Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Dana Shoaf

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The cover story of the newest issue of Civil War Times asks, “Do we still care about the Civil War?” ECW is pleased to partner with Civil War Times to extend the conversation here on the blog. Today, we welcome the editor of Civil War Times, Dana Shoaf.

Thanks, Emerging Civil War, for running this series of blog posts that extend the conversation begun in Civil War Times. I had hoped that the article in the magazine would percolate to as large an audience as possible, and of course, it was not possible to ask as many people as I would have liked to about the matter. Your blog has allowed other important voices to be heard.

The article was a chance for the Civil War community to judge itself, instead of being judged by reporters from a variety of publications who were venturing opinions about the decline of interest in Civil War history. When I read their articles, they felt incomplete because they were primarily using one example, the decline of reenacting, as evidence interest in the conflict was waning.

I wanted the article to give people immersed in the field the chance to speak. I gave no guidelines other than they truthfully express themselves, whether positive or negative. I wrote my editorial on the subject, so I have voiced my opinion already, but I would like to reiterate a few points here.

It has been unsettling to see flags and monuments related to the Civil War become the focus of so much controversy and hate. The horrible incidents of the past few years, I must admit, gave me twinges of doubt about my interest in the period—even my profession. But, I took a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and observed.

Those disastrous events actually have a silver lining, in that they have helped to redirect the conversation about the Civil War. The war was a complex, horrible conflict. We know that, but the general public often saw in the simple terms of North vs. South. Recent scholarship has investigated the complex motivations of soldiers, the struggle of Contrabands, and interest in USCTs and their role has never been higher.

I also seemed to observe ample amounts of battlefield visitors, at every season of the year, no let up in books being published and consumed, increased sales of Civil War Times, and ringing cash registers at the relic shops I frequent in Gettysburg. Not to mention the phenomenal growth of digital sources of quality Civil War content, many of which were being prepared and organized by younger people. And aren’t we all concerned about the interest of younger people in the war?

Admittedly, much of what I perceived was anecdotal, but it sure seemed to me that what I was feeling in my gut went against the dire prognostications of reporters. The content in Civil War Times, however, reinforced by a very recent article from the American Battlefield Trust, factually reinforced that interest in the conflict is strong.

Yes, reenacting is declining in my opinion, but that hobby can be its own worst enemy. Large events have gotten stale and carnivalesque. And in a general sense, many reenactors, unfortunately seem to have become mouthpieces for outdated, romantic interpretations of the war. Younger people, well really most students of the Civil War of any age, want real discussions of this pivotal period. Not fake deaths and rants. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Civil War reenacting has peaked for the time being. (Full disclosure, I still participate in living history, though age and the lack of time has severely curtailed my participation.)

I haven’t said anything meaningful and momentous here, but what I have said comes from a deep sense of passion about this time period and its lingering impact. The Civil War and its causes and impact needs to be studied, analyzed, and never forgotten. Things are heading in the right direction.

 

 

 

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10 Responses to Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Dana Shoaf

  1. Tim Russo says:

    Thanks for asking the question as a publication, highly useful debate. Might I suggest that your publication begin to address the many political perspectives of the war which have long been shoved under the rug (or up to the attic, choose your metaphor), in favor of the rather strange obsession with being non-political.

    It was a war. War is political (feel free to debate Clausewitz below). A civil war is even more political, perhaps the most political sort of war. It is a function of the Lost Cause that politics of the time, of the war itself, somehow has utterly disappeared, creating a strange, cliched board game, tin soldier dynamic most young people just laugh at, let alone dismiss entirely. The Civil War wasn’t a curio cabinet with porcelain pieces moving this way and that.

    Especially after the internet’s rise (all of which well since Glory, and the Burns series), average Americans can easily learn what’s been ignored, with a click, and wonder….why?? Why have the guardians of this most important moment in American history ignored this? Or that? And how has that whitewash affected today, and the legacy of the war we live with?

    As a suggestion to your publication, perhaps begin a series on Marx’s correspondence during the war (Andrew Zimmerman’s recent volume should be required reading for anyone approaching the causes of the war). It is frankly stunning how many Civil War “historians” have never read, nor are even aware of, Marx’s forensic examination of the war, the Confederacy, the politics, and the international relations of the war. It’s even more stunning when one realizes that Lincoln himself would most likely have read every single column Marx ever wrote in the Tribune.

    Time for the Civil War to get such a closer look. Thanks for your efforts.

    • Laura Ukura-Leir says:

      I generally agree with this letter. A more complete historical approach to the American Civil War needs to proceed. The United States was not a planet onto itself. Life was going on beyond the battle field. An American experience should not be played for political gain. The American experience is a global matter. The Twentieth Century should have taught us at least that. I do have an interest in the American Civil War but at this point I would like a more complex survey of its place in history of the globe. I may have lost some interest for that reason.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      I agree completely with the opinions expressed by Mr. Russo. One of the things that is difficult about being a Civil War historian is that there has been no “bad guy” for most of its history. No matter your personal opinions, we are told to play nicely–“No fighting in the War Room!” So it is difficult to make what–for many of us–is a sea change. Nevertheless, it must be made.

      • Donald Smith says:

        What “sea changes” do you suggest? And who are the “bad guys” of the Civil War? (Who knows? We might find that we agree more than we disagree.)

        Perhaps the first question we should ask is: What qualifies someone to pass judgement on who should be labeled a “bad guy” of the Civil War?

      • Meg Groeling says:

        The sea changes are–for me–to finally be able to not have to feign obeisance to Lee or Jackson, or pretend that states rights referred to slavery only in some oblique way. The way I was raised, sometimes we–as children–just had to let the n-word go by & pretend we didn’t hear it. It is still very hard for me to think some of the people like best in the world are just idiots when it comes to the Civil War. But these are MY issues, and have more to do with my past than anything else.

        As for “bad guys,” probably the Germans and the Japanese from WWI, the Axis Powers from WW2, and Russians from the Cold War. I have read plenty about the demonization of the North by the South. The North was less geographically vindictive. Still, I heard “Yankee” used as something one did not care to be much more than I did “Rebel” or “Confederate.” Once in a while someone grumped about “Dixiecrats…”

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    Following the completion of the 150th Anniversary commemorations, I fully expected a die-off of interest, which as yet, has not occurred. And much of the continuing interest in the Civil War appears to be personal: many of today’s enthusiasts have been introduced to information via ancestry.com and familysearch.org and are going the extra mile to seek out Civil War ancestors. And the interest is not restricted to great-great grandfathers, but extends to great uncles, and cousins (and as records become more readily available IRT Sanitary Commissions, munitions factories, hospitals, etc.) no doubt the war experience of female relatives will be more thoroughly investigated. The Internet has expanded the “potential universe” of relatives with recorded Civil War history; many county GenWeb projects have their collections accessible online; NARA has become easier to access… more records are uploaded every day.
    The current “topple the monuments movement” is a phase that will pass. In meantime, the movement heightens awareness of “History under threat,” and results in greater appreciation for what tangible relics remain…
    The future is bright.

  3. Donald Smith says:

    Not too long ago, I took my 12 year old son on a tour along Lee’s retreat route to Appomattox. Before we went, he seemed disinterested. But then, I told him about the Irish Brigade and Cobb’s Georgians at Fredericksburg. (My wife’s family comes from Ireland.) He liked his trip to Appomattox. And, now he wants to walk the fields of Fredericksburg.

    One reason I feel compelled to stay involved in Civil War history, is to defend the memory of my great-grandfather, great-great grandfather and four great-uncles, all soldiers in the 14th Virginia Cavalry. It seems there are a lot of “Lost Cause Police” our there today, who are all too eager to pass judgement on what is and isn’t acceptable about Confederate heritage. I owe it to my relatives to speak up for them.

    • Thomas R Place says:

      I AGREE WITH DON . IT IS UP TO US HISTORIANS TO PROTECT THE LEGACY OF OUR HERITAGE AGAINST THE ONES WHO SEEK TO DESTROY IT . FOR THEY ARE ONLY SEEKING THEIR OWN GAINS AND NO NOT OR CARE NOT ABOUT OUR HISTORY AND COUNTRY .

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