The Future of Civil War History: Chris Mackowski


The stereotypical newsroom once looked something like this: A haze of blue smoke hangs just under the florescent tube lights hanging from the ceiling of a wide open room filled with desks piled high with stacks of paper. Reporters with their white shirtsleeves rolled up, wearing fedoras with tags in the brims that say “Press,” have cigarettes dangling out of their mouths as they pound away on their keyboards. Styrofoam cups of coffee sit next to the typewriters and ripple in synch with the vibrations from the keys; in a desk drawer, something north of 100 proof waits to come out when the stories get really tough. “Dammit!” and “Ah, hell!” and harsher language barks out as deadline gets closer. In the corner office, someone called “Chief” growls for copy.

After, when the stories are in, everyone retires to the bar across the street for a drink or three and a few laughs, trying to forget the day’s news: the budget numbers the city treasurer has been trying to hide, the 500 layoffs that hit the area’s largest manufacturer, the two boys murdered by their father before he committed suicide. The sheets laid over the bodies by the police nonetheless suggested enough that a couple drinks won’t blot out the memory. But you’re back at in the morning, so buck up.

Much of that sensibility remains among my colleagues in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where everyone had, once upon a time, worked professionally in the field of journalism before coming to the white halls of academe. The P.R. professors were once P.R. professionals. The marketing communications professors all communicated with a wide variety of markets.

As faculty, we generally make uncomfortable academics. We come to the ivory tower to work, but we make our offices in the basement and come in and out through a side door. Some of my colleagues stand out there and smoke.

We teach at a university named for St. Bonaventure, a thirteenth-century Franciscan friar and scholar who believed that knowledge for its own sake was a form of pride. Only when knowledge was applied for the benefit of the greater good was it worthwhile. That philosophy has shaped my own views of scholarship profoundly, as have two-and-a-half decades of real-world experience as a media professional.

In my back pocket, I carry around my Ph.D., which grants me access to the upper floors if I want it, but I find the view up there poor. So many people there are always looking down.

I don’t really have a place there to hang out, anyway. My colleagues in the History Department at Bonaventure are great, but in general, other historians often regard me suspiciously because my Ph.D. is in English/Creative Writing. However, creative writing faculty generally don’t know what to do with me because I write history. The English folks, meanwhile, don’t like me hob-knobbing too closely because I’m merely a journalism professor.

These sorts of distinctions typify what plagues academe these days. Even as college campuses call for tolerant, inclusive communities and curricula profess to value interdisciplinary interaction, many academics nonetheless hunker in their silos and bark at people to stay off their lawns. Tensions simmer between traditional liberal arts programs and professional programs, with respect, resources, and enrollment all at stake and no one heeding Franklin’s old adage about hanging together.

But the truth is, I don’t fit in the white halls, and I don’t feel comfortable there. I come from a tradition that prefers a little separation from the establishment. After all, it’s hard to question authority if you’re too busy cozying up to it (one of the problems that plagues corporate news today, actually). I’ve pissed off plenty people for having the impertinence to challenge assumptions—an occupational hazard I long ago had to learn to live with—even if I’d prefer to have everyone play nice and get along.

I stay on the front lines as much as I can. In the trenches. On the battlefields, giving tours. At roundtables, giving talks. Behind the counter of the visitor center, orienting people to the park and pointing the way to the restrooms. I do on-the-spot research about someone’s ancestor even as that person waits for an answer and directions out onto the field so he can walk in those footsteps and, he hopes, better understand his ancestor’s experience.

Most of what I write is not peer reviewed but instead must stand up to the scrutiny of thousands of readers who can immediately and publicly hold me accountable for what I’ve written. Worse, I might bore them or make them ask, “So what?” and they’ll just stop reading—so I have to hold their attention, all the way through. I have to make them want to read, even if they didn’t know that what I had to say was something they wanted to hear. I have to help them realize there’s a point.

I can’t preach at them, though. I have to meet them where they’re at and move them, even if slowly, in my direction. They want to be engaged and entertained, and I have to do that while also educating them and, I hope, giving them something new to think about.

Mostly, I have to tell them what happened—which is exactly what I had to do as a journalist, too. Only then, “what happened” was less than twenty-four hours old, and my soundbites and quotes came from still-living people, not the diaries, letters, and reports of people 150 years dead. The process of organizing all that information into a coherent narrative remains the same, though.

I tell them stories because that’s how people best connect to information. I can’t hide in an obscure journal that only a handful of scholars will ever skim.

The Civil War is the great story in American history, our great national tragedy, our greatest national failure. 750,000 men died. Families were shattered. Seven million people were freed and then left to fend for themselves, with repercussions that plague us to this day.

That is why sharing this history matters.

And for me, that is what the future of Civil War history must always come back to. We must remind ourselves and our audiences, again and again, why this matters. Why is this important? Why is this relevant? How does this help us better understand?

What good can this information do?

People who connect with history are more apt to donate to preservation, support their local museum or historical society, read history books, support government programs that provide grants for scholarly research, encourage their kids to major in history, and so on. From a strictly pragmatic perspective, the benefits to the field are enormous.

But if we don’t connect audiences with our material—if we don’t demonstrate that it somehow matters to them—they’ll stop reading, tune us out, turn us off, unfollow, and move on to something else. After all, they have a million other things vying for their attention, time, and money. We have to look for ways to reach them in that noisy environment and invite them into our stories.

That’s not pandering to the masses. That’s educating.

That’s why I became a journalist once upon a time, and that’s why I write Civil War history now. I’m not saying it’s the way to do history, and I’m not saying I’m the best there is at it, but I’m fortunate to work with a bunch of like-minded historians at Emerging Civil War who agree with the same approach. The more all of us can do to connect people with their history—through the blog, magazine articles, books, our Symposium, tours, roundtable talks, and other outreach efforts—the brighter the future of Civil War history is going to be.

12 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Chris Mackowski

  1. Chris – that is one of the most refreshingly honest and original pieces I’ve read in a very long time. Don’t allow the naysayers, critics and silo-dwellers back you down. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks, Richard. I appreciate it. Unfortunately, too many people do look at Civil War history as a competition, where information is to be hoarded, not shared, and one’s own reputation can be built up only by tearing others’ work down. In that model, I think the real losers are the general public. If the story is the most important thing, and getting people interested in that story is crucial, you’d think more historians would work together toward that aim. Many do. But unfortunately, many don’t. It’s about them, not the story.

  2. Chris – Thank you for your essay. It is a truth that must be told. And I know you believe it, as I have heard it in your presentations, read it in your writings and had the privilege to experience it as we worked together at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitors Center. May we all endeavor to connect with our audience so that we demonstrate that history is important now and matters to us all! Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, Andy. I appreciate it. If we can get people interested in and even hooked on history, then I think we’re giving those people a real gift AND we’re doing right by the people who came before us, whose memories we’re trying to preserve. I agree with you: history does matter!

  3. Chris, You could comfortably hang your hat in any of the departments that you mentioned. Degree qualifications are not unlike the distinctions among skilled members of the building trades. They, too, jealously guard their work, even as one can often do the work of another. You write better than most, regardless of academic specialty and, unlike many professionals, are as equally adept at public speaking as you are with written expression. With all best, Thomas M. Grace, Ph.D.

    1. Thanks, Tom. I appreciate it. I really enjoy being out on the front lines, connecting people with these stories. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I feel blessed.

  4. Chris,
    I know you best at our roundtable (NCCWRT) but also at Guinea Station. Your ‘openness’ to listen and learn is without equal among historians, whether academic or public. You clearly educate and entertain. Your 21 May ‘seminar’ with our RT on “Confederate Heritage” drew 35 ECW responses before your follow up post …a good sign you and your ECW colleagues are succeeding!

    1. We all learn best through active learning, and for a lot of people, that means discussion. Discussion, in turn, means as much listening as it does talking. I love it when I can give an audience something to think about but I love it even more when they give me something(s) to think about, too! My last visit to the roundtable was the perfect example–I walked away from that discussion with a lot to think about. It was a real privilege to be there with you guys!

      BTW, my followup on the Confederate Heritage discussion hasn’t been forgotten. We’ve been so busy here at ECW that I’ve had some deadline-driven projects that have needed my attention, but as I get those taken care of, I’ll be turning my attention back to that topic.

      I hope you’re well, my friend!

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