Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Chris Mackowski

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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 conclude our series.

As we wrap up our series on interest in the Civil War, it’s worth noting (again) that this entire discussion—here and in Civil War Times—came about following a May 25, 2019, article in the Wall Street Journal. The article made a fundamental mistake in its approach: it equated visitation at Civil War sites, primarily National Battlefields, with interest in the war. Readers of that article, and the countless folks who shared and retweeted it, compounded the mistake by buying into the original premise in the first place.

Examining battlefield attendance numbers is but one metric for measuring interest. John Hennessey, in a widely circulated Facebook page at the time reprinted in the current Civil War Times, explained those flaws. “The NPS had no systematic way of counting visitors prior to the mid-1980s, and even today, various parks count visitors in different ways,” he said.

The Sesquicentennial also demonstrated the flaws in counting heads as the sole measurement of interest. Hopefuls looking for the Sesquicentennial to boost attendance similar to the boost inspired by Ken Burns documentary found themselves disappointed. Attendance, while healthy, did not blossom. As Nick Sacco pointed out here, programs were generally well attended, but beneath the surface of those numbers, a core group of buffs traveled from place to place and event to event. That speaks well to their devotion, but it also means attendance numbers included a lot of repeat enthusiasts rather than fresh audiences.

Were I to design a more comprehensive study to gauge public interest in the Civil War, I would indeed look at visitations numbers, but there are a number of other things I would look at, too.

  • Attendance at Civil War roundtables (more on this in a minute)
  • Sales of Civil War books (more on this in a minute, too)
  • Circulations of Civil War periodicals
  • Are preservation organizations seeing more or fewer individual donors? Are overall donations up or down?
  • Are tour companies and symposia seeing increasing or decreasing attendances?
  • How are enrollment figures in college Civil War courses, particularly electives? How frequently are those courses offered?
  • Is attendance up or down at Civil War shows? What’s the general market like for Civil War artifacts, relics, and collectables?
  • How many Civil War blogs are out there? How frequently do they publish new material? How many followers to does each have?

There may be metrics I’m missing, but I think a close look at these benchmarks would provide a pretty comprehensive answer to our question, “Do we still care about the Civil War?”

A few thoughts:

Attendance at roundtables. I speak to two or three roundtables a month, and most of them lament their shrinking size and aging population. Fortunately, as Mike Movius pointed out earlier in this series, the Civil War Roundtable Congress has organized to try and reverse these trends. And there are plenty of exceptions to the trend, too. The most recent group I spoke to, in central Tennessee, is only a few years old, and they’ve gone from a couple dozen folks to more than a hundred.

“How can we get more young people involved?” roundtable members often ask me. I remind them to market themselves using media that young people use rather than just doing the same old things the roundtable has always done. The best way to reach new audiences is to use new media channels.

It’s also important to remember that Millennials, as a generation, are not joiners. It’s not just Civil War Roundtable’s. Look at civic groups like Kiwanis and Rotary. Look at church attendance. Perhaps like generations before them, Millennials will “age into history” as they grow older and appreciate it more, just as so many current roundtable members have done.

Book sales. Despite lamentations about the book’s demise in the digital age, book lovers still love their books and buy them happily. Ted Savas offered a great look inside the business as part of this series. As a commercial publisher, some of his concerns differ from academic publishers, but he provided a really good an idea of the overall ballgame.

Of note are the types of books people buy. Academic historians have shifted away from military history and tend to write more for each other than for the general public, thus abandoning the field to public historians. (For more on that, check out the last 20 minutes or so of this conversation on C-SPAN with Pulitzer-winning historians Joseph Ellis and Gordon Wood.)

I, for one, I have been delighted to pick up that mantle. ECW’s public service mission—to help people stay connected with America’s defining event—has allowed us to spread the gospel of the Civil War not only through our blog but through two books series. Our Emerging Civil War Series, published by Savas Beatie, has been particularly successful in reaching new readers through its reader friendly, intro-level approach. People eagerly snatch them up.

Circulation figures for Civil War periodicals. When Dave Roth suspended publication of Blue & Gray magazine in May 2017, he said, “After the Civil War Sesquicentennial the subscriber base has declined to the point we can no longer afford to pay the printer and the post office, the costs of preparing the driving tour…and rising health care costs.” But Dana Shoaf, in his introduction to the magazine article, said “Sales of Civil War Times were up from 2017 to 2018.” Central Virginia Battlefield Trust just a launched a new magazine, On the Front Line, and the old North & South is trying to get up and going. Civil War News editor Jack Melton, who puts out a great newspaper every month, is doing all sorts of cool publishing projects.

The study of the Civil War is, on one level, a form of entertainment. After all, that’s why people have hobbies: to occupy themselves and pass the time in a way they find enjoyable. In that context, people have more ways to entertain, amuse, and occupy themselves than ever before. It’s a crowded marketplace for entertainment and information. The inherent importance of the Civil War—as vital as it was to the definition of American character—is not enough on its own to compete in that crowded field. We, as historians, need to share Civil War history in ways that grab and keep people’s attention. I know some purists balk at that notion because it suggests we cheapen ourselves and the profession, but I don’t think that’s so at all. If history teaches us anything, it’s that the times, they are a-changing, and we need to keep up.

Years ago, John Hennessey made an astute observation in a conversation we were having about the impact of changing technology on history. For decades, he said, the Park Service controlled much of the story of the Civil War because it controlled the physical resources. However, digital technology, and mobile technology in particular, meant that people could look to other sources of information aside from the Park Service when they came to a park. They didn’t have to wait for a ranger program to start or for the visitor center to open.

Those changes have only accelerated, and so the ways people consume their history and interact with it have changed dramatically. Understanding those changes, embracing them, and adapting to them will help us help our audiences stay in touch with our past. If we do that, the historical conversation only becomes more engaging and invigorating.

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ECW wants to thank Civil War Times and its editor, Dana Shoaf—a true gentleman and scholar in this business—for allowing Emerging Civil War to play a part in a great discussion.

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6 Responses to Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Chris Mackowski

  1. A perfect way to sum up the series. Thank you Chris!

  2. Donald Smith says:

    “Academic historians have shifted away from military history and tend to write more for each other than for the general public, thus abandoning the field to public historians.” For the Civil War, I think that’s a great thing.

    When academics write for each other, the writing is often stilted, stale and focused on topics so narrow that they’d never interest the general public. (“Trends and Dynamics in Organizing and Operating Woodworkers’ Guilds in Eastern New Hampshire, 1787-1822”). One reason that Bruce Catton (journalist) and Shelby Foote (novelist) were such good historians is that they were trained to write for popular audiences. I’ll bet that, if the Civil War’s stories are told from here on out mostly by writers from the general public, or “public historians,” those stories will be much richer, more engaging and appealing. History doesn’t belong just to professors and museum curators; it belongs to all of us.

  3. Douglas Pauly says:

    We were talking about this at the recent Symposium. I said to several people that the Civil War is rarely part of anything that has to do with general entertainment these days. When I was a kid all those hundreds of years ago, the TV programming had lots, and I mean LOTS, of western-themed shows. “Bonanza”, “Have Gun Will Travel”, “Death valley Days”, to name but a small few, all were popular. And every single one of those shows had an occasional episode that featured story lines about some aspect of the Civil War.

    Those shows were mainly fiction, but you’d often hear the names of the more famous events of the War, like Gettysburg or Appomattox. Heck, even the hit show “The Twilight Zone” had episodes that were Civil War-centric (and one about Custer at the Little Big Horn). And because I went to school in Virginia, our curriculum in elementary school taught a lot about the CW, and we went on several field trips to battlefields in those years. As was pointed out by Chris in his article here, there is lots of competition for one’s attention these days concerning entertainment and how one spends their time. I’ll bet because of venues like those provided by the Internet, the War is as ‘popular’ as it’s ever been. It’s just being able to gather the metrics that is the crux..

  4. Meg Groeling says:

    Huzzah to everyone who participated in this series, especially our readers. Almost every post generated intense discussion, and that is a good thing to have. My Christmas will be spent deep in Karl Marx! Thanks, fans and contrarians–although maybe the contrarians are really the best fans.

  5. Edward Keller says:

    I, too, was VERY pleased to see the return of North and South magazine. The cover story on James Longstreet at Gettysburg was top drawer. The original source materials analysis was quite comprehensive.

  6. Pingback: Week In Review: October 13-20, 2019 | Emerging Civil War

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