to be partially caused by a disconnect between the aging, and predominately white, Civil War core and the growingly diversified demographic of the next generation. As as a current graduate student at Eastern Michigan University, I have also found it very difficult to find publishers (to include known Civil War periodicals) to publish a piece stemming from a younger author. It seems that, unless your are well-known or championed by one who is, you stand little chance of success getting your work publicized. Though I am supported by my own faculty, trying to get your foot in the door with your own ideas and research about the Civil War in the public realm can be very tough.

    As students, such as myself, experience these roadblocks many of them turn to other more “popular” areas of study. They eventually leave the Civil War behind. I really do think, and I saw this while at the Trust’s event, that veteran historians and author’s of the Civil War need to do a better job at mentoring. To just say that young people are stuck on video games and not paying attention is just not true. I know hundreds of motivated youth more than willing to pick up the standard of Civil War historical preservation and research. Yes, the roundtables are getting older. They represent a fraction of the interest in the Civil War itself.

    Lastly, the job market in the area of Civil War studies is small and shrinking. This hurts the ability of authors like yourself to convince younger citizens to go out and dedicate time to interacting with groups related to Civil War preservation. They feel that their time might be better used engaging in other activities such as sports. Yes, you get the large field trips and summer tour buses are filled. That does not represent a lasting generational pull. It is simply a fleeting moment on the road to obscurity.

    What we need are more localized chapters, dedicated to taking the time to visit schools, able to host monthly events, and motivated to gin up energized interest in Civil War history within their respective communities. This requires money but groups like the Civil War Trust seem to be on the right path. They need to continue to expand, harness the power of technology, hire a more diverse workforce, and hold more events. Only through a sustained grassroots campaign of revitalization can we actually begin to save the future of Civil War historical preservation. We are not just fighting to preserve material objects and landmarks. We have to understand that this is a “war of ideas” in which our goal must be to preserve the memories of what took place and why. It is in the power of ideas that the future rests.

    • Robert

      Good to see you are working in this field and young.

      I don’t believe, with all due respect, it is all that difficult to get published in this field IF (1) You are approaching publishers and magazines properly, and (2) You are writing the sort of material that particular publisher is interested in handling. I speak as an author, and a publisher.

      Make sure both match.

  2. Mike Alberti says:

    Very true Eric, I have noticed a special few on CWT but they are few and far between.

  3. Meg Thompson says:

    Does anyone wonder how this happened? For several generations now there has been little or no history taught in our public schools! Elementary through high school was pummeled by the anti-war movement after Vietnam, and then school itself began to be fragmented by classes like “Sociology” instead of History or Geography. After 20 or so years of that nonsense, standardized tests began to flex their muscles and instead of good discussions and projects about–say–the Civil War, all a student needed to do was to guess accurately most of the time on a bubble test to pass what was identified as “History” on a transcript.

    Why did I become a Math teacher? Because after years of happily working with the California History and Social Science Project, after an extensive, wonderful summer with the Williamsburg Teacher Foundation,and after making great plans for my 5th graders to spend a night in the San Francisco Harbor on the Balclutha and then being told I couldn’t make the trip mandatory, and being denied permission for a group from Williamsburg to come spend the day at our campus, I just gave up. Maybe the California missions ARE made out of sugar cubes after all–why not go teach pre-algebra in Middle School? It was infinitely easier, let me tell you!

    • Ron Vaughan says:

      Meg, Now I understand why you are a history lover, teaching math! I used to get many invitations to schools to “show and tell” about the CW (in uniform with rifle). I recall one time when some ESL students attended my presentation, then slipped out of class and came back to hear and see it again!i Later the teacher said she was amazed at all the things they remembered. Also sometimes I portrayed a Roman or Greek soldier, but no more. Apparently, they teachers cannot spare the class time.

      • Meg Thompson says:

        I love Math–it is a lot like History. You look for patterns, identify strengths and weaknesses, understand the terrain, both politically & geographically, and you solve a problem. Some solutions are more elegant than others. Don’t confuse arithmetic with math. Arithmetic is like drill–it is part of the solution, not all of it.

        Being a mathematician has, ultimately, made me a better historian. I would have had you come, as a Greek or Roman, to my Math class, for sure. Can you imagine how cool it would be to learn metrics via Roman Army battle groupings? (and yes, I’m totally a school girl!)

  4. Ron Vaughan says:

    I first joined the local CWRT in 1993, at the age of 46. I was one of the youngest. Our group continues to shrink, but we have had a few young members come along. Evan Jones gave his first presentation on Shiloh at age 12, and recently has published a book on Chickamauga. A couple of other new bright stars are Edward Alexander (published via Savas), and Sara Kay Bierle (ECW). So there is some hope, but it seems like in many hobbies/interest groups, the memberships is graying, as has been stated.

  5. John Foskett says:

    As usual, Eric is a voice of direct, blunt and insightful commentary. I recently gave a presentation to an area CWRT. The audience was terrific but i saw nobody who could have been under 45 or so. One of the values of ECW is that we have a new generation of ACW authors/historians getting visibility. It would be nice if this resulted in a new audience.

  6. Eric J. Wittenberg says:

    I did another event yesterday. There were 28 attendees, and three presenters, including me. At 55, I was the youngest person in the room. That really concerns me. A lot. I don’t have any magic beans, though–I don’t know how to fix it.

  7. Meg Thompson says:

    Geez! I am starting to feel guilty for getting old! Anyone have a suggestion for that?

  8. Will Hickox says:

    As someone who works for a history museum and county historical society where we’ve been discussing ways to address this issue, I believe it’s not simply a matter of youths being uninterested in history. Our society membership is decidedly on the gray side, but that is because they were raised in a club-joining world of with Elks, Masons, Lions, Scouts, and yes, Civil War round tables.

    There is a big, impressive stone building downtown called Freemasons’ Hall. But the Masons don’t own the building or meet there anymore; their graying, declining membership now meets in a much smaller venue with a neon sign in front. This is the situation round tables are confronted with. Younger generations simply don’t join official organizations. They prefer to hang out informally or online.

    We have several smart and dedicated high school and undergrad folks volunteering or working at our museum. None, to my knowledge, belongs to any group resembling a round table.

  9. I hope everyone will read this all the way through.

    All that Eric writes is correct. There is nothing with which to disagree.

    My approach to life, regardless of the issue, is to find the route to success over the blockage, around it, through it, or under it. There is always a way. And WE (all of us) hold the solution in our hands, sort of like Dorothy having to click her heels together. Let’s all do it together.

    How many of you reading this have know folks younger than you? Answer: All of you.

    How many of you have given some of the best prospects a book to read and strong encouragement to do so? That number I know is much much smaller.

    BOOKS

    We created Mark Hughes’ “Civil War Handbook” to make the study of the war easier and more accessible than beginning with a David Powell 796-page battle study. The books in the Emerging Civil War series are inexpensively priced, jammed with photos and maps, well-written, and the PERFECT entry point for younger or less experienced readers of any age.

    I encourage you to give them as gifts to nephews, nieces, grand kids, neighbors, employees, their kids, etc. If you don’t want to buy another copy, read yours and pass it along and encourage someone else to get the virus. It works! We have many new customers who began with an ECW title picked up at X battlefield. They are now on our mailing list, and they are adding new titles to their library and visiting more battlefields.

    I always have a half-dozen copies of “Killer Angels” with me at home and office, and our “Civil War Handbook” by Mark Hughes. I hand them out like candy. Do you?

    Recently, my newly retired and very well educated step brother told me how little he knows about the Civil War and that he wanted one book to get a feeling for “the whole thing.”I recommended Shelby Foote’s massive, but very readable “The Civil War, A Narrative” trilogy He is now finishing vol. 2—and loving it. He found that he has a deep interest in the Western Theater, wants to visit Shiloh and Vicksburg, and wants to know what to read next. Without my encouragement and suggestions, none of this would have happened. He is now HOOKED.

    ROUND TABLES

    I am at heart a marketing guy. It drives me nuts to watch RTs wring their collective hands about the age of their membership. When I ask what they are doing to bring in new members–the crickets reply.

    No one is going to FIND YOU if you don’t have a Black Box sending out signals that say “COME JOIN US!” You have to find them.

    Today, the best and easiest and most cost-effective way is MEETUP: http://www.meetup.com/

    Get on there and get a Round Table page, make it exciting, etc. Announce your meetings. People will find you and you will get new members.

    Now, are your meetings even remotely interesting? I have spoken to groups around the country, some of whom are so boring I would rather have my eyes scratched out.

    Do you meet in a bright, cheery place with food and drink, or a dark dingy small room in the back of NoOneGoesHere Grill?

    Make sure you have raffles to raise money for a cause. Do something important to be important.

    Do you have a book reviewer on staff? No? Why not? That reviewer should bring in 2-3 NEW titles each meeting, hold them up, and talk about each book for a minute or two, and then pass them around so others can see them. Touch and a connection to the ongoing world is important.

    THE MOST IMPORTANT: Stop using dull speakers as “placeholders” at your meetings. It is the fastest way to drive new folks away. Work hard to bring in good speakers. Share them with other RTs, hit the local colleges and ask history profs to come and speak.

    Have a panel discussion if you can’t find a credible speaker, but put your BEST folks on it and then pick a good topic. Show a clip of a movie (Glory, Gettysburg, etc.) and open that up to debate at another meeting.

    As you can see, you don’t have to do the same old, same old, every meeting. That is the kiss of death. If you are not growing, you are dying. But you are CHOOSING to die. I choose to life and thrive.

    Be active, be encouraging, be creative, and PLAY A ROLE. Look at everyone you meet as a new Civil War reader and enthusiast.

    Onward.

    –tps

    • Meg Groeling says:

      My my! I have just bookmarked this page. There is no CWRT in the Central Coast area of CA, at least not in the Monterey to Gilroy corridor. One of the things I plan to do after next year, when I leave the classroom, is start one. I believe we will be meeting in Morgan Hill, at a lovely, well-lighted and sort of hipster bookstore that has great sandwiches, salads and ice cream–all locally sourced (which is important in my geographic area!).

      I will be using your inspiring words, Mr. Savas–and please join us about this time next year for an inaugural meeting. Huzzah!

      (BTW–I just had a porch argument with a “kid” of 27 who dropped out of a teacher’s program in college because he thought he would never be able to understand or teach with all the technology in Common Core. Really? ‘Cuz I am a total geezer, and I get it. Technology is a tool, and just as I learned to use a Swiffer instead of a mop, just as I learned to use a computer instead of a typewriter, I learned to assign, read, grade and store Math assignments on a Chromebook. Where are you young guns? Why aren’t you leading the charge? Is it like . . . a Millennial thing? Because you can do better.)

  10. Bob Crowder says:

    I’m 43 and have been attending my local CWRT for the past 5 years or so. Our members are very aged as well. I’ll be doing my first presentation this coming January, and plan to do more in the future. I guess it’ll be up to folks like me to keep things going. I’m willing to give it a try, but it sure seems like most people I talk to have little interest in CW history. Like most that are reading this article, I study, and think about that time period daily. You get kind of a lonely feeling when you work it into a conversation, just to have someone change the subject. Social media doesn’t seem to be much help either. People would rather share a rude joke, or picture than take an interest in what happened before they were around.

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