A Conversation with Carol Reardon (part three)

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(part three of a series)

To help commemorate Women’s History Month, I’m talking this week with Carol Reardon, one of the most recognizable women working in military history today. Yesterday, Carol talked about her work not only as a Civil War historian but also as a historian of the Vietnam War (check out her book Launch the Intruders). At the end of the segment, she recounted a story about a time she withheld a name during one of her writing projects.

Chris Mackowski: I want to circle back to that for a moment because it touches on something a lot of people don’t necessarily think about when they think about what we do as historians. There’s an ethical component about what you’re doing and the choices you have to make. How do you see that tying into your work as a historian in general?

Carol Reardon: It’s funny: I just told my class within the last few weeks that our integrity is one of the hallmarks of what we do. Without it, we become poor historians. We make ourselves irrelevant. We do a disservice to our profession.

I retired from Penn State two years ago. I’m back in the classroom now as adjunct professor of history at Gettysburg College.  Since I don’t have either faculty meetings to go to or committee work, boy is it fun! I have these very interested and committed and dedicated students who actually read what I ask them to read and, you know, it’s really great.

One of the things that I’ve been doing in this class is giving them little primary source assignments in which they have to cite their sources and make sure they don’t make statements that go beyond what their sources will let them say about a topic. Sometimes I find I just stop talking about historical content: “Okay, I’m not going to talk about the Compromise of 1850 today—I’m going to talk about why I’m so insistent that you add a source note to this assignment on the Fugitive Slave Act instead.” And then I’ll talk about such things as ethics and personal integrity and professional integrity. I’ll tell them about some of the more famous cases in our own profession in which people played a little fast and loose with source material and how critics did not just say, “Oh, you’re a bad historian.” It spoke to bigger issues of character and things like that.

Let’s put it this way: the griping about me being nitpicky kind of went away after that, because now they had a better appreciation of why I was demanding it.

A lot of times in the course, if we run across an interesting source or an interesting issue that’s related to the historical method, I’ll stop and take the time to say, “Okay, what were the possible options here for this historian?” They read not just the Ordinances of Secession, which, of course, are like one-page documents, but then they read the Declaration of Reasons—why South Carolina and Texas and Georgia and Mississippi seceded from the Union. Then I’ll ask them a specific question like, “To what extent does slavery have a role in the secession of southern states?” We know that that’s a question that gets asked a lot right now, and we know what kind of answers come out. So, somebody will put up their hand and say “a lot.” And, I’ll say “No, no, no. Your answer comes from those documents. Use those documents to give me the answer. To what degree, or in what ways, does slavery underpin the reason why these states seceded?” And then they open them  up and start looking. And then, “I got one.” And all of a sudden we’re building quite a list of different comments from different states, or from Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech, or something like that that makes the case for slavery as a reason for secession.

Then I turn the question a little bit differently: “Now, what other reasons do these documents offer to make a case in favor of secession?” And, you know, they thought they were pretty much done because the issue is usually slavery and secession.

Chris: Right.

Carol: So they start climbing into it. And then, of course, it’s a little quiet at first and then there’s, “Ooh, I think I got one.” For example, the Texas Declaration of Reasons includes a comment about how the United States failed to protect the southern border with Mexico. That’s awfully topical when you think about it—but it’s right in there. And then there’d be other comments about economic issues or whatever. It wasn’t where they expected to go, but after about ten minutes, they came up with a fairly reasonable list of non-slavery issues that were of concern to southerners.

At the end, I’d say, “You know, if the question were presented ‘Is slavery a cause of the Civil War,’ how would you handle it?” Well, they could come up with answers off the first list, but then there would always be those other reasons, too, and all of a sudden they can get into complexity and nuance and all kinds of other things that you hope a student of history will come to appreciate.

But it goes back to: go with your evidence. Don’t go anywhere your evidence doesn’t take you. Be honest enough to admit it when there’s more than one answer. Be honest enough to admit when the evidence doesn’t give you an answer. And make sure I know where your evidence stops and where your speculation begins.

The first time you present that to the students, the eyebrows begin to arch and the quizzical looks come over their faces. But as you get into the course more deeply, they’ll find those situations on their own, and they get a lot better at giving you both sides of the story, or they’ll give you “The bulk of the evidence says this, but I have one or two outliers here that suggest something else.” And, yeah, maybe they credit them or maybe they discredit them, but they will at least acknowledge their existence, and that’s a big step forward.

Chris: That sounds like an awful lot of fun, honestly. I wish I could sit in on the class!

Carol: It’s been fun. I didn’t get to teach the Civil War course as much as I wanted to during my Penn State years because there were just so many of us there who could do it. I ended up teaching the military history courses and the Vietnam course and a number of other courses. I loved it—don’t get me wrong about that. But, you know, since I started out as a Civil War historian, one would think I would have taught it a bit more than I did. So here I get to do it all the time. It’s a lot more fun.

Chris: When Jay [Luvaas] sent you out into the world and you started to actually pursue Civil War history as a career, can you trace that thread for us just a little bit.

Carol: Well, I ended up doing my master’s work at the University of South Carolina. When I was there, it was my introduction to the professional study of history, and one of the things I discovered was that the historical method was not that different from the scientific method. I didn’t find the transition from one field to another to be overly difficult, which was a pleasant surprise.

I opted, after finishing my master’s work there, to go somewhere else for my Ph.D. By that point I had a bit more of a foundation on which to build and a better understanding of graduate school work, so I decided to go to the University of Kentucky.  One of the things I had learned was that whenever you’re talking about a doctoral program, you don’t invest all of your future behind one individual. You have to find a team of individuals who can serve on your committee who can push you forward. At Kentucky, even though I hadn’t met them all—at least by reputation I had the ability to learn more about them—I went there because they were the team I thought could work for me. And I was right.

I had a discussion with Jay about this. I mean, the University of Kentucky degree, when you go out on the job market, is not something that strikes fear into the heart of other job candidates. If they’re coming from ivy league schools or Stanford or Duke, one would wonder how a University of Kentucky Ph.D. could make me competitive in that job market. But I decided what was more important to me were the names of the people who were going to write those letters of recommendation, and when you have a Charles P. Roland as the chair of your committee and a George C. Herring and a Lance Banning writing some of those other letters, that may count more than what happens to be on the letterhead. And so based on all that and a nice fellowship, I went off to the University of Kentucky.

To this day, I will say absolutely it was the best step I could have made. It’s funny, there are different points in my life, especially when I was going into retirement, when people would ask me, “You certainly followed an unusual course. What was your template or who were your role models?” I’ve had a chance to think about it a little bit, and I find myself saying, “Okay, it’s one-third Luvaas, one-third Roland, and it’s one-third Herring.” I just took a look at all the things that they had done. They’re all excellent historians, and they are products of their scholarship—but a lot of what makes them who they are and what they are is (a) they’re good people, and (b) they have a service mentality. They all gave back to the profession  in a lot of different ways. That appealed to me.

After all, I grew up in that kind of family. My dad was an officer in the army reserve, and that meant I grew up around the military and had a great, positive view of the military. As a reservist, he didn’t get transferred to a new post every couple of years. I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I grew up only in Pittsburgh. But he got involved very early on in his life in the VFW, and our VFW post back in Brentwood, Pennsylvania, was very much a community-service post. The post won awards for community-service activities, and not all of them were veterans-related—a lot of work with kids. I grew up in that environment where one of the members of our family was busy doing something that was VFW-related almost every night of the week.

So I grew up with that kind of a mentality: there’s always something you can do to help other folks. There’s a bigger world out there that you can have a positive influence on.

One of the things that I saw, especially in that triumvirate of Luvaas, Rowland, and Herring, was that same kind of activity and that same kind of idea. I basically looked at what they did and said, “Okay, they provided me with a template of different things that I want to think about doing in my professional life.”

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Tomorrow, Carol will elaborate on the specific ways her mentors influenced her, and how she has put those lessons into practice in her own work.

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