Archive | August, 2015

Thank Goodness for Historical Societies

26 Aug

marker unveiling

I went to a meeting of a local historical society earlier this week, and it reminded me of what valuable resources these groups of people are in the effort to preserve our collective memory of the past. The one I attended resembled most such groups I’ve seen in every community I’ve lived in; fairly small, older (almost exclusively retirees), but possessed of a laser-sharp focus on details of local historical events and willing to put in volunteer hours towards a good cause. They staff local archives, keep open local museums, work to preserve historic structures that few others in the community understand or appreciate, and interpret local history through historic markers, publications, and other projects. These groups are not equally active in actually interpreting the history of the communities they work in, to be sure, but every one of them seem to have a collective reservoir of knowledge that can be found nowhere else in the community. They often know details of local history you simply won’t find in any book. They do good work, and are invaluable allies for professional historians in a variety of disciplines. Historians should all be glad they are here and welcome opportunities to collaborate with them when they arise.


Kudos to Online Encyclopedias

18 Aug

We spend a lot of my time in this blog griping and complaining about the lack of emphasis history gets in our society today, and I believe it is for good reason. We have on occasion recognized some of the good work going on among historians and other humanities professionals out there, however. Today I’d like to recognize one of my personal favorite worthwhile programs—online state encyclopedias.

In our modern digital age, people are less and less likely to dig deeply and conduct serious research into any topic if they can avoid it, especially history. Most simply don’t know how to do research and even if they did, probably would not take the time to do it. I’ve judged enough National History Day Contests to tell you that the great majority of even the best students and teachers in grade schools out there think cultural heritage research begins and ends with online sources. And I’ve conducted enough internships with college students to say very few students indeed are equipped to research any topic that can’t be found on Wikipedia.


Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I’m delighted to see authoritative, peer-reviewed articles on a wide variety of humanities topics being assembled into several “online encyclopedias.” This work has been going on for decades in some places, just getting started in others. It’s just good to see serious scholarship delivered in layman’s terms for the masses in this age of instant access to information at a time in which people seem to be less able or willing to distinguish between good and dubious sources. Kudos to all those involved in making these electronic resources an essential reference source for students and adults everywhere in an accessible format.


Documenting Runaway Slaves

15 Aug

Documenting Runaway Slaves Project

It is always nice to see outstanding work being done in the field of history. The Documenting Runaway Slaves Project ( at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) is just one such project. Under the leadership of Drs. Max Grivno and Douglas Chambers, more than 1,600 items documenting over 2,500 enslaved people in Mississippi has been compiled from newspaper advertisements. This collection of data has provided us an “Accidental Slave Narrative” as scholar Mary Niall Mitchell has described it. Slave advertisements and jailors’ announcements provide a plethora of information including descriptions of runaway slaves, their clothing, physical scars, and other attributes that helps paint a picture of slave life in Mississippi. Although not a complete picture and gathering data based on these statistics is often ripe with problems, this information will provide primary documentation for analysis. Research has already begun as based upon the Summer 2013 edition of The Journal of Mississippi History which contains articles based on the data collected.

I offer my congratulations and appreciation to USM and the project’s sponsors for developing this database. Today’s technology allows the gathering of such information that makes doing research easier. The number of internet databases of historical information is thankfully growing, making it an opportune time to do research in any number of fields.


The Bomb

12 Aug

A few days ago (August 6 and August 9) were the anniversaries of some of the most profound events in all of world history; the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

I’ve always been surprised that these incredible events receive such little discussion today outside of academia. Even among our relatively historically ignorant public, these events usually register as being an important turning point in world history, and they are frought with potential for moral debate of the type we seem to like in historical dialogue. It strikes me that they should be among those few historical milestones we as Americans should study about and willingly commemorate and remember in some way, such as the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. But the unleashing of the atomic bomb by the United States seems to be barely a blip on the radar of our collective historical conscious.

atomic bomb

To me, the dropping of the bombs stand out as some of the most astounding occurrences in all of human history and the defining events of the twentieth century on the global stage. In two solitary blasts, the United States military destroyed two major cities and killed upwards of 200,000 people. In these cities were strategic military targets, but literally hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children could not help but be caught in the crossfire. Our leaders knew it, and they did not blink. They saw it as the best of several unsavory options to end World War II in Asia and one that would ironically result in the least loss of life.

There is a lot to ponder about these events, ranging from the morality of obliterating thousands of civilians with a megabomb to the amazing fact that Japan became one of our strongest allies and most robust and trusted trading partners within a generation of the attack. On perhaps an even more philosophical level, the bombs forcefully demonstrated for all the world to see the levels of destruction mankind was capable of in 1945 and begged the question of what was next. In truth it still does. But a discussion of the long term ramifications of the bombings is beyond what I’d like to bring to your attention today. Suffice it to say that everything from modern military strategy and associated research budgets, foreign policy and America’s position before the world, and even the direction of scientific inquiry across the globe are inextricably connected to what happened on August 6 and 9, 1945. To me, the modern era of world history can cleanly be demarcated by pre- and post-atomic detonations in warfare.

As a historian who visits a lot of historic sites, I’m accustomed to memorials and monuments to dozens, even hundreds of deaths in battles and tragedies of various sorts. On rare occasion, such as at some of the larger Civil War battlefields I have visited, there might even be commemorations of thousands of lives that were lost in one place at one time. I have never been to Japan, but imagine that standing at Nagasaki Peace Park (“ground zero”) or the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and contemplating the staggering, instantaneous, loss of life within the blast radius must be an other-worldly experience unlike any other historical memorial I have ever visited. If there was ever a historical event that all of mankind should study in order that it should collectively learn from its past, this is one.





Review of The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent, by J.C.A. Stagg

6 Aug

Feeling the need to read another concise overview of our nation’s least appreciated conflicts, I decided to read J.C.A. Stagg’s The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. As a part of the Cambridge Essential Histories series, this small volume (170 pages of text) provided a brief summary of our second conflict with Great Britain. Stagg, who has edited most of James Madison’s papers, brings a strong grasp of our president and this time period to this study, which helps and yet at times, detracts from my hopes for the book.


Stagg’s book focuses its energies on the politics of the conflict. He goes into great detail to discuss causes, the war’s proponents and detractors, and the politics and government processes involved during the years of conflict. One cannot help read this book and not come away with a better understanding of the difficulties the U.S. had in trying to finance this war and keep enough well-supplied troops in the field. He provides great commentary of this discussion of the war, but with its price being space available for discussing the military aspect of the conflict. Anyone looking to read narratives of battles and campaigns will be disappointed. Key battles like Plattsburg, Bladensburg, and Baltimore barely get more than a paragraph. New Orleans is a winner as it received three pages of treatment. Now in fairness, the book does not promote itself as a military history, but when it is subtitled “Conflict for a Continent,” more details could have been given to the military affairs.

The book’s highlight is its concluding chapter. After detailing the peace treaty, Stagg provides critical analysis of the war and offers some conclusions. I appreciate when an historian takes the time to do more than simply relay facts. His best examination is his explanation of this nation’s poor military performance. Stagg evaluates logistical and organizational issues, recruitment and training problems, and incompetence in leadership. I have read many books on this subject and each book leaves a different impression. In this instance, I feel grateful for this nation having survived the conflict and feel overjoyed with the treaty results of status quo antebellum.


Behold the Power of the Historic Marker

5 Aug

I love visiting the sites where history happened, even those on which no physical vestige of the events that transpired on them remain. I have collected hundreds of photos of what by all appearances are nothing but random patches of wilderness or parking lots in the process of my travels to prove it. They are places where forts stood, battles were fought, and decisions that altered the course of history were made, though, and they have a special meaning we have attempted to explain several times in this blog. 


I have visited hundreds of museums, parks, historic homes, reproductions of buildings, and every manner of historical commemoration in the course of taking those snapshots of the woods and city streets, and I am struck by the incredible power of the simplest of interpretive pieces to transform historic sites from forgotten place to destination. Sure, a simple metallic or fiberglass panel can communicate important information about what happened at a given location. But the marker’s presence does something more than merely relate information to me. It makes an otherwise unassuming piece of real estate in some way hallowed ground. It in a way makes the past tangible by helping the visitor imagine what once transpired there. 

Thanks to all the historical societies, community groups, government agencies, and others who have endeavored to mark our nations’ historic sites through markers of various sorts. I believe this work is among the most important historians can undertake.