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


part four of five

We have been talking this week with Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf about “The Future of Civil War History.” In yesterday’s segment, Dana and I talked about the use of military history as a way to draw people into the larger study of the Civil War, and we talked about some specific ways the magazine has done that. That got me curious about other techniques the magazine uses to draw readers in.

Chris Mackowski: As far as the magazine—circling back to something you said a minute ago—what do you see as your role as far as an agenda-setter for the way people are interacting with Civil War history?

Dana Shoaf: I never finished my Ph.D., which has been unfortunate in some regards. To be honest, sometimes it bothers me that I never finished it, sometimes it doesn’t. But because I have that somewhat of an academic background, I try to keep my ear to the ground: what are people writing about? When Drew Gilpin Faust wrote This Republic of Suffering, I caught wind of that. So I try to keep abreast of the trends that are going on in academia, and I try to help distill what is going on there and put it in the magazine for popular consumption, whether it’s through a book excerpt or an interview in the magazine, just to let people know about something.

There’s an author named Jim Downs, for example, who wrote a book—[Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction]—he basically wrote about contraband camps and how diseases swept through these contraband camps and decimated the African-American populations. I didn’t think, necessarily, that an article on that would work well in the magazine. So, we interviewed Jim Downs about that to let readers know what was going on.

Then, a few issues later, I commissioned a good writer, Rick Beard, who wrote an article about the contraband camp that was on the Arlington property. So that was a little broader, I thought, and it had the Arlington connection, and we had some good art to illustrate it, so good photos and drawings of the camp. Not only was Lee’s property turned into a cemetery, they also established this really large camp for dislocated African-Americans on the property.

I don’t know how it was received. We didn’t get any letters about it. But I thought that was something I should do. I felt like that was a duty that the magazine should put that out there for people to read. And in that same issue, I’m sure we had a straight-up military history piece, as well.

CM: I think it’s interesting that a lot of people see your magazine as the place to break new material like that, as opposed to doing it in a traditional scholarly journal.

DS: I know. It’s crazy.

Did you see that new photo of McClellan we just ran? I got a call from David Welker out of the blue, and he said, “I just bought a new image of McClellan. Do you want to run it?” And I said, “Yeah, tell me more.” It was an alternative view of the battlefield commission when McClellan was sent over to study the Crimean War. There’s one you see a lot where McClellan is on the right, and his face is obscured by a smudge. This is an alternative view of McClellan from the left. And he’s very clearly visible.

This guy was perusing an old image dealer—the guy sold old photographs—in Belgium. And he’s scanning through this guy’s offerings and he sees this battlefield commission picture, and he’s like, “What the heck?” The guy in Belgium didn’t know who it was.

CM: Didn’t know what he had, then?

DS: Didn’t know what he had. He picked it up because they had a Russian observer that shepherded them around, Lt. Col. Oberskov, and the guy in Belgium bought it because he recognized the Russian uniform. He was interested in Russian military stuff, and he was trying to identify the guy, unsuccessfully. He had no idea who the Americans were in there. He had no idea that they were even American.

So out of the woodwork came this new image of McClellan. And Welker, who I’d never heard of before, just called me up one day and said, “Hey, I’ve got this. Are you interested.” That’s pretty powerful.

CM: It is.

DS: It’s why I take what I do so seriously. There’s a reputation. It’s not my reputation. It’s the magazine’s. The magazine is 54 years old. There are a lot of magazines that have gone by the wayside.

Let me tell you about something else I’m very proud about. We just ran an article by Tom Clemens about the Pry House at Antietam. Tom laid out this very effective case that the Pry House was not, in fact, McClellan’s headquarters. That’s inaccurate; McClellan was all over the place. That may seem trivial, but you know, for how long have we believed the story that McClellan spend the day at the Pry House, where he could hardly see any of the battle? And now this refutes the arguments that he was ineffectively leading that engagement, which someone can still argue. But Tom’s argument that the Pry House wasn’t McClellan’s headquarters makes us think about McClellan differently.

Tom’s like, “His headquarters was in Keedeysville. For an army commander, he rode very far to the front to see what was going on at the front. He didn’t stay back at his headquarters. He went to an advanced observation post, where he could see the battle. And he didn’t even spend that much time at the Pry House; he was riding around the battlefield. He went to a whole bunch of different places.”

CM: That’s a whole different interpretation of McClellan then.

DS: It’s not just a small detail about his headquarters. It changes how we look at the commander of the Army of the Potomac during this battle that many people now argue was the real high tide for Confederate forces—or at least the fall of 1862 as their true high tide. Because after that, we have the Emancipation Proclamation, and Antietam is part of this triumvirate of failures that includes Iuka and Perryville, and the Confederates were never ever again able to mount a broad offensive like that. So, it changes our interpretation of this commander at this really critical time.

I just got a copy of a letter that Ed Bearrs wrote to the superintendent of the Antietam battlefield and, to paraphrase, he said, “I just read Tom Clemens article. You need to change the signs.” You can’t call it McClellan’s headquarters anymore because it’s a big enough deal for those reasons I just laid out to you that you need to change the signs. His case is conclusive enough that you need to change the signs.

Would Ed Bearrs have written that letter if that article had appeared on a blog? Would he have written that letter if it was in an electronic format? I don’t think so. Being in print gives it a permanence and a substance and a seriousness.

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So how does Civil War Times still compete for readers who are, more and more, going to the internet and the blogosphere for their Civil War information? In the final installment of Chris’s conversation with Dana about “The Future of Civil War History,” the veteran magazine editor explains why he thinks reports of the death of print have been premature.

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