Monthly Archives: January 2012

Unveiling the Hunley

If you’ve been waiting for a good excuse to visit Charleston, now you can get a clear and unobstructed look at the Hunley in all its nautical glory.

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The occupation of Vicksburg

Didn’t this city suffer enough?

Last year’s frightening flooding of the Mississippi River didn’t do any direct damage to the site of one of the pivotal battles of the Civil War. It did bring in some undesirable new neighbors.

Park officials say a pack of wild hogs seeking higher ground moved in and are rooting up the landscape at Vicksburg National Military Park, an 1,800-acre park where thousands of Union and Confederate troops fought and died in 1863.

They fear the hogs could undermine some of the park’s 1,370 monuments, its national cemetery and trenches and earthworks on the bluffs above the river. The hogs could also startle or injure more than 1 million annual visitors.

“It looks like the world’s biggest Rototiller has gone through some areas,” park Superintendent Mike Madell said. “People think we plowed some of the areas they’ve been in.”

Maybe they’re just trying to throw up earthworks:

“It’s an all-out war on them,” he [Jim Walker of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks] said. “But hunting will never get rid of them. They can breed three times a year and a sow can have eight to 10 pigs each time. You do the math.”

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue…as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

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Getting oriented

It’s our first week back to class at LMU, which means it’s once again time to deliver my little beginning-of-the-semester spiel at the first class meeting.  I’ve developed a tradition of opening my survey classes with a somewhat crude metaphor.

Imagine that a complete college-level education in history is a big shopping mall, with a variety of stores that cater to different needs and tastes—Ancient Rome, the history of Nazi Germany, the American West, the history of women or warfare, and so on.  Students who decide to major in history, to devote their college careers to the study of the human past, get to go into these stores and spend some time browsing, trying on the merchandise and perhaps finding a few items that suit them.

A gen-ed survey course, like the ones I’m teaching this semester, is different.  In a first-year world history class, we usually don’t spend enough time on any one subject for students to get much of a feel on it.  Students thus don’t get to do much of what historians actually do, which is developing interpretations to answer questions about the past.  A survey course is all about getting oriented to the general contours of human history as a whole, just as the word “survey” in another sense denotes scoping out the general contours of a physical landscape.

If the upper-level elective courses are like stores in a mall, then a world history survey class is more like a mall directory sign, which tells you where the stores are located and what you can find in them.

This distinction is significant to me as a teacher, because it reminds me that I will inevitably have to make sacrifices in content due to the nature of a survey course.  But I explain it to my students because I don’t want them to confuse the experience of taking a survey course with the experience of doing history.

It’s a tragic irony that the very classes in which we’re able to engage non-history majors are the very same classes in which students don’t get as many opportunities to see what makes history so captivating.  In survey courses, there’s so much material to be covered that you can’t delve deeply into the kinds of problems and issues that occupy the attention of historians and advanced-level history students.  The students who really get to have fun with history are the ones who take the upper-level electives, and yet students who sign up for those classes have often done so because they already know how much fun they can have doing it.

I do my best in my survey classes to try to give students a taste of the discipline of history, even though most of our time will necessarily be spent doing the less appealing work of laying a foundation of basic historical knowledge.  But I realize that many of them won’t be inclined take a history class beyond the gen-ed requirements, and thus won’t discover that history is more than mastering general concepts and facts.  That’s why I spend a few minutes on the first day explaining my shopping mall metaphor.  The orientation that we do in survey courses is necessary and I try to make it compelling, but if possible, I want students to use my introductory class to find a few stores that intrigue them, so that when it’s time to take some electives they might consider going in for a closer look at the merchandise.

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Keep the doors open

I’m of the opinion that history departments need to be more open to the possibility that students may want to pursue career paths outside academia, so I’m pleased to see that this was one of the subjects of discussion at the AHA.

Professors need to avoid discouraging budding public historians, of course, but they should do more than that—they should be actively encouraging them.  They should familiarize themselves with the career paths open to non-academic historians and equip themselves to guide interested students along those paths.  To assume that all roads originating in higher historical education should end in a tenure-track teaching position is, I submit, irresponsible.  Jobs for history majors are scarce enough without mentors closing possible doors before their students can consider walking through them.

If academic historians are looking for ways to bridge the chasm between the ivory tower and the public, they should remember that  their classrooms are full of potential public historians.

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The changing face of Civil War museums

USA Today looks at the ways Civil War museums are changing with the times:

For some museums, that means more displays on African-Americans or exhibits on the roles women played as combatants and spies. For others, it means adding digital maps and electronic displays to attract tech-savvy youth for whom the war holds no memories. Or it may simply mean adopting a wider, more holistic approach to the war — without taking sides.

Inclusivity, technology, and objectivity have been on the rise in history museums of all kinds, not just those devoted to the Civil War.  What’s interesting is that Civil War museums in the South have a particular hurdle to overcome.

Still, the feeling that southern museums dedicated to the war are racist is a lingering problem, said President and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., Waite Rawls.

“It’s still one of the greatest challenges Confederate museums face, and we are all working on it,” he said. “Unfortunately the Confederate flag was used as a symbol of white supremacy in the civil rights era. We got hit with a double whammy of the 1860s and the 1960s.”

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The Baptist experience in the Civil War

If you’re in the Nashville area, you might want to stop by the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention to see the new exhibit on Baptists and the Civil War.

While you’re on the premises, you might be tempted to talk to someone about getting me excommunicated.  Well, I’ve got news for you.  All our congregations are self-governing, so they can’t DO excommunications from headquarters!  MUHAHAHAHAAA!

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More strange but true tales from public history

While we’re on the subject of befuddled tourists, check out Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles for a horror story from Little Bighorn.

Since people seem to have gotten a kick out of the Legend of Virginia Beach, here are a few other anecdotes from the good old days when I worked at a Lincoln/Civil War museum. Once again, these stories are all, unfortunately, true.

  • When I was an undergraduate intern, one of the first projects with which I was involved was an exhibit on black troops in the Union Army. One day a visitor marched into the lobby in a huff and demanded to know why that exhibit didn’t include any information about Confederate soldiers.
  • On a related note, another guy once asked why the museum—the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, mind you—didn’t give equal space to Jefferson Davis.
  • I answered my phone one morning and took a call from a gentleman who demanded to speak to the museum’s director in order to correct him on a point of history. When I asked him to be a little more specific, he told me that he had watched an interview with the director on C-SPAN and took issue with a remark about Lincoln’s presidency. Turned out he thought he’d called the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL. I gave him their main number and wished him good luck. That was back when Richard Norton Smith was running the ALPLM; I wonder if the guy ever managed to get hold of him. If he did…sorry about that, Dr. Smith.
  • A woman sent us a letter with detailed recommendations about improving the tours we offered to school groups. She suggested we give each child a kepi, a uniform coat, and a toy musket to take home with them. Alas, she didn’t suggest how we should pay for all this.
  • A visitor asked me if we ever “got into trouble” for having a Lincoln museum in a Confederate state. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked him with whom we could have gotten into trouble. The guys who hanged the East Tennessee bridge burners in 1861, maybe?
  • A surprisingly large number of visitors informed me that they were direct descendants of Lincoln, whose last undisputed descendant died in 1985.
  • Another surprising thing was the number of panicked high school students who e-mailed me to ask if I could send them “all the stuff you have about Abraham Lincoln” for an assignment. Conscientious fellow that I am, I eventually put together a standardized packet of material for these requests. I didn’t manage to get “all the stuff” we had into it, but in my defense, that would’ve been a heck of a lot of stuff.
  • Finally, here’s the only story that rivals the one about the Virginia Beach guy. One of the items in the museum’s collection is a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Painted by her niece Katherine Helm in 1925, it depicts Mary as she would have appeared on her wedding day. Two ladies came out of the gallery one day and informed me that the exhibit label for this painting contained a typographical error. Surely, they said, Mary Todd Lincoln was dead by 1925. Indeed she was; it had not occurred to them that artists occasionally paint pictures of people who are no longer alive. When I pointed this out, they remarked that they had “fixed it.” Alarmed, I ran to the gallery and looked at the label. Sure enough, one of them had taken an ink pen, marked an “X” over the date, and written “1825” above it. (For the record, Mary Todd Lincoln did not get married in 1825. Child marriage never really took off in nineteenth-century Lexington.)

I don’t want you to get the impression that my basic attitude toward visitors was one of disdain. I miss doing public history, and it was both an honor and a pleasure to share the past with people on a daily basis. These days, when I find myself at a museum or a site, I’m the one on the other side of the admission counter. I just hope I never take an ink pen to a label.

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Tourists surprised to learn that Revolutionary War soldiers did not fight in Civil War

No, seriously.

Perhaps nothing illustrates a declining awareness of American history than often-asked queries from young and old posed to Revolutionary War reenactors at flintlock target shoots, battle reenactments and educational living history presentations.

The questions: Were you at Gettysburg? Do you go to Gettysburg?

They weren’t. And they don’t.

They politely note they are highlighting the 18th-century American Revolution and not the 19th-century American Civil War.

“We see a lot of people who are not aware of this basic part of American history,” said Donald F. Yost, 53, of Robeson Township, joining three friends in period clothing of the First Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Line one cold December Sunday morning as they practiced drills and hiked at French Creek State Park in Union Township.

This is probably as good an occasion as any to relate a war story from my first stint of museum employment.  I’m often asked to tell it in small gatherings; indeed, it’s acquired something of a mythic status among my acquaintances.  I swear this actually happened, although if it hadn’t happened to me personally I probably wouldn’t believe it myself.

Like most small museums, this one had a tiny staff.  Instead of hiring somebody to man the front counter on a full-time basis we all used to rotate weekends, with each staff member minding the store every fifth or sixth Saturday and Sunday.  On one of my weekends an upbeat, somewhat heavyset man—he was probably in his sixties—walked in, folded his hands on the counter, and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to the beach?”

I should note that this museum is located near the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, some 350 miles from the nearest coastline.  I naturally assumed that this was a lame attempt at humor and managed a polite chuckle.

Dead silence.  The guy stood there with an expectant look on his face.

“Um, you’re serious,” I said.

“Yeah.  About how far is it?”

I said that it depended on which beach he intended to visit.  He said, “Virginia.  The beach in Virginia.”

“You mean Virginia Beach?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.  We’re from Virginia, and we’re trying to get to the beach.”

This man lived in Virginia, and in an attempt to get to Virginia Beach, he had driven southwestward into Tennessee, away from the coast.

I informed him that I couldn’t give him street-by-street directions from Harrogate, TN to Virginia Beach, since that wasn’t the sort of information I carried around in my head.  But I told him that the first thing he needed to do was go back the way he came, since if he continued on his present course he’d cross the Mississippi, the Great Plains, and the Rockies before arriving at a beach, and when he got there it would be the wrong one.  At that point he thanked me and walked back out the door.

I don’t know if he ever made it to the beach.  For that matter, I don’t know how he managed to reach retirement age without winnowing himself out of the gene pool.

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