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


part three of five

In our conversation yesterday, Dana Shoaf—editor of Civil War Times—expressed some of his concerns about the disconnect between academic historians and the general public. “It almost sometimes feels like some academics—this is a really general statement—would almost feel happier if it wasn’t as popular or something,” he said.

Chris Mackowski: Do you think that causes a problem for the study of the Civil War, that there are so many people who do look at it as a form of entertainment as opposed to an area of scholarship?

Dana Shoaf: In some cases, yes. I do living history, but sometimes it bothers me when they have these big reenactments and they’re sort of billed as entertainment spectacles because this was a war that caused—now they estimate—more than 750,000 deaths. That’s not just “casualties.” I do find it to be a turn off. It’s a fine line, when it goes from historical interpretation to spectacle. At some places, like Gettysburg, they have an annual reenactment, and they have these bleachers set up, and it’s “Come see the dog and pony show.”

I’ve been a reenactor. I still consider myself a reenactor. I don’t get to do it very much, but I still have all the stuff. It’s not inconceivable that I’ll put it all on and go do some living history—this year, even.

Jim Broomall—I don’t know him personally, but we’re Facebook friends. He’s done some reenacting. And now he’s in charge of the George Tyler Moore Center for Civil War Studies at Shepherd University. I think that’s interesting there. There’s obviously a connection there.

CM: Jim’s definitely of the mindset that military history has some value. That’s kind of what people want, he told me, so what kind of layers can a historian then add to that? [Note: See the interview with Jim that kicked off our “Future of Civil War History” Series]

DS: That’s what I try to do with the magazine. I call it sleight of hand. I don’t proclaim, “Here’s a social history article,” but if we run an article that has some of those components to it, people will read it.

We just ran an article called “The Common Soldier in Charts and Graphs.” This fellow, Ben Myers, is interested in a Pennsylvania regiment, and he found this journal—through descendants of a guy who was a captain in the regiment who divided his company into mess units—and he found information about the various messes. And so Myers broke it down by messes to look at height and things. And that’s not military history, that’s social history, the background of these guys. And it’s been well received by the readership.

But if I’d called it “social history,” some people probably would have not read it. And we’ve run some other things like that as well.

If you can weave in some other facets, military history can be an excellent launch pad to look at a collection of people. Why did they fight? Why this particular regiment from this particular part of the country?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just a good old-fashioned battle narrative. We have these marvelous battlefields from the Civil War all over the country, and if you don’t understand what went on there, what good are they? If people get interested in the military history, that’s almost like using it like a gateway approach. They might want to learn about Pickett’s Charge, but then they might want to go a little deeper when they learn, “Oh my gosh, this little farm over here belonged to a free black guy and he had to run away when the Confederates came to town?” They learn through that gateway of military history; they can learn about some more complex issues related to the conflict.

CM: That’s really how I look at what I do, specifically, and what Emerging Civil War does: we’re kind of like that gateway.

DS: It’s also—military history, to me—it’s also like a great painting.

A great painting draws you in. I guess I’m old-school when it comes to paintings—like a Winslow Homer seascape or something. Military history is like a great painting: there’s incredible drama.

Right outside the house I live in, 50,000 guys marched by on their way to Gettysburg, or on their way from Gettysburg. Just this unbelievable tableau. Here in the northeast, and in the south, and in places where this conflict was fought—just this massive number of Americans are mobilizing, coming from all walks of life into these volunteer armies, and they’re marching all across the countryside, drawn to these little towns where they have these horrible engagements. There’s something just breathtaking about that—absolutely breathtaking. Just like a great painting.

I’m not downplaying the bloodshed and the horror of it all. It’s unbelievable. It’s horrible. But there are some great paintings that depict some pretty ghastly scenes that are still considered great works of art and make you think and wonder, and that’s how I look at military history.

Military history, to me, is not just those armies. It’s those civilians who are impacted. The towns in the wake of these battles—how do they cope with all that? The women in those towns, the women who come and flock to these field hospitals to try and help out. All that is triggered by military history.

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In tomorrow’s installment, Dana will talk with Chris about the ways Civil War Times works to connect readers with the latest Civil War research. “I try to keep abreast of the trends that are going on in academia,” he says, “and I try to help distill what is going on there and put it in the magazine for popular consumption.”

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