Archive | August, 2013

Remembering Fort Mims: The 200th Anniversary

30 Aug

200 years ago today, a force of Red Stick Indians attacked and eventually overran a stockade in present-day south Alabama. Besides containing a force of Mississippi Territorial militia, the stockade contained a host of families who had fled there for protection as the Creek Civil War raged throughout the region.  When the battle was over, nearly 250 lives were lost. The “Massacre of Fort Mims,” as the incident became known, shocked the nation and led to military forces being marshaled to put down the rebellion.  The Creek War, a relatively unknown phase of the War of 1812, had begun.

Fort Mims

Seven months later, the Creek Confederacy was smashed, leading to widespread changes across the region. A landmark treaty was signed which ultimately paved the way for the eventual removal of all the Indian nations from the Southeast.  The states of Mississippi and Alabama were formed as thousands of settlers, eager to claim lands full of rich soil, moved into the region.  And Andrew Jackson would begin his path to the presidency with his victories over those Creeks and the British.

But all this came later. Today is a day to remember and reflect on that event occurring near the banks of the Alabama River so long ago. It was a pivotal moment in regional and national history which altered the course of nations. Overshadowed, overlooked, and understudied, it has never achieved the spot in our collective memory it so richly deserves. Today a reconstruction of the stockade stands on the original site in rural Baldwin County, Alabama, and this weekend, the site will host perhaps the largest reenactment ever of the event it commemorates. Let’s hope that after the noise dies down and the crowds disperse, that Fort Mims doesn’t remain in oblivion. Rather, let’s hope that this anniversary can mark the beginning of a new awareness of a previously forgotten but crucial milestone in U.S. history.


Review of Last Stand at Mobile, by John C. Waugh

28 Aug

With a narrative consisting of under ninety pages of text, Last Stand at Mobile is admittedly a slim volume, but packs a lot into those pages. In fact, the book is in some ways a model of superb public history, as it communicates a basic understanding of the essential people, places and events associated with the Battle of Mobile Bay and the associated campaign for the city of Mobile, Alabama in accessible prose. Originally published in 2001, it promises to serve for years to come as the best point of entry for understanding events surrounding the capture of one of the last Confederate-controlled port cities during the Civil War. This is no simple task, as the events chronicled include a blockade, a naval battle, a siege, and a military campaign several months long waged for the capture of the city.

Last Stand Mobile

The book is part of a series published by the McWhiney Foundation Press, the brainchild of the legendary Southern historian Grady McWhiney. The series, its editor claims, was designed to provide “brief, lively, and authoritative books” that while “separate and complete in itself, nevertheless conveys the agony, glory, death, and wreckage that defined America’s greatest tragedy.” It is a noble calling, and John C. Waugh’s entry in the series is extremely well executed. Engaging and informative, it is a great example of the type of historical writing the public craves and deserves.


A Manifesto for Today’s Historian: Part Three, Engaging the Audience

21 Aug

In our first two essays, we discussed the need to stress the importance of history to the public and emphasized making the public a priority in our approach to our work. In the final installment of our three-part series investigating how to make the study of history more relevant in our society, we address the need of professional historians to engage our audience more effectively.


The most critical step in explaining why our work matters and making a connection with our audience is to communicate clearly why our presentation, paper, book, exhibit, or other work is worthy of notice. We must immediately answer the question so many in the public have in mind when they are presented with historical facts: “so-what?” While this may seem obvious, we have all seen historical projects in a variety of formats that told an elaborate story but exhibited a stunning lack of concrete conclusions about why they were worth the audience’s time. Because historians at every level take for granted the idea that their work is inherently important, they sometimes forget to adequately explain its instructional value to society. As a result, there exists a fundamental disconnect between historians, who appreciate the significance of their discoveries as a result of years of specialized learning, and a great number of people who come to their work with little or no understanding of the relationship between past events and their current situation. Most people are understandably loath to spend precious time evaluating material they deem irrelevant to their daily lives however intriguing it might be; rarely does the historian have the luxury of a captive audience prepared to invest its attention without some anticipation of the payoff.

This need to view things from the perspective of our audience is absolutely critical to the success of historians. We would do well to remember that good history is equal parts entertainment and instruction; there is nothing wrong with enjoyable learning. This does not mean that all good history projects are purely celebratory or without controversial content. Simply put, it is the presentation as much as the content that often enhances or diminishes a project’s effectiveness. Reading a paper verbatim to an assembly instead of relating points in a more interactive manner only bores listeners. Restricting our writing to styles and formats that appeal to a limited number of intellectuals instead of engaging the general public distances our profession from the people we should be serving. Creating exhibits that fail to captivate visitors and guide them in discovery only reinforces outdated notions that history is dry and of little consequence to the present generation.

While we certainly cannot compromise the quality of our scholarship to cater to fleeting whims or unrealistic demands, we must embrace diverse formats for disseminating information if we are to be effective today. Time is the most precious resource in our fast-moving society, and few people are willing to spare free moments to inane academic pursuits. This does not mean every historical book must be “dumbed down” to appeal to the masses, but neither does it mean every topic must be explained to the public in book-length monographs. We must not forget that exhibits, pamphlets, guides, historic markers, seminars, and so forth are useful and deeply appreciated formats for dissemination of information. These should not be devalued due to their brevity. On the contrary, they should be seen as the very essence of the historian’s craft when done well.  From the perspective of public historians whose job it is to condense immense quantities of complex information down to compelling and easily-understood but short passages, it is unfortunate to see how many talented historians have either missed, forgotten, or underappreciated this simple fact.

Perhaps the easiest way to engage our audience is for historians to avoid common, but easily-remedied, shortcomings in their attempts to interact with the public. How many of us have visited historic trails that were not clearly marked or were missing markers, or visited a site that has changed its hours of operation and failed to notify the public? How many of us have visited museums where the use of glitzy technological exhibits overwhelmed or even totally eclipsed real substance? How many have seen calls or emails to cultural institutions be treated as inconveniences or go totally unanswered? We must expect, welcome and encourage the public’s involvement in our institutions and hold ourselves to the highest degree of professionalism if the study of history is to be treated with the respect it deserves. We must take our role as ambassadors for the profession seriously!

As historians, we know the study of the past is an important enterprise that benefits and enhances a healthy society. We believe that Aristotle’s timeless admonishment that “if we are to understand anything, we must observe its beginning and its development” echoes through the ages as a mission and a calling. It is our challenge to tap into the power of the authenticity of the artifacts, sites, and stories we have been entrusted with to both demonstrate that development and cause others to understand its importance. No less than the future of our society is at stake.


A Manifesto for Today’s Historian: Part Two, Keeping History in the Public Eye

13 Aug

In the second of this three part series aimed at stressing significant principles concerning the field of history, we focus on making the public a priority in our writings.


By conducting thoughtful research and sharing its meaning in appealing and accessible prose, historians reveal various pieces of the past that hopefully interests and informs our reading public. Yet because of our own provincialism, we often struggle to overcome the misguided notion among much of the public that the study of history is more an insular hobby than a genuinely useful and essential endeavor. If we are to maintain relevancy, better communicate our purpose, and perform our duty, historians at all levels must keep the public in mind in their writing.

Historians must remember that our work, whatever its form, must ultimately tell an engaging story. To borrow an overused phrase, let us not leave the “story” out of “history” in our work. At heart our trade should be concerned with the gathering and relating of stories about which people want to learn. To the detriment of the profession, many academic historians are focusing their work on process and method rather than explaining past events. Further, creativity in developing simultaneously convincing and engrossing narratives is underemphasized, if at all, in history classes today. Ideally, history texts will intrigue the public, stimulate learning, and serve on their own merits as the best evidence of why the study of the past is important. To do all this effectively is difficult and admittedly more art than science, but the academy is increasingly forcing historians to justify their labors by stressing technical, quantitative, and concrete aspects of their work over the less measurable qualities of storytelling where the true value often lies. As a result, many historians are churning out articles that read more like science experiments than narrative history, and the public, steadily growing more disinterested and disconnected, is not reading.

And yet traditional narrative history—the most basic product of our work and the product consistently most highly valued by the general public — appears to be scorned in the academy as elementary and pedantic. What a shame that at the very time we need more riveting, inspiring work similar to the stirring narratives of Shelby Foote and David McCullough we get a stream of bland articles addressing questions nobody is asking. How ironic it is that both these great writers come from outside the academy! Some will rightfully have reservations about holding such popular historians up as the best example for all to follow, and admittedly, there have been some recent books by amateur historians such as Bill O’Reilly that contain far too many glaring errors to be effective.  Most will surely acknowledge, however, that there is something to be learned from their tremendous success at focusing attention on important topics through adeptly weaving a story and explaining its importance to readers. As popular histories demonstrate, both topic and form are keys in reaching the public. Having conducted meticulous research is no excuse for bogging down readers with an overabundance of extraneous facts. It is the historian’s duty to sift those facts to weave a compelling narrative. It is time to for us to begin to judge scholars as much by the accessibility of their writing and ability to inspire independent inquiry as their command of historiographical trends or adherence to research techniques associated with abstract schools of thought.

Sadly, academia’s niche specialization is exacerbating a trend towards intellectually isolated writing and only widening the chasm between the profession of history and the vast majority of the public. Even worse, it might be destroying a basic tenet of the purpose of the study of history itself. Rather than leading to an informed citizenry, it is dividing our history into artificial segments that do little to help the bulk of the population make sense of the past. Much professional scholarship being published today demonstrates little or no thought as to how to make years of hard work matter to anybody outside the academy. While the primary duty of the historian is to inform, a secondary duty is surely to captivate the audience and cause readers to voluntarily ponder for themselves the information presented because they find it interesting on some level. It is this second responsibility that many historians seem to either fail at or omit entirely in their work. In short, many historians in academia have apparently lost all touch with the populace they should be serving and instead are talking only to themselves. While scholarly exchange is certainly important and sharpens skills by subjecting our work to informed constructive criticism, in the end if the work does not result in advancing public knowledge in some fashion, what is its real value?

For historians to maintain relevancy in a chronically distracted society immersed in the moment, our work must go beyond narrow specialization and make sense to a wide audience utterly unaware of historical context. Our job as historians is to preserve the past by demonstrating the relationship of events in the continuum of time in ways at once informative and intriguing. To continue on the track many historians seem to be on, which seems to disregard most of the public by working under the misguided notion that serious academic inquiry and popular acceptance are mutually exclusive concepts, is to ensure our own profession’s marginalization. If we want the study of the past to be more important to a larger portion of the population and matter to coming generations, historians need to evaluate their practices and make better connection with the masses they should be serving. Historiographical trends will come and go, but the telling of a good story will never go out of style. Our last installment will focus on how we can better engage our audience.


A Manifesto for Today’s Historian: Part One, History Really Does Matter

8 Aug

In this three-part essay series, we strive to identify the cornerstone intellectual principles underlying the field of history and propose ways to build on those tenets to effectively testify to its importance and make it more relevant to the public. In part one, we focus on the importance of the study of history and the need to express that significance to the public.


The profession of history in America is at a crossroads. Shuffled to the side in schools, irrelevant to an alarming and growing percentage of a present-obsessed public, and consistently on the losing end of budgetary battles, our profession is in crisis. It is in dire need of champions who can articulate its worth. Yet few professionals seem to have more difficulty communicating their importance and relevance to society at large than historians. Doctors, engineers, and accountants, for example, can confidently assert that their jobs are useful, productive, and necessary to the communities they serve because of the practicality of the services they provide. The work of historians is unfortunately more abstract and not as easily measured by tangible results as other professions, making advocacy for history a much more difficult proposition. Regrettably, the people best positioned to affect the positive change we need are often unprepared to initiate it due to a failure to appreciate their own work in the broader context and an inability to put their calling into words.

The Roman statesman, philosopher and historian Cicero defined history as “the witness that testifies to the passage of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.” This quote, succinctly summarizing the importance of studying and interpreting history, provides the proper inspiration for chroniclers of the past. Understanding the past is just as important today as it was in Cicero’s time, and his words have resonated through the ages as a clarion call. Yet to society’s detriment, we have lost sight of his vision.

As historians, we must never fail to grasp the fact that we have been entrusted with a vital, almost sacred, civic responsibility to preserve and interpret our community heritage for the benefit of all citizens. By conducting thoughtful research, historians uncover various pieces of the past that, when woven together into writings, exhibits, interpretive markers, and classroom or symposium instruction by craftsmen skilled in their trade, form an enlightening tapestry that encompasses our society’s collective memory. That mosaic, revealing the very essence of our society, guides us by shedding light on our hopes and dreams over time as well as the triumphs and defeats encountered in pursuit of them. In short, our work addresses everything that went into making us what we are today and serves as a touchstone in defining our national character. History is the story of real human experience; there is no more compelling drama. As the nation grows older, more diverse, and increasingly underexposed to the past that has shaped it, few duties would seem to be more important than that of educating the citizenry on its shared heritage and helping it interpret the meaning of past events and their inextricable relationship to the future.

The mere communication of facts about events from the past, however, is only the beginning of the historian’s job. Our energy, commitment, and enthusiasm for communicating the transcendent aspects of our work is now needed today more than ever. As historians, we know that history illustrates man’s (and woman’s) struggles to overcome life’s obstacles in the past and informs us in the struggles we face today. In the immortal words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Almost all of us can trace their love of history back to a book they read or a site they visited that, for better or worse, led them down their career path. Now that we are here, we must not only remember what originally inspired us, but be able to express that passion to our audience.

If we want our work to be valued by the public, historians must first come to an appreciation of our critical role in society. We must undertake all of our labors with the knowledge that we perform a vital duty, and we must become able to confidently and convincingly assert as much to any who inquire. Only through such an approach will we be able to ensure our shared heritage continues to resonate, intrigue, inform, and inspire. But an internal understanding of our worth is just a first step. To make the study of the past important to the coming generations, it is imperative that historians make better connection with the masses they should be serving. In our future installments, we address methods to strengthen our profession by making it more useful to the public.