Ten years ago? I was sitting in California (actually still in high school in 2011) snickering at the word Sesquicentennial, which I think I called an “eye-chart” and never could quite spell correctly.
But secretly…I was jealous.
I read the schedules of commemoration events and cherished the ones that I could find livestreamed or recorded. I wanted to be there, but watching and taking notes was the next best thing. I did living history during that period and at the very end of the commemoration years, I attended my first-ever academic conference at The Huntington Library and took away a full notebook of facts, ideas, and questions.
When I think back over my journey in the last decade in relation to Civil War studies, I see a learning process. Nuances of memory, the theories and beliefs of Lost Cause-ism, and how to do detailed research were still in the unexplored shadows of my thinking then. I’m not even sure I knew what “The OR’s” (Official Records) were, to be honest.
Along the way, the greater variety of publications has been welcome and continue to expand my long reading lists. It’s been nice to see what I now call “a more complete picture” of the Civil War era featured, helping us see how military, civilian, social, and political aspects tie together and influence each other. Memory and historiography also seemed to have climbed prominently into the “picture frames” — I think in the past five years, although that might just be when I became more aware of the topics.
Mentors have pointed me in more accurate directions, called me out on mistakes or writing “bad history,” and become some of my best friends who never run out of historical topics to debate. Somewhere along the way, I moved to Virginia and am hopeful that pandemic restrictions will ease and there will be 160th tours, conferences, and other events to attend.
Looking back on my personal learning in the last ten years and the changes in the history field as a whole, I’m reminded that history is a learning process. Perhaps I should clarify that a little. Reliable facts do not change, but as we put more and more of those reliable facts together, our understanding and interpretation should become more accurate.
Researchers and historians make mistakes in the learning process, sometimes because we’re trying to learn how to learn about challenging subjects. I think about that when I blush with embarrassment about some of the things I thought and believed about the Civil War before I had tools to learn anything else. Mistakes will happen, but mistakes are not the same as willful ignorance or misinterpretation; that situation involves a purposeful misuse of reliable facts to fit a personal or larger agenda.
A more critical spirit seems to have risen in the last ten years in the Civil War history field. Some of the criticism and focus is necessary, I believe, to strip away myth and help us see the humanity of those in that era. However, sometimes that critical spirit has been turned against people struggling through the learning process in the history field itself. I hope that as we approach the 160th and recognize some levels of reconsideration will be happening, we can remember both the humanity of the people we study on the pages of history and the people who sit next to us—literally and figurative—at the research desks. We will all make mistakes, but will we glorify those mistakes or learn from them?
This blog series has helped me spend some personal time reflecting on how far my thinking and interpretation has moved in the past ten years. I wonder what I will personally learn in the next decade as the history field continues to change. I hope that through it all, I remember to take time to listen, be kind, and point back to reliable facts to help someone else on their next ten year journey.
P.S. I did manage to spell Sesquicentennial in this blog post without using spell-check! It really is a learning process.