The state of Civil War history college courses

There is a fascinating discussion going on over at H-CivWar about the current state of stand alone history courses on the Civil War. So far, the respondents indicated that the institutions they have attended and/or work for all have distinct courses on the conflict, including some offering graduate seminars on it. The discussion seemed to be influenced by both the recent conclusion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, as well as the current trends in historical education and scholarship. That said, I will say that the field of Civil War history is still quite vibrant and while non-military topics have grown in prominence and attention over the years, this is not a bad thing, as there was more to the conflict than just the armies and their battles and movements that do need attention and awareness to more fully understand the profound transformative effect of the Civil War on the United States.

However, the discussion did speak to me, especially in light of the recent Society for Military History white paper on the role of military history in the academy and the discussion among prominent Civil War historians over the state of military history in the larger field that was sparked by two prominent articles in the two flagship journals Civil War History and the Journal of the Civil War Era, which was quite enlightening. It is good to see that several institutions still retain separate classes on the Civil War. I will say that I think eventually such classes will become fewer, mainly because of the increased amount of history that will warrant inclusion in our curriculum. One poster to the discussion considered the idea of placing the war within the framework of the long nineteenth century, which struck me as an interesting way of examining the war.

The nineteenth century in a broad sense was a transformative period for the nation, as we became an industrial nation, while expanding our control and influence across the continent. To be sure the Civil War factored prominently in these developments and would be a major component to a broader course on nineteenth century America. The war is an important component of most survey American history courses, so it is still going to have a position of importance in our history.

Is there a possibility that stand alone courses on the Civil War will eventually fade away? Sure, as what History departments offer fifty or one hundred years from now may be quite different than now. That said, there are still many (yours truly among them) who are passionate about the history of the war and will continue to work in the field in some capacity and are still young enough to continue the interest for years to come. Further, the war still resonates today and we will eventually commemorate the bicentennial of the war. Also, students still seem interested in taking courses on the conflict, at least in my experiences.

We can never predict the future of the field and its place in history education, but it will be interesting to see where trends in scholarship and pedagogy take us and how that influences the nature of courses on the war and how popular they will be. Our nation continues to change and the increasing length of time from the conflict will cause it to fade from memory in some ways, but still hold interest and importance. Consider how educators will grapple with the ongoing centennial of World War I, or, when it comes, World War II and how those events will influence the place of the Civil War within higher education.

The war will continue to interest me and I hope that fifty years from now, there will still be students taking courses on the war in college. Only time will tell.

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.

Battlefields of the Civil War-An awesome interactive map tool

Hat tip to my good friend Dr. Laura Munski, who shared this interesting site, created by ESRI, who produces the software ArcGIS, which is used for GIS, cartography, and many other uses. They also have a series of sites, called Story Maps, which all look interesting (yes, I am into geography as well as history).

The Story Map on the Civil War is quite interesting, as it highlights battles, in chronological order, offers the user the chance to narrow the range, and, it animates the battle sites on the base map. One great feature is the linking to the battle sites through the Civil War Trust, who links to this site. Civil War Trust is a pretty cool site for learning about the war, and battlefield preservation. It also has a page for smartphone apps (if you are able to enjoy that technology).

If you have some time, check out this great resource, especially if you are a teacher, as I can see the value of this in the classroom.

Click here for Battlefields of the Civil War.

Society for Military History Annual Meeting

Originally posted to Civil Warriors.

The program for the 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History, which is being held on 14-16 March 2013, in New Orleans, LA, and sponsored by the Center for the Study of War and Society at The University of Southern Mississippi, with the National World War II Museum and Southeastern Louisiana University, has recently been posted.

Not much this year, unfortunately, to interest the Civil War enthusiast. I saw only one session dedicated to the subject, which is definitely odd considering this is the 150th anniversary of not a few events of note in the military history of the Civil War. No doubt this is in large part due to a program on the 150th at Gettysburg College that is running the same weekend. Still, there will once again be a decent contingent of Civil War historians in attendance, including George Rable, Susannah Ural, and Carol Reardon. As for me, I will be chairing a panel on “Alcohol and Drugs in Three Wars: The Great War, Korea , and Vietnam”.

Further information about the meeting, including the program and logistics, can be found here.

If you are in New Orleans in mid-March, definitely consider attending, as the program looks interesting.

Portraits of Wounded Bodies: Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863-1866

If you are in the vicinity of Yale University, consider checking this exhibit out. I do want to warn that some of these images are quite graphic and show the horrors of war. To view the online images, click here.

Portraits of Wounded Bodies:  Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863-1866

January 16th-April 1st, 2013

Tours open to all on Wed. Jan. 23rd, 4 p.m., and Friday Jan. 25th at noon!

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Civil War raged throughout the United States, creating thousands of casualties.  On view now, the Medical Historical Library explores Civil War medicine through the haunting photographs of wounded soldiers.  Curated by Heidi Knoblauch, a doctoral student in Yale’s Section of the History of Medicine, and Melissa Grafe, John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, selections from a set of 93 photographic portraits from Harewood Hospital, Washington D.C. are on display in the Rotunda of the Medical Library.  These images, some quite graphic, depict soldiers recovering from a variety of wounds, including gunshot wounds.  The soldiers’ case histories and stories, analyzed by Heidi Knoblauch, are part of a larger examination of medical photography and Civil War memory as America commemorates the 150th anniversary of the war.  In the foyer of Sterling Hall, the exhibit expands to include a larger discussion of Civil War medicine and surgery, including hospitals and nurses, using images and materials from the Medical Historical Library.  An online version of the Harewood Hospital photographs is available in the Digital Library of the Medical Historical Library.

This exhibit is on display at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, 333 Cedar Street. For more information, contact Melissa Grafe, Ph.D, John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, at melissa.grafe@yale.edu.

The Slaves’ Gamble a look at African Americans in the War of 1812

Cross-posted to Frontier Battles

While a little outside the chronological range covered by this blog, I thought I would share exciting news about a new book that seeks to alter our impression of antebellum slavery through the lens of the War of 1812.

9780230342088

Smith, Gene Allen. The Slaves’ Gamble:  Choosing Sides in the War of 1812.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  272pp. $27.00.

Gene Allen Smith, historian at Texas Christian University, has written an interesting examination of how slaves viewed and used the conflict for their own opportunities.  He showed that the war saw all sides using African Americans to aid their causes, while blacks saw the war as their chance to assert themselves, whether for seeking equality, in the case of free blacks, or freedom for slaves.  Further, the war was a turning point in American race relations, as Smith noted that slavery was in a tenuous situation on war’s eve.

He noted that the war drastically altered this path of decline and that it further halted any potential progress towards freedom or equality, as blacks who joined British forces, seeking to better their lot in life, returned with invading forces, leading enemy troops into American communities. The consequence of this was a greater distrust among whites of arming slaves and enrolling blacks in militia units to augment white manpower, which continued into the Civil War, where African Americans served in segregated regiments with white officers. One of the other major problems resulting from the war was the expansion of available land for plantation agriculture, and plantation-based slavery.(3-4)

Smith begins his study by examining the story of black participation in North American wars. What is great about this chapter is the examination of the cross-cultural interactions, echoing Richard White’s remarkable work The Middle Ground. He concluded that the contributions of blacks to military conflicts during the colonial and revolutionary periods redefined the relationships between blacks and whites in North America.(31)

As he examined the role of blacks during the War of 1812, he weaved in the stories of black participants across the various theaters, providing a new and exciting understanding of the war that is as important to the larger field of study on the war as Donald Hickey. Smith concluded that blacks found became aware that their contributions to the war were minimized in post-war America. Further, white Americans began to react fearfully to black insurrection possibilities and worked to prevent the arming of blacks. Also, northern states began enacting laws outlawing blacks residing in them. Slavery became more entrenched in the South, as new areas were available for cotton production. Thus the war served as the last opportunity for blacks to attempt to fight for their place in society until the Civil War.(210-214)

The book is well researched, relying on sources from such scholars as Richard White, Gary Nash, Ian Steele, Stagg, and Don Hickey. In addition to strong secondary sources, Smith utilized several great primary sources that considered black participation, as well as interactions with Native Americans.

A good monograph that examines the difficult situation faced by blacks as they attempted to choose a side in the War of 1812 to further their position, Smith’s The Slaves’ Gamble is a great book for scholars interested in African American history, military history, the War of 1812, and is a good book for those interested in the Civil War, as it illustrates quite well how the forces that led to that great struggle came into being by America’s “second war for independence”.