Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Future of Civil War History Conference

Now that I'm back in Ohio from my trip to Maryland and Pennsylvania, I wanted to do a post about the Future of Civil War History Conference which I attended at Gettysburg College last weekend. It was a great conference with lots of interesting panels. I found a number of them very interesting, especially those on discussing emancipation with visitors, the presentation on how to incorporate sights and smells of the battlefield into interpretation, and a discussion on uses of new media in Civil War History.

Hands down the best program of the weekend was led by Scott Hartwig and Peter Carmichael. It was on Saturday afternoon when the temperatures were in the mid 30s with driving rain and sleet. I know, sounds fun, right? The program was a walk of Pickett's Charge (I have NEVER walked the field in those conditions before, so it was illuminating from that perspective alone). The focus was on new interpretive possibilities of Pickett's Charge. So, not only did we talk about the charge itself but new stories that illustrate various soldier and civilian experiences that can normally fall by the wayside in traditional battlefield interpretation. It was the most informative and helpful program of the weekend.

However, while I enjoyed the conference, at nearly every one of the individual discussion groups, there was at least one speaker who made it clear that he or she was not a Civil War historian but rather a social media expert, a communications expert, or a social historian (just a few examples). It seemed as though many of the presenters had only been to Gettysburg (or any battlefield) perhaps once or twice before, and even then maybe not in any capacity other than taking the basic battlefield tour.

This ended up being problematic on some of the panel discussions. There were scholars who were not familiar with Civil War battlefields discussing how to interpret Civil War battlefields. Many were entirely unaware of how programs work at NPS sites and what visitors at those sites are like. I heard it said numerous times that visitors to Civil War battlefields are thirsting for more discussion of emancipation, civilians, and gender history. That could not be any further from the truth. By and large, visitors avoid those programs like the plague. They want battle stories. That is what makes doing battlefield interpretation so difficult. We have to give the people what they want while still educating them about other important aspects of the Civil War that they may not know about.

That was, as I understood it, one of the purposes of the conference: to bridge the divide between academic historians and public historians to figure out how to interpret better Civil War history sites.

Perhaps the biggest thing I learned at the conference is that sites like Antietam National Battlefield are doing exactly what they should in leading the way for the next wave of Civil War history. Antietam now has a park blog, uses facebook and twitter accounts to reach people, and focuses on emancipation as one of the main interpretive themes of the park. I am very proud to work there and call the rangers on the interpretive staff there my colleagues, and I look forward to all of the great programs that we will offer in the year ahead.

While I found the disconnect between some of the presenters and the reality of battlefield interpretation frustrating at times, I still greatly enjoyed the conference because if anything it reinforced my feelings on the direction of Civil War history. Civil War historians do need to include more discussion of emancipation, African Americans, civilians, and women into their presentations, especially in the National Park Service. It was good to see that discussed in a meaningful way. 

I think the best part of the conference was bringing together academic professors and public historians to discuss the field of Civil War history together. Peter Carmichael and his staff at Gettysburg College did a fantastic job with the conference, and I think it was overall a very productive experience.

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