Mission and Focus and “Bread and Butter” at ECW

A recent book review about The Civil War and the Summer of 2000 elicited a comment from a long-time ECW reader (who I like very much!) who lamented what he saw as a drift “into a more typical ‘academic’ organization where military history becomes less the focus and ‘memory studies,’ ‘reconstruction’ and ‘gender roles’ type posts become more the focus. . . .” This comment baffled me and, I thought, deserved some attention.

I don’t think ECW has drifted away from military history at all. Military history has always been, and always will be, our “bread and butter” at ECW. To round out that focus, though, we have always tried to add important other facets of Civil War-era history. This addition is a good thing because it offers a fuller picture of the war and its effects, then and now.

The fields of military and social history need not be mutually exclusive. Each affected the other and are interwoven in the fabric of our nation’s history and especially in how we remember the war. (I, for one, am especially interest in memory studies because I find it fascinating how history has been used, misused, twisted, adapted, and fought over—and how most people are generally unaware of that entire process. Similarly, I think Reconstruction is important for us to cover because it sheds vital light on the outcome of the war and why we fought it in the first place. I am thankful to Pat Young of The Reconstruction Era Blog for his work for us in this area.)

The commenter said people can go anywhere to get that “academic social history” information. I would argue the opposite: people can go anywhere to get Civil War military history. Historians and authors have been writing it for more than 160 years, so there is a deep and wide historiography to draw on. Our goal at ECW is to offer a fresher take on some that military history, but of course to do that, we have to bring our own experiences and insights and reading lists into the conversation. We have to engage with other facets of history (such as social, political, economic, environmental), and we have to engage with the emerging changes in the field of Civil War history itself. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of regurgitating the same old stories one more time. That may be comforting to read for someone who turns to history for entertainment, but we have never wanted to settle for that. Our mission is to educate and illuminate.

We have always encouraged our writers to write about the things they’re interested in at any given moment. That’s the other factor that determines what appears on the blog. You’re reading about the things our writers find interesting right now. Conversely, if something isn’t on the blog, it’s because our writers aren’t interested in or able to write about it at the moment. We don’t have an editorial board—or freelance budget—to assign stories. Our blog content is generated organically from our own curiosity.

Our book reviews, meanwhile, are driven largely by what publishers happen to be publishing these days, coupled with which reviewers are interested in reading which books. Perhaps that’s where an impression might come from that we seem to be a bit academic because we do review a lot of books by academic presses, and those presses do seem to be tilted toward social and other non-military areas of history. We don’t seem to have a problem finding reviewers, though, so they must be finding those books interesting. I know I’ve found some books I might not otherwise have found—or bothered to look at, frankly—because of those reviews.

Through it all, we have consciously maintained a public-history approach—meaning, we’re speaking to and with the public—rather than adopting an academic tone. In fact, there are many folks in “the academy” who brush off ECW because of our military history focus and our public tone. So it goes. What’s interesting to us doesn’t have to be interesting to them and vice versa.

Nor does it have to be interesting to all of our readers. That’s perfectly cool. Our job is to throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall, and it’s your job, as readers, to decide what sticks for you. We’re trying to paint a fuller picture of the war, but like an individual Rorschach test, what you see there is up to you.

The blog is like a good old-fashioned newspaper: people can skip over the parts they don’t want to read. My hope, though, is that folks take a chance on something they might not otherwise take a look at, and in the process, find something new to think about. You’ll always find military history here.

What else might you discover?

14 Responses to Mission and Focus and “Bread and Butter” at ECW

  1. I read every email I receive from ECW. Most I enjoy. When I get a post I don’t enjoy so much I read it anyway. As per Lincoln, reading what you don’t like is good work for the brain.

  2. Your ECW audience is not monolithic in its interests. So, a variety of topics is welcome. No one is forced to read a topic in which they have no interest. Just wait until the next article. They seem to come almost every day! Keep them coming.

  3. Chris: Thank you for taking the time to respond to my concern. I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks at Stevenson Ridge. And I like you too, buddy.

  4. There are 2 problems with the review cited: (1) the egregious dust jacket and (2) the first thing I was taught in graduate school was that historical hindsight is a minefield. The summer of 2020 had nothing to do with the Civil War. It was a unique series of disasters triggered by the George Floyd incident. Sorry, I do see an ECW drift towards woke revisionism in speakers and reviews.

    1. As history fans, we always espouse the idea that we must learn from the past in order to not repeat its mistakes, and we often treat that as doctrine. But then when people do try and coax out some lessons , some folks complain about “getting political” if they don’t agree with the lessons. It’s a really weird tension. People SAY they want to learn lessons, but I’m not so sure folks really do–and that’s probably why we keep repeating mistakes as a society.

      I haven’t read the book yet myself, but I do know that one of the things *I* like to do is try and make connections between things as a way of shedding light on them. The fact that you don’t see a connection between the Civil War and the summer of 2020 suggests that maybe the book might be a useful read for you so that you CAN see those connections more clearly. The basic connection is that the history got manipulated by desires to commemorate parts of that history, that subsequent memory was then accepted as “the” history, and in the summer of 2020, when that memory was challenged, people on all sides got pretty upset. TO me, that shows just how relevant history can still be!

  5. ECW does not want to go the freelance route, or so advises this former newspaper editor who often utilized freelance writers. Most were good writers and professional in their attitudes. The few who turned out to be neither … I still shiver at the memory …

  6. Chris, as far as book reviews, you are a prisoner of what is au courant. And like the book noted, and discussed many appear less non fiction than elaborate hyper-focused essays. However, the same label can at times be applied to the military studies. I agree with you totally about the need to also address Reconstruction, that untidy debris field the war left behind. I enjoy the offerings of Patrick Young, even if I believe that have a certain misplaced regional exceptionalism bias. You have a wonderfully rare gift in pulling together many disparate threads. See you in a few weeks!

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