Archive | April, 2012

Failing to Captivate Our Audiences

27 Apr

Mike and I have written several entries detailing the endangered status of the field of history. Many factors contributing to this situation are out of the control of historians, such as budgetary problems and competing forms of free time/entertainment among the public. However, one symptom of history’s decline can be laid at the feet of many historians themselves: the inability to engage our audience.

Perhaps the most visible symptom of this failure is the tendency of too many historians, academic and public, to stand behind a podium and read their remarks/papers. We have all suffered through it. Regardless of the topic, listening to someone read their paper for thirty or more minutes is as excruciating as a trip to the dentist. Anyone speaking on a topic should be knowledgeable enough to be able converse with the audience without reading something verbatim.


Too many times have I attended a conference and counted the number of attendees who have fallen asleep as if being read a bedtime story. Historians already have to defend our chosen profession from charges that it is boring and irrelevant. Yet there are many who only exacerbate the problem themselves.  Perhaps historians need to all take a basic public speaking course and learn how to captivate an audience and not be a cure for insomnia. We all need to improve our skills in communicating our research, ideas, and themes to a society that can easily find other ways to occupy its time.


Where Things Were

26 Apr

I have always been intrigued with “where things were” historically, whether it be a Native American village, a settler’s homestead, a steamboat wharf, or a battlefield. While few things inspire me more than walking the same ground where figures from the past walked and viewing the landscapes and structures they saw, simply knowing where things that have long disappeared once were is personally satisfying and helps me make sense of history in a fundamental way. I believe historic sites of all types have a unique ability to connect us to the past. They have an indefinable power that resonates on an emotional level and helps us appreciate the physical context of historic events.

Recently, I have become involved in a project aimed at discovering where some of Columbus, Georgia’s  Civil War-era industrial establishments stood. Although the city was home to the second-largest manufacturing complex in the Confederacy and its industrial output played a critical role in keeping armies from Virginia to Mississippi in the field, only a small number of the dozens of places where its black and white residents labored producing uniforms, guns, swords, tents, shoes, wagons, and ammunition are marked or even well documented in the historical record. With some careful research and invaluable help from a more knowledgeable friend, I believe I have been able to discover for myself—precisely in some cases or at least down to the half-block in others— where many of these places once stood. In the process, I have learned where a number of other forgotten 1860s Columbus landmarks were located, including, poignantly, three slave auction houses. Virtually nothing remains of most of these places, and overlaying their locations on a modern map transports me to an entirely different city.

The experience has helped me understand the turbulent Civil War era and the way the city must have looked and sounded at the time as never before.  It has also reminded me that an incredible amount our nation’s history lies waiting to be discovered if we take a broader view of what is meant by the term “historic site.” Undisturbed, pastoral landscapes and carefully preserved historic structures are ideal situations which are few and far between. To gain a fuller understanding of the past, we as historians must attempt to make sense of it in spite of the development that has commonly obscured it from our immediate view. There is power and meaning in what will be discovered in the process.


The Problem with “Public” History

23 Apr

As historians working outside the academy to interpret the past for the public, we applaud the recent trend towards recognition of “public history” as a defined academic program of study. Public historians frequently are required to have advanced degrees in history, stay abreast of historiographical trends, conduct intensive research, and adhere to the highest standards of interpretation. Their jobs are multi-faceted and demand familiarity with the fundamentals of marketing, public relations, educational theory, and a host of other disciplines. Training in skills specific to their functions can only enhance their effectiveness.

One must wonder, however, whether false boundaries are being imposed on traditional academic history and this “new” field of public history. To be an effective practitioner of history, historians of all walks must have a broad and thorough understanding of the past combined with an ability to effectively relate their knowledge to others and communicate its importance. Is this mission really so different from the academic history that public history is defining itself against? To be relevant, the work of historians regardless of their discipline must substantively impact the public. If academic history is not doing this, it is failing in its mission and failing society. All history is inherently “public.”


Accepting What Is Written as Truth

19 Apr

It is fascinating to see how often unverified information is accepted as truth. 

For example, Jackson County, Mississippi, located on the Gulf Coast, is approaching its 200th anniversary. Legislation creating that county in December 1812 only states it “…shall be named Jackson” and nothing else in regards to its name. For nearly 200 years, it has been accepted as seemingly obvious fact that the county was named after Andrew Jackson with hardly a second thought by anyone.

However, careful consideration of facts makes this seem highly questionable.  When Jackson County was created, Andrew Jackson had not yet earned fame with his victories in the Creek War and against the British in the War of 1812. Jackson had held several offices in Tennessee, had gotten married to Rachel near Natchez (or so he thought), but had not yet earned much of a national reputation.  In December 1812, he was just beginning to mobilize troops in Tennessee to fight the British when his “namesake” county in south Mississippi was created. 

It appears that over the past two centuries, no evidence has been found that definitively answers this question on the county’s origin. Historians, genealogical societies, and the like have simply continued the local legend that the county was named after our nation’s seventh president year after year when there does not appear to be any evidence to support this claim.  And without finding any facts to support any other explanation, it has simply become easier to propagate the statement.

This issue is a good example of how we as historians must realize that sometimes it is acceptable to simply say “we don’t know.” Historians thrill at finding answers to unexplained questions, but sometimes, those answers are extremely difficult to find or perhaps, do not even exist.


Our Imperiled Cultural Heritage Institutions

18 Apr

Our nation’s recent economic downturn, unenlightened public policy, and a fundamental disconnect with a large segment of the general population have combined to create a perfect storm for cultural heritage institutions in America. Funding for federal, state, and local institutions that are engaged in the good work of education about and stewardship of our shared past has been slashed virtually across the board. The future for many is in imminent peril.

Recent appeals for help from supporters of cultural heritage institutions naturally draw on rational logic, pointing out that the resources they protect, interpret, and make available benefit the entire population, frequently generate revenue that goes directly into government coffers, and simply cannot be run as private enterprises. Unfortunately, such sound reasoning seems to be falling on deaf ears. Many of our leaders, just as an alarming portion of the general population, are painfully unaware of the vital role the work of dedicated cultural heritage specialists—curators, authors, rangers, interpreters, archivists, etc…– plays in a healthy society. They frequently are unable to contemplate what a wasteland our society would become if it lost all appreciation of the past which defines local character and creates traditions, stories and sites around which communities connect and others desire to visit and experience.

The reasons for the current catastrophic lack of leadership regarding the plight of cultural heritage institutions, which threatens to turn back the clock on our society, are many. To be certain, it derives in part from the morally suspect, archaic politically philosophies which desperate economic times have swept into vogue in much of the country. Its’ benighted purveyors can be seen everywhere casting blame and thrashing about for culprits in our fiscal dilemma rather than displaying creative leadership aimed at preserving the best of our institutions in troubled times and pointing us toward a more promising future. The hard truth, though, is that our leadership is actually more representative of our society than we perhaps would like to admit. While there are many who understand the manifold ways an awareness of the past positively impacts a healthy and progressive society, there is at least an equal number that view past events of any sort as irrelevant and government-administrated preservation, education, and interpretation as inherently wasteful. Sadly, the number of these misinformed citizens appears to be growing.

As historians, we know perhaps more than most just how disastrous temporary political shortsightedness can be to societies in the long term. We know that our government’s responsibility to safeguard our shared heritage is as sacred as any of its other functions. We know that the true relevance and importance of cultural heritage institutions to society lies not solely in their value as revenue generators or recreational spots. Our cultural heritage institutions are no less than touchstones of our national character; points of inspiration and enlightenment that are a vital part of the very fabric of our society. It is time we work together to more effectively articulate that big-picture viewpoint to our present-obsessed leaders and the distracted public we serve. The existence of the institutions which we hold so dear, and the trajectory of the society in which we live, hang in the balance.


Be Wary of Comparisons

17 Apr

Comparisons to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center seem to show up everywhere today. Some are appropriate analogies, but most writers and speakers inappropriately invoke the memory of that tragic day in an effort to merely communicate a point about public awareness of events. An address given at the 2011 AASLH Annual Meeting in Richmond, in which the speaker called the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter America’s “first 9/11 moment” is a case in point. The speaker was undoubtedly making a comparison of the notoriety of both of these momentous events in our nation’s history by referencing an occurrence with which most are familiar. In this instance, however, his choice of analogy leaves much to be desired.

A cowardly terrorist attack aimed at innocent civilians does not and should not be compared to an attack on a military installation in which the opposing forces were in communication and knew the consequences of failed negotiations.  This casual use of this analogy is an insult to those who lost their lives on 9/11 as well as to those who took part in the engagement at Fort Sumter and fought in the bloody four-year struggle that determined our country’s trajectory.  History is replete with examples of events that marked significant turning points for the societies that witnessed them. The attack on 9/11 and the firing on Fort Sumter are indeed two such events, but their causes, courses, and consequences are very different. As historians, we have a responsibility to critically analyze the facts before making comparisons that might affect our audience’s understanding of the past. To do otherwise is to fail the public in our duty to enlighten our society through the interpretation of our shared past.


Anniversary of the Battle for Columbus

16 Apr

One hundred 147 years ago tonight a Civil War battle for Columbus, Georgia raged in the hills of Girard, Alabama, opposite the city along the banks of the Chattahoochee River. It was a week after Appomattox, but word of Lee’s surrender had not arrived.

Union General James H. Wilson’s well-armed and well-disciplined cavalry force, attempting to capture the “last great storehouses” of the Confederacy and scatter remaining pockets of resistance, quickly overran the positions of the ragtag force of citizens, militia, hospital convalescents, industrial workers, and a small number of regular troops defending the city. They swept into Columbus where a short, urban fight took place in the streets of downtown before Wilson’s men secured their victory and the capture of the city. Wounded in the chaotic battle was one John S. Pemberton, a local druggist who, having tinkered with a variety of beverage concoctions at his Columbus store for years, would later market one of his creations as “Coca-Cola.”

Although it is a mere footnote in most histories of the war, when it is mentioned at all, the battle is a landmark event in the history of the Chattahoochee Valley of southeastern Alabama and southwestern Georgia. A rare nighttime conflict, the affair was brief, fierce, deadly, and consequential for the city of Columbus—at the time the largest Confederate industrial center still in operation. At its peak production, the city was second only to Richmond as a supplier of war material for the Southern cause. The day after the battle, much of the city’s robust riverfront industrial complex was burned to the ground, along with the ironclad gunboat C.S.S. Jackson, the crowning achievement of the Columbus Naval Yard.

The battle devastated a city. It displaced thousands of workers. It left numerous soldiers dead or wounded. Perhaps even more consequentially in the history of the region, it marked the day of emancipation for thousands of area slaves. May the memory of the events of that night and their importance in Chattahoochee Valley history not be forgotten.


History in a Present-Obsessed Society

12 Apr


Our society is unhealthily obsessed with the moment. The proliferation of 24-hour news networks and technological advancements such as email, cell phones, Twitter and Facebook are but a few of the most obvious by-products of a hurried and present-minded way of life that virtually demands we keep abreast of everything that is happening as it occurs. While we all appreciate these conveniences and the communication they facilitate, historians should be concerned with how they tend to focus our concentration on the “here and now” and further distance us from connection with the past.

Sadly, despite having around-the-clock access to a wealth of information, perhaps fewer people today understand the direct relationship between our world’s present condition and past events than the generations which preceded us. This nation’s state of affairs can be better understood, and solutions to society’s problems more easily conceived, if we spent more time understanding the past. We all know the old cliché about “those who do not understand the past our doomed to repeat it” is an oversimplified maxim, but knowledge of past events can truly help us better understand how we got to where we are today and where we are headed. So, put down your I-pad and turn off the television for a moment. Take some time to read a well-written history book or visit an historic site near you. You might be surprised how what you learn really does impact your life today.


Robert E. Lee and American history

9 Apr

One hundred forty-seven years ago today, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the remnants of his once-mighty Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. A brilliant tactician and inspiring military leader by any measure, Lee had by April 1865 become the physical embodiment of the aspirations of many within the Confederacy. He was viewed during his time as gallant, principled, virtuous, humble, and talented; a wise father-figure and patriot who represented the very best the South had to offer. Over the years since his death, historians have chipped away at this “Marble Man” characterization in an avalanche of scholarship that has analyzed his every recorded word and deed, revealing him to be at times as conflicted, prideful, ambitious, and stubborn as the men he led into battle. Yet, for historians of the Civil War era, his image still looms large as somehow emblematic of a time and place. His story is at once profoundly triumphant and tragic. 

Like many influential leaders in American history, for the solitary reason that he was connected with the institution of slavery, his name has increasingly, and unfortunately, become associated with only the very worst of America’s racist past. Scholars who seek to bend the facts of history to contemporary agendas and shallow-thinking members of the public who have not the time or desire to understand historical context have attempted to marginalize his importance and the praiseworthy aspects of his character in the name of political correctness. The simple truth is that Lee was indeed the very essence of the American society in which he lived and the type of leader that men of his time sought to emulate and follow. To try to make him irrelevant because of uncomfortable facts about the society of which he was a part is intellectually dishonest and is a disservice to both the profession of history and the public.

That these statements are difficult for many today to fathom in itself should cause us to want to know more about the reasons for the enormous influence of his name in Southern history. Lee was a complex and remarkable man who stood out among his peers and affected the course of American history. Yet his well-documented private struggles and inconsistencies demonstrate how thoroughly a man of his time he was. It would have been impossible for him to somehow rise above the world he knew and to think as we do today. For this, he should not be disqualified from relevance to us today nor should his role in our past be minimized or effaced from the public record. If we attempt to evaluate Lee by the standards of today, we must first remember that our society and our ways of thinking have not reached their pinnacle of enlightenment. To assume otherwise is naïvely prideful. Until our society and our leaders achieve perfection, Lee will remain worthy of our consideration as an American hero.


150th Anniversary of The Battle of Shiloh

6 Apr

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh.  No other engagement during the Civil War captures my attention more than those two bloody days along the banks of the Tennessee River. Successes in early 1862 by the Union army at Mill Springs and Forts Henry and Donelson completely cracked the Confederate line of defense across northern Tennessee, forcing Southern forces to regroup in Northern Mississippi. The Confederate high command decided this forward movement had to be stopped and ordered forces across the South to unite at Corinth in order to strike the Union Army camped twenty miles away.

After so many disasters, a grand opportunity presented itself to the Confederacy. The Union Army was oblivious to an attack and ripe for destruction.  For once, numerical odds were in the South’s favor. Confederate divisions emerged from the foggy morning of April 6th , yelling like banshees as they overran the startled Union forces, driving them back slowly to the river. Union soldiers grudgingly gave up ground as casualties grew; the blood of blue and gray mingling together on Tennessee soil.


Alas, victory slipped through Confederate fingers as the Union line held firm at the end of the day and nightfall brought Union reinforcements who would turn the tide the next day. April 7 saw Confederates retreat over the same ground they had fought so hard to win the day before. Both sides would claim victory, but in the end, Union forces held the ground and the Confederacy failed to deliver the knockout blow they so desperately needed.

Shiloh had it all; a failed opportunity, death of Confederate leader Albert Sidney Johnston, iconic places like Bloody Pond and the Sunken Road, and the beginnings of the winning partnership between Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.  And that is perhaps, the real lost opportunity of Southern arms. If the Civil War was truly about leadership, which I think it was, never again did the South have such a chance to remove one of the key Union players from field. Forget grandiose ideas of destroying an army, which hardly ever happened during the war. Winning a major victory at Shiloh might have forced the Union high command into removing Grant from command.  Grant’s absence might have been the real key for Confederate victory and eventual independence.