A Conversation with John Coski (conclusion)

Part six of six

I’ve been talking with John Coski, historian at the American Civil War Museum and recipient of the 2019 Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Civil War Public History. As we wrap up our conversation today, I circle back to a mention he made in yesterday’s segment to some writing he did for Civil War Monitor.

Chris Mackowski: You mentioned the Civil War Monitor. You had an article in the summer 2018 issue assessing the state of popular interest in the Civil War.

John Coski: Right.

CM: Can you recap that for me for just a second?

JC: Sure, I’ll try. I took a couple of directions for that. To some degree, I was speaking of my own institution and acknowledging all of the forces that are at work today that are prompting museums and historical societies generally to look for new audiences—recognizing that there is something fundamentally different happening right now in the public history world. It may be driven by the smart phone and the new technologies. People aren’t taking—you know, present company excepted, I’m sure, and the people who read the ECW blog and books—but the general public, they’re not taking those family vacations anymore to battlefield parks, the obligatory trip to Gettysburg.

A former director of the VHS [Virginia Historical Society] used to say—when people asked him “How do you recruit new members?”—he said “Just wait for people to turn 50.” They become interested in history at a certain point in life. But apparently that’s not happening. We’re not getting the replacements, so to speak.

So, in Williamsburg, for instance, my wife’s and my old employer, is in trouble. And, of course, the over-expansion of house museums in the ’80s and ’90s means a lot of them are in trouble, too.

The landscape has changed, and museums everywhere are trying to figure out how to appeal to different audiences, more diverse audiences, younger families, more multi-cultural. We’re looking at the demographics of the “majority minority” by 2040, whatever that is projected to be, and realizing that particularly Civil War places could be in trouble.

So, they’re doing things differently now and appealing to potential Civil War audiences, hoping they’ll come, by talking more about causes. And, you know, that battle has been won—I mean, to go beyond simply the battlefield to talk about the causes. I think it’s won because people saw ultimately how benign it is. It’s not forcing the idea down everyone’s throat, it’s just acknowledging it somewhere within the park—that’s all it is.

But changing the tenor of Civil War interpretation and making it more friendly to people who aren’t coming now—it’s a risk. It’s risking trying to get so-called “aspirational” audiences and new audiences, people who at this point don’t even go to historical sites at all, and trying to base your future on them.

So, in explaining all of that, job one is to explain the systemic threat to historic sites with this changing demographics and changing interest levels. People just aren’t coming to sites like they used to; that’s what I mean by systemic threats.

But for the Civil War, trying to make the argument that there’s no reason to change…. It’s not an either-or proposition. We need to continue to appeal to the audience that reads Emerging Civil War books, those that are engaged by the human interest stories—by what Robert Penn Warren described about “the Homeric Age of American history”—in the larger-than-life personalities and the human drama of the battlefield and of war. There’s no reason why that can’t co-exist with scholarship.

But it’s not either-or. I have my fear that we’re gonna be throwing the baby out with the bath water, that historic sites are going to go so far in trying to appeal to unproven audiences that they’re going to alienate the proven audiences, and in that case, we’re going to end up with nothing. That we’re going to go so far to move away from traditional Civil War studies—and not just expand beyond them to transcend and to include more people and more stories—that we’ll actively bury the stories that interest the people who have proven themselves interested in the Civil War. And they’re gonna fade away themselves, feel disaffected and neglected and say, “The heck with it.”

CM: I hear that a lot from round tables where I’m out talking. When they talk about the line-up of speakers they have for their seasons, if those line-ups get too far away from some of the more traditional mud-and-blood military history, they feel like, “Why are we looking at some of this other stuff? Get back to the things that caught our interest in the first place.”

JC: Yeah, exactly. And it’s not unlike what I was articulating earlier at some length, about the MOC in pushing the envelope. We need to push the envelope, and it’s up to people like you and me that recognize you can do both—that the challenge we had at the museum was that we knew that we didn’t want to piss off the donors and piss off the people who consider it a shrine, but we were willing to risk it.

You know who I mean: the people who would never accept that slavery was such an instrumental part in bringing on the war. I’m sorry, but it was, and here’s why. But we do that not to alienate them, but just to make them realize there’s more than just their opinion.

We did exploration of causes and effects in memory. I’m a big memory-study guy myself. I love the Civil War memory studies—it’s what I probably read the most of. I mean, to me what Timothy Smith has done with battlefields—what he did with the Shiloh book, in particular, where he talked about the representatives of the three armies having a voice in shaping the battlefield park, where the roads go, what the signs say, all these things that are the canon for the Civil War battlefield goer. Somebody made that decision to do it just that way, and it is a product of something subjective, or in a power relationship. The guy from the Army of the Ohio had less power, or the guy from the Army of Tennessee had more strength, and so he got his way. I mean, there is some kind of power relationship going on that determines, even on a battlefield—we’re not even talking Monument Avenue, here, we’re talking a battlefield park—about how the signs are written. You know, God did not give those tablets. Those are not His markers on the battlefield. It’s good for people to understand that. Those are conscious human products that have a definite origin point, and so that’s what memory is all about.

But that goes both ways. I do see it as an ambidextrous kind of thing. If we’re gonna ask the Civil War buffs to understand that slavery is important and that perception is important, then at the same time, the people who think that every Civil War roundtable goer is some kind of fascist need to understand that people who are engaged by the Civil War are interested for reasons other than hating black people.

It goes back to something you once said about Stonewall Jackson and the human interest story of Stonewall Jackson. Of course, that perception pushes people into doing stupid things with Stonewall Jackson, trying to make him more of a paragon than he really was, you know, because we feel we get put on the defensive—and around and around we go.

But, anyway, it does have to be sort of ambidextrous. We are asking understanding from everybody, not just one. Otherwise, it’s re-education camp. It smacks to me of reeducation, where we have one group of “troublesome people,” the Civil War buffs, that just don’t get it, and we need to brainwash them—we need to make them understand the Truth, capital “T.” And I don’t there is such a thing as “capital T” Truth. And those who believe they possess it are dangerous.

CM: I agree. I agree.

JC: So, the article, in short, was a kind of effort to articulate some of that, but in a gentle kind of a way. I’m working on something more, and have been and probably have to wait ’til I retire—not because I fear any retribution, I am totally free in what I say and write—but it’s just time. Time to think through a response to some stuff that I’ve picked up from the academy about emotional history and moral history, the necessity of non-objective history. I find it troublesome, and I’m trying to approach it with absolute objectivity by not just writing what I feel are my objections, but trying to understand it before I write about it. Kind of walk myself through a thought process, an almost Socratic kind of thought process to understand my own reactions to these and engage whether my reactions are valid. So, I’m not there yet, and it’s been, what, about a year or two now since that last article came out? But, that’s kind of where I’m going next. I just want to try to articulate my own thoughts, organize my own thoughts about this.

But I am troubled by the backlash from Charleston and Charlottesville, and what it means for our collective American, not just us who are in the field, but our collective understanding of the war. I think we’re in danger of coming up with a new counter-narrative that is every bit as flawed as the one that we’re supposedly trying to eliminate at long last: “those awful UDC ladies who’ve brainwashed us for so long.”

And I’m not making light of the fact that there was an incredible influence of the Lost Cause. I mean, when you think about it in human history, it’s remarkable that the losing side of the Civil War was even given the right to teach its subsequent generations that its side was right—and the effect of that. I mean, the mere fact that the South was permitted that opportunity was pretty remarkable in that it had an effect on the entire nation. Evil? No. Understandable? Yes. I mean, these people were given that opportunity. What do you think they were gonna do with it?

I mean, that the losers of the Civil War are given a chance to write the history themselves, and that they wrote it to vindicate their cause should surprise absolutely no one. It’s why the rest of the country was primed to accept it that may be troubling. But it has more to do with the recipients, I think, than it does with the people who were broadcasting. They were doing just what any human would have done, given the opportunity to tell their side of the war, and make sense of a losing cause.

CM: That is a brilliantly provocative thought. I really like that a lot.

John, thanks for talking with us!

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