The Future of Civil War History: An Interview with Dana Shoaf (part one)

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part one of five

In June, Emerging Civil War ran a series called “The Future of Civil War History,” inspired by the June issue of the academic journal Civil War History. We kicked off that series with an interview with one of the issue’s co-editors. Dr. James Broomall. Then, as the month unfolded, other ECW contributors riffed on the topic. Now, we’re finally circling back to wrap up the series with a conversation with a well-known voice in Civil War publishing today: Dana B. Shoaf, editor of Civil War Times and consulting editor of America’s Civil War magazines.

Fewer people have their finger on the pulse of the field of Civil War history more intently than Dana, who is constantly assessing audience interest, publishing trends, the latest scholarship, and current events in the field. I kicked off my conversation with Dana with the same question our other writers have riffed on.

Chris Mackowski: What do you think the future of Civil War history might be?

Dana Shoaf: That’s an interesting question. With the end of the Sesquicentennial, I’ve wondered myself, “What’s going to happen?” The circle of people I keep up with are still very immersed in it, so I haven’t really seen, on Facebook and things like that, a drop-off in interest in Civil War history.

One of the things I have noticed is a new trend developing, what some people call a “dark turn” in Civil War history. At least, for me, it started with Drew Gilpin Faust’s book, The Republic of Suffering, and talking about the scale of death and how dramatic that was, and the impact of death on the country, and the creation of the national cemetery system. It seems that sort of triggered a lot of other people writing about topics that real somber, like, the illness sweeping through contraband camps.

So I think there’s a couple things that are interesting. One, I think that may be a trend for a while. But 150 years after the Civil War, here’s another—whether you agree with it or not—here’s almost another new approach to studying the conflict that hasn’t really been explored yet, which is pretty amazing.

CM: Yeah, I hear people say a lot, “What more is there to say about the Civil War after 150 years?” But it does seem here’s a new way of looking at it.

DS: It is a new way of looking at it.

And people still seem interested in and fascinated by the common soldier of the Civil War, and I don’t see any interest waning in that. You still see a lot of diaries and letters being published, and the presses are printing them because people must be buying them. So, I think the interest in the human interest-level of the war is continuing. I also wonder if we’re going to start fighting the war in a new way, especially with the Confederate monument controversy. That’s keeping the Civil War in the news, but I don’t think it’s necessarily keeping it in the news for a positive reason. But it’s amazing. Isn’t it fascinating that, 150 years after this conflict, now we’re debating about what to do with all these Confederate monuments all over the South and what structures and schools are named and things like that.

CM: People seem fired up about it, too. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s very emotional.

DS: I think people are fired up about it. People who are against the monuments are fired up against the monument, but they don’t understand the deeper history of the monument, they don’t respect the historical background of that monument. I take a middle ground. I can see why people would be offended by those monuments. I can. But I don’t think necessarily that removing them is the answer. I think reinterpreting would be a good compromise. I really don’t like the fact they’re being taken and moved away in many cases. I favor a case-by-case basis.

Schools are a little different to me. Let’s say there’s a school named after a Confederate general, and that school is all minority kids: I think they should have a right to rename the school after people they admire. Schools and such don’t bother me as much as the monuments.

CM: They were having that discussion with A. P. Hill Elementary School down in Petersburg.

DS: Yeah. And I don’t really see a problem with renaming that school, I don’t, if that’s the case. But there can be such a knee-jerk reaction, too, to get rid of the monuments. And getting rid of them isn’t going to solve the problem. It’s not. In fact, I think it can actually exacerbate it.

CM: How would you see it as an exacerbation?

DS: It angers the people who are in favor of the monument and causes them, I think, to almost overreact in their defense of people who are on the platform. Then they don’t listen to why people might be offended.

Where does it stop? Washington was a slaveowner. We have to have a better way of coming to grips with that aspect of our history. So, do you take a monument to Washington down? Certainly, he didn’t secede from the United States to fight for slavery, but he did need an army to break away from a mother country that was much more sympathetic to the cause of slaves, for whatever reason. So I worry about that cascading effect.

CM: Let me circle back to something you said a second ago, about how there’s an opportunity for reinterpretation. There’s an opportunity for conversation. Do you see this as a chance for active dialogue and discussion? An educational moment?

DS: I do. You would hope there would be dialogue, but have you seen any dialogue?

CM: Very little.

DS: I haven’t seen the sides come together and try to talk this out. It’s a war being fought in editorial columns and in blogs and on Facebook pages and things of that nature.

*     *     *

When their conversation continues tomorrow, Dana and Chris touch on the role that academic historians might play in that larger discussion about recent culture wars—or why they might be staying out of it.

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