Question of the Week: 6/27-7/3/16


We’ve spent this month considering “The Future of Civil War History.” What do YOU think the future of the field might look like?


4 Responses to Question of the Week: 6/27-7/3/16

  1. I know my interest in the Civil War came at a young age in the early ’80’s when I watched a VHS of Johnny Shiloh and was hooked from there. Since then I have served in the Army and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. I now train soldiers at Ft. Campbell, KY and finally have the chance to make weekend trips to many of the battlefields of the Western Theater. I have been to Stones River, Shiloh, and Chickamauga in the past few weeks and went to Ft, Donelson a few months ago. In touring these Hallowed Grounds I have found that even though I did not fight on these grounds the time spent in these places has been cathartic. I know I will likely never walk the fields of Iraq and Afghanistan in my lifetime but going to our own Sacred sites has given me a chance to pay my respects and lift a bit of my burden of War as well. I wonder if any other recent Veterans have done the same or if it might be an idea for “The Future of Civil War History” to bring Veterans not so much on a Staff Ride but more a Ride of Remembrance to honor those who came before us.

  2. The Society of Civil War Buffs is caught between the academia and the military guides and historians, like a border state. Like infantry soldiers, Buffs merely do the grunt work, visiting battlefields, donating the Civil War Trust, buying books and attending roundtables and a few seminars and conferences. I would like to see Congress approve a tax deduction for monies spent on a “hobby”, up to a maximum deduction of $5000 from adjusted gross income for the myriad books, travel expenses, hotels and other costs of being a Buff. The future of Civil War study, preservation and interest must reserve a place at the table for the Buff, because without the average Joe/Josephine attending to the fields, there will be no preservation or future study. Buffs will usually take the side of the military guide and historian but we respect the study and work done by the academic to challenge false notions and concepts. Buffs notice that there are fewer and fewer young people involved in Civil War study, but we don’t lament it to the point of paralysis. We try to get young people involved for the sake of knowing who we are going to devise our minnie balls to when we croak. Not a whole lot will change in the next 100 years for the Buff and we’ll still be here.

  3. I am pessimistic about the future of Civil War history. What we write about the past mirrors the worries of today. When the more positive Civil War histories were being crafted America was more powerful and economically fair. That interpretation of the war, for all its flaws, was at least more broadly inclusive then what we have today. In our time the history is going from heroic to gray to increasingly a tale of good vs. evil.

    Today we live in a time of mass mistrust of institutions, a stagnant economy, and the increasing strain of environmental collapse. Add to that the placement of race not as a key issue of the war, but the key issue of the war (despite questions of secession, nationalism, and economics) and the future looks divisive. On the one hand the triumphalist tone sometimes taken by the emancipationist will grow thin as the country fails one crisis after another. Indeed, the dysfunction of government was baked into the cake by James Madison. His conception of government failed in 1860. It is failing today; the intelligent observer will therefore see the Civil War’s legacy as incomplete on more than just racial issues. The best way to make an original argument will be the political failures of the 1850s and 1860s which will be mirrored by our times. I hope that this line is taken but I doubt it. The academy is wedded to questions of race, even if those are part of what Michael Holt dubbed “the political crisis of the 1850s” and the buffs are unlikely to stray down that road. The Lost Cause faction might, but with a Southern bias.

    The placement of race at the center is important, but its proponents have grown increasingly shrill. As a result the Confederate heritage is being attacked as racist and treasonous, its symbols and statues worthy only of mockery. Ten years ago, some type of compromise was called for and accepted. One could acknowledge the heroism of the Confederate soldier, the skill of some of his commanders, and accept that while the cause was rotten, it was also a complicated time. The North was hardly the “angels” of the Just Cause mythology; just ask the western tribes who faced the same generals who, often unwillingly, had freed the slaves. Yet, this divisive feeling, this belief that one side is right and the other is evil, is so strong in America it has percolated down to our little corner of debate.

    The way I see it, as the country fractures again along regional and class lines, so too will the Civil War. The Lost Cause adherents will be few but fierce, watching their narrative fade away. The Academic, emancipationist vision will be supreme, but unable to address issues except for those of race. For instance, the tension in the South between populism and aristocracy is often ignored. This tension has a lot of parallels today, but if one wants to win accolades among the emancipationists then race must be the issue addressed. The net result will be a vision of the war that is as narrow as the Lost Cause, closer to the truth in acknowledging the importance of race, but more condescending. It will also be unable to adequately address the growing concerns of many Americans. In short, the war will grow more distant and to most people more trivial.

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