Interesting thoughts about Civil War manuscript collections

To my readers, I want to apologize for neglecting this blog for so long and not posting anything for almost a year. I have not left blogging and am not done with this site, but life’s been quite busy with teaching and trying to finish a dissertation, so my free writing time has been limited. That said, I want to thank you all for sticking it out with this site and hope you will come back, as I hope to get back into it a bit more in the near future. I am always willing to consider new topics to write about, so let me know.

That said, I want to tip my hat to Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory for sharing this interesting article from the Gettysburg Compiler via Facebook. Written by Kevin Lavery, an undergraduate student at Gettysburg College, while part of their Civil War Institute, this article on manuscripts and the right to be forgotten from history really made me think.

As someone who has worked in a special collections department for over two years now, I deal with manuscripts of all types on a regular basis, including diaries and letters. These sources, as Mr. Lavery points out, are quite important to researchers, but the ethical dilemma he raises does hold some weight. Some of what he raises about historians’ responsibilities in dealing with unpublished sources is important, as we are dealing with another human being’s private conversation and while that individual may be dead, the intimacy of the words on the page do not lessen because of death. This means that such words must be treated with respect.

Does this mean that we should not use them to understand the past? Certainly not, but it does mean that we must strive to avoid what is termed presentism, or applying the standards of our time to those of the past. My mentor from my undergraduate days always used the example of one of your descendants picks up a letter you wrote describing eating a juicy steak and recoils in horror. Though a little tongue in cheek, his point was that we do not want to be judged based upon the standards and values of a time we are not familiar with, so we should not judge those who came before us by our standards because their time held different values than ours in some cases.

As I read such sources, I always try to see what such writings tell me about the past, but I am uncomfortable with the pseudo-psychological role that some scholars take when evaluating sources, as we can never fully understand what another human being felt during a given event, especially when recalling it in a later writing. One of the best examples would be the field of military history. In writing about warfare, a scholar, who happens to be a combat veteran may understand, to an extent, the gripping accounts of battle written by a soldier long ago, as they share the same broad experience of being in combat. Yet, the differences would be in the nature of that combat, the personality of the soldier involved that wrote the letter, diary, or memoir, as well as the societal norms of that period. Sherman’s generalization that “war is hell” is as accurate today as 150 years ago, but the nature of war has changed in many ways since then.

In the end, it seems that Mr. Lavery’s analysis would argue that we should let the authors of Civil War manuscripts speak for themselves and perhaps respect their privacy a bit by not delving into nuances regarding such writings. These men, and women, were writing to loved ones about an important event that was shaping their very lives, no more, no less. For them, it was a matter of staying in touch with home during a time when mail was slow and death could be quick. When faced with one’s mortality, even as a younger person, and with the technological limitations placed on your ability to communicate over great distances, the very soul of a man may be poured out on a piece of paper, in an effort to not leave something unsaid to those back home.

I welcome your thoughts on this interesting subject.

IC Time Capsule-a blog from my alma mater

Though a bit outside the focus of this blog’s chronology, I want to share with you all about a blog that one of the newer faculty at my alma mater, Illinois College, is working on. Dr. Jenny Barker-Devine, who joined the History Department after I graduated is doing some cool things with students on the Hilltop.

Recently, several students under her guidance began working with the Iver F. Yeager Special Collections and College Archives, including creating an awesome exhibit on how World War II affected the campus and students. These projects are near and dear to my heart, as they are what I am doing with work in the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, including processing the collection on the 164th Infantry Regiment and creation of an exhibit on that unit with items from the collection (other stories are here and here).

So, if you have a few moments, go and check out IC Time Capsule and see what the students and faculty of Illinois College are doing.

We’re five years old today!

Fifth BirthdayToday marks this blog’s fifth birthday. My little blog is just growing up so fast, as it seems like yesterday it was only a couple posts and an idea (couldn’t resist relating it to someone turning five). It also marks my 250th post as well. While I have not reached some of the goals I set out from last year, I am happy that I have been able to keep this site up with being busy with Ph.D. studies. I have covered some of the events related to the sesquicentennial of the war over the last year, as well as some of the excitement of reenacting (we have a great season lined up this summer). I have tackled a couple tough subjects, which have sparked some great discussion. We currently have over 150,000 hits and I hope to make 200,000 by year’s end. I am looking to get a couple new writers posting to the blog to keep the content a bit more regular, but with summer upon us, I hope to also get posting more often as well. Now having a laptop with a webcam, I hope to do a few video posts as well, so look forward to those. I want to thank you all for your readership and support.

New group on Facebook for the blog

With the many changes that have gone on in Facebook, I created a new group for the blog, where you can go to discuss and the like and interact with other readers of this blog.

Join our Facebook group.

I will also place this in the sidebar as well.

This blog is four years old today

I can’t believe that this blog is four years old already and what a four years it has been. We recently broke the record for our best day, which happened to be the 15oth anniversary of the start of the war. We are on our way to 125,000 hits and I fully expect to hit 150,000 by year’s end. We have been averaging around 100 hits or more a day for several weeks and are embarking on covering the anniversaries of major events of the war as they relate to the sesquicentennial. I will soon begin a project involving podcasting for the blog and will also cover my adventures in reenacting and living history this summer, especially my trip to Wilson’s Creek for the anniversary of the battle.

Today, I will celebrate with my family, as my cousin graduates from UND with his Bachelor’s degree (congratulations Chad!). Tomorrow, I head to Fort Abercrombie to participate in Museum Day with the Fort Abercrombie Garrison reenacting unit, while my colleague Stuart will be at Nashua, Iowa again this year. I am looking forward to the shorter trip and the chance to reenact as a Union soldier.

As always, thank you very much for your readership and wonderful support. Have a great weekend, and, Happy 4th Birthday Civil War History!