Archive | January, 2013

Never Stop Learning

25 Jan

I recently had the honor to speak to a local historical society about a book I co-authored, and included in the audience was an interested and attentive 100 year old lady who had persuaded her son to take her to my presentation because she wanted to know more about the topic. It was an honor to have her listen to my presentation, and a complement that she seemed to genuinely find it interesting. Her presence caused me to reflect on my chosen profession and its place in society. I have lamented in several times in this space the general lack of interest in history among the younger generations in this country. I believe this is an ominous trend not just for historians, but for society in general for several reasons which are too lengthy to go into at the moment.

What really impressed me about this lady was her obvious desire to learn and genuine excitement to explore a new topic. It caused me to wonder if perhaps it is not always the lack of interest in the past itself that threatens the profession of history as much as the general lack of enthusiasm for learning in general. Our society is fast-paced, and serious contemplation of the type required in historical study is viewed as incompatible with modern life by many. Perhaps if we could do a better job articulating the importance of what we do as an essential part of a healthy program of lifelong learning rather than purely an investigation into a past people see as increasingly irrelevant, we might intrigue a new generation of learners. All I know is that there is hope for history as a discipline and as a vital part of society if we have more people that demonstrate the thirst for knowledge of the lady I met last weekend.


A Clash of Cultures

22 Jan

Few wars were more wasteful, and few less understood both at their time and in history, than the Seminole Wars (1817-1858). While the wars certainly have their leading figures and landmark events, more than anything else they were understood at the time and to some degree by many today as little more than a series of misadventures and costly blunders perpetrated against a determined foe in the name of Indian Removal. In this disjointed, confusing epic in American history, very few heroes emerged and precious few clear-cut victories for one side or the other took place. It was hard even at the time in which the wars were fought to know exactly when they ended and what the results of the sporadic, scattered fighting, really meant. Contained within a single state and defying easy explanation, the wars have been confined to the proverbial footnote in most histories of the United States, if they are mentioned at all. 

I have recently become interested in learning more about these conflicts for personal and professional reasons, and ordered a copy of John and Mary Lou Missall’s The Seminole Wars: America’s Longest Indian Conflict as a way to begin my study of a topic I admit I did not really know much about and for which there is not an abundance of literature readily available. The choice turned out to be a good one.


At once concise and thorough, the book was elegantly written for the general public. It deals fairly with both the Seminoles and their American counterparts and explains the challenges and limitations in truly understanding the wars while convincingly linking them together as a continuum of events.

The Missalls’ account is enthralling, even if it admittedly deals with a topic that does not exactly yield itself to engrossing narrative. There was little chance for glory in the Seminole Wars, and the men who fought it knew it. Further, the wars were, as the Missalls state, “brimming over with empty achievements.” This goes for the hollow “victories” won by American forces and those of the Seminoles. In fact, the Missalls demonstrate that while the Seminoles are to be admired for their amazing attachment to the land and willingness to subject themselves to incredible privation to remain in their ancestral homeland, their consistent miscalculations regarding when and where to exert military force only lengthened the war and emboldened American resolve. In the end all they could do was ensure that winning the war would require an incredibly high price, which it did.

It is in their candid assessment of the wars and their meaning that the book really excels. I think a paragraph from their summary is worth quoting in full:

“The Seminole Wars, like all the other Indian wars, were clashes between cultures. As much as we might lament the fact from today’s perspective, there was simply no way the two cultures could coexist. Today they can, but only because both cultures have changed. Indians are no longer hunters who require vast hunting grounds and live by the warrior’s code. Most Americans no longer seek to develop every square inch of the continent. We have learned to appreciate what we have lost, and we try to protect what is left. In the early nineteenth century, neither culture was willing to change.”

I plan to do more reading on the Seminole Wars soon, but I doubt I will encounter any better source for understanding these conflicts than that provided by the Missalls. They have tackled a difficult task, and executed it well.


Forgotten Day

8 Jan

It is sad to realize just how few people realize that on this day 198 years ago, this nation won perhaps its greatest military victory.  On January 8, 1815, Andrew Jackson led what was probably the most diverse fighting force to that point assembled in American history and defeated the most feared army in the world.  Utilizing regular soldiers, indifferently armed Tennessee, Louisiana, and Kentucky militia, horsemen from the Mississippi Territory, free blacks from New Orleans, Choctaw Indians, and even a band of pirates, Jackson’s force defeated troops who had recently defeated Napoleon in Europe. The victory was lopsided, as the British suffered over twenty times the number of American casualties.


This American victory, the last major battle of the War of 1812, not only secured the Gulf Coast from European interference and secured the Mississippi River as an avenue of commerce for the country, but it also legitimized the United States as a major player on the world’s stage. Further, the victory led to the rise of Andrew Jackson to national prominence. He would go on to serve two terms as our nation’s president and single-handedly exert tremendous influence on the trajectory of the young nation. It is revealing that the era of his greatest power is today remembered by historians as the “Age of Jackson.”

It is a commentary on our nation’s collective lack of historical awareness that the anniversary of this milestone event in America’s past comes and goes with hardly a mention. This nation rightly honors important events and anniversaries such as July 4th, D-Day, and Pearl Harbor Day. And yet, this day, which meant so much for this nation and one in which we can take so much pride, is completely forgotten. A scan of today’s headlines will be reveal our concern with the “fiscal cliff,” a college football championship, and maybe even the latest misadventures of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian.  What a shame and a disservice to those who fought and won the glory and honor that would propel our nation towards becoming a leader on the world’s stage.


There’s Nothing to See Here (?)

7 Jan

I must admit that no matter how many times I hear someone remark that “there’s nothing to see” at an undeveloped historic site, it still rankles me. As a historian, when I visit a site where important events took place, even when they are totally uninterpreted for the public and totally undeveloped, I nonetheless find the experience authentic and fulfilling in a way nothing else can match. To stand where important figures stood, overlook a field where a battle raged, or walk across a patch of forest where an important community once stood, inspires me and stirs my passion for history. The experience is admittedly intangible and indefinable, yet at the same time real and dynamic for me.

I understand that the value of these undeveloped historical sites is not readily apparent to the uninformed, and I do not necessarily hold it against someone who “doesn’t get” why I might be excited to visit a remote site out in the woods. I understand that to have an appreciation of the value of a historic site requires some contextual knowledge of the events that unfolded there. Even after explaining to people some historical event that took place on a remote plot of land, though, as a public historian I have often found myself still trying to help people feel the timeless sense of place undeveloped sites provoke. I sometimes wonder if it is something that simply can’t be taught like facts and dates.  


I recently was reminded of a powerful and often overlooked aspect of the importance of historic sites that might help us make this connection in the minds of the public while reading Robbie Ethridge’s Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World.  Even though the book at times can bog casual readers down with some scientific minutia related to the flora and fauna of the ancestral homeland of the Creek Indians, it is a remarkably comprehensive explanation of how a landscape influenced a culture. The book is one of the best primers on Creek society in print. It is broad in scope yet detailed; scientific yet conversational. It uniquely situates the Creeks in their environment and convincingly explains the inextricable connection between the two.

Creek Country reminded me of the old expression that sometimes “we can’t see the forest for trees.” Specifically, we sometimes forget that the land where historic events played out is often as much an actor in them as the people chronicled by historians. We take for granted that environment influences culture in basic but profound ways, such as where and when communities begin and the economies their people rely on. We all know that geography, climate, and environment play a role in history in very tangible ways—it was the Russian winter that humbled Napolean, the trackless jungles that bedeviled the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and the geography of the Appalachian Mountains that made the Cumberland Gap such an important spot in our nation’s history, for example. Historians need not become biologists or geologists to make people aware that all too often the most overlooked and fundamental aspects of a historic site’s importance and the reasons the site hosted the events we seek to educate others about are literally right under our feet. Explaining the interconnection between environment and culture isn’t the only way to interpret a historic site or even necessarily the best, but sometimes it does provide a crucial layer of context that may just help us help others make sense of the past if done well.


The War to End All Wars

4 Jan

After listening to the audio book Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918 World War I and Its Violent Climax, I have gained a much stronger interest in World War I. It is amazing how a dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia exploded into the world’s first truly global war.  Alliances and agreements between  nations, some that went back as far as the mid 1800s, along with a failure of many of the world’s leaders to display reason and common sense and stop the hostilities before they started,  allowed this “minor” conflict to explode into a war with casualties that reached into the  millions.

book image

Unfortunately, interest in World War I is dwarfed by a later conflict, World War II. And yet, the seeds of that larger war were laid by the events and repercussions of World War I.  Many of the most dramatic and crucial events in world history such as Adolph Hitler’s rise to power and the rise of Communism in Russia, would have never occurred without World War I and its aftermath.  And yet, the average person’s knowledge of World War I is limited to a few phrases such as “mustard gas” or “No Man’s Land,”or enduring images of  funny-pointed German helmets, and movies like All Quiet on the Western Front.

This reminds me of how in this nation, interest in the War of 1812 pales in comparison to the Civil War. And yet, it is the War of 1812, specifically the Creek War and the battles between the British and Americans along the Gulf Coast, that helped pave the way for increased immigration to the Deep South and the development of large-scale slave-based cotton agriculture that would ultimately lead this nation towards Civil War.

This proves again why a well-rounded base of knowledge in history is necessary. Specialization has dominated academia and yet, one must have a grasp of the total picture to fully gain an understanding of how the world got to where it is today and why for instance, the world will never have a War to End all Wars.