Anyone notice the top-trending name on Twitter after the big news regarding impeachment hit the press? That’s right, the seventeenth president of the United States: Andrew Johnson. In some ways that surprised me, in other ways it did not.
I would have guessed that Presidents Nixon or Clinton would have been the top-trenders since they have been national executive leaders in relatively recent times to face the possibility or reality of this government process. However, internet searchers apparently dug farther back, looking to the first president who faced this ordeal. Perhaps Nixon and Clinton just seemed “too close” to the current events since many people still remember living through those rounds inquiries and breaking news.
With public interest looking at a president connected to Civil War and Reconstruction, this offers a real-time, tangible glimpse into how people look at history. It did not astonish me to see internet and social media searches creating a trend that looked to the past — the historical past — for answers. In my experiences, people are fascinated by the past, but usually not in the history book way or traditional forms.
I think those that find history consuming or entertaining through tomes, academic lectures, and high-minded discussion are a unique group of people. Perhaps it can be argued that this type of pursuit of the past was more common in previous decades, but that does not automatically follow that it is the only way to learn, educate, or express an interest in the past. Offering this avenue as “the only right way to look at history” creates a formality around the topic which—in my opinion—alienates other groups of people who are interested in the past but perhaps intimidated by their perceived or implied lack of knowledge. This does not mean that there should be no process to history studies, no restraints, and no accountability. Far from it! We need parameters and mentors. We need peer review. Good research and sharing historical truths requires standards.
Personally, I think people look to the past for answers. They just don’t always say that they do. Look at how anniversaries are remembered (ironically creating a memory that builds into the historiography). I would argue that the discussion and research of history has been a way that generations of soldiers have grappled with what they have seen in war; they may refuse to talk about their own experiences, but they talk about war and loss through the history of those before them. However, a widening gap of years from the Civil War era and significant changes in warfare has made that conflict less of a reflection point for soldiers of more recent combat; generally speaking, they seem to be gravitating toward the history of World War II and Cold War era conflicts.
The Civil War offered a turn point on many military, social, and cultural levels in U. S. History. I believe this is why the Civil War is still studied, but also why it is a place of conflict even to this day. We keep returning and returning to the 1860’s as our society and culture grapples with the concepts of equality, racial justice, government positions on a host of issues, and yes, even impeachment — though technically that is traditionally classified with Reconstruction history.
As Civil War studies have expanded in the last decades to include more research beyond the battles, military leaders, and battleground, topics came to light that shook some Americans. Those themes of race and societal challenges surfaced. Suddenly, the Civil War was not limited to the battlefield (historical facts tell us it never really was, just our interpretation). Suddenly, Civil War history hit close to home, close to the heart, and for some, maybe too close for comfort.
Just because a new generation is not inclined to wave flags and dress in wool uniforms or attend formal discussion evenings does not mean that the interest in the Civil War is dead or dying. Arguably, some schools do little to foster a healthy curious and interest in history, but people of different generations are still turning to the past, listening to historians, and doing their own fact-finding in an attempt to make sense of the world around them.
There are times I want to raise my hands in surrender or chuck the phone (with Twitter) into the waste basket. I wonder if people are truly interested in the past or if they just want entertaining ghost tours and “feel-good-legends.” But other times—most of the time—I feel proud. Proud of the questions that are asked. Proud of the historians, academic and public, who are out there, engaging and providing real answers and historical perspective to relevant topics.
We cannot turn back the clock. We have to realize that as scholarship has pushed and expanded our understanding of the Civil War, that history has spotlighted complexities in the past that reflect those of our own era. More and more people are looking back for answers. Turmoil leads them to the angry days of 1860, a war that wrecked a nation on the battlefields, the orders and legislation that freed thousands but did not provide a clear path to equality, and a botched reconstruction with embroiled politics that landed impeachment on a U.S. president for the first time.
The question I ask myself: are we ready? People are looking for answers and meaning. Are historians and researchers willing to step up — even if that means embracing new ways/methods of talking about the past — and answer the questions?