Category Archives: History on the Web

A hearty thank-you to Adam

…over at Miniature History of the American Revolution, for his very kind words about this blog.  It’s much appreciated.

I always look forward to seeing new posts at MHAR.  Ever since I got interested in military history, I’ve wished that I had the artistic talent to undertake substantial miniature projects.  There’s something really captivating about reconstructing a moment in time in three dimensions.

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Plug for a new Lincoln blog

Allow me to direct your attention to a brand-new Lincoln blog where I’ll be posting regularly from now on in addition to my usual shenanigans here.

Lincoln Memorial University recently launched a new venture called the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy.  Its goal is to provide a forum for Lincoln scholars to present their work, connect them with people who are interested in applying historical insights to present-day problems, and present the results of these efforts to the public.  The Institute has already inaugurated a lecture series and is collaborating with other institutions on a variety of projects to increase understanding of Lincoln and his legacy.

Dr. Charles Hubbard, who is the Institute’s first executive director, is also a former boss and professor of mine who’s developed an interest in online media as a venue for public history.  He’s allowed me to collaborate with him in setting up and maintaining a blog for the Institute, which you can access at the following address: http://lincolninstitute.wordpress.com/.  I’ll be blogging there on a regular basis, and we’ll also have guest posts from Lincoln scholars popping up from time to time.

We’ll be exploring developments in Lincoln historiography and public history, providing updates on Lincoln-related happenings at LMU, posting interviews with historians who specialize in Lincoln and the Civil War, and highlighting material from the collections of LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

If you read history blogs, I hope you’ll either subscribe to the new site via e-mail or make it one of your regular online stops.  And if you’re a history blogger, I hope you’ll add it to your blogroll and let your readers know about it.

I’ll still be blogging here at Past in the Present as usual, too.  Since the other site is an institutional blog, though, I’ll be trying to act a little more professional over there.  (No Dark Knight clips, in other words.)  And it should probably go without saying that whatever views I express over here at my personal blog are mine alone, and not those of LMU, the Institute, Dr. Hubbard, or anyone else, but I’ll say it anyway.

I’ll see you there.  (And here too, I hope.)

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On this 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War

…let us pause for a moment to consider the true underlying cause of the conflict, which of course is the nefarious Jesuit Order’s ongoing attempt to control the world.

Conspiracy theorist Eric Jon Phelps (whose distinctive views on the American Revolution we’ve noted here before) tackled this very issue in a recent online missive.  Here’s what he had to say:

In VAIII I cover the Jesuit Order’s control of both the North and the South during the “Civil War,” or rather “the War Between the States,” or better yet, “the War of Northern Aggression.”  The Jesuits controlled Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin and Robert E. Lee (with their conscious assent).  The Order also controlled Abraham Lincoln and the “Radical Red/Black” Republican Party (although Lincoln underwent a true conversion to Jesus Christ after Gettysburg and then began to oppose his Jesuit masters).  Both ex-priest Charles Chiniquy and General Thomas Harris (a Baptist-Calvinist) missed the Jesuit connection to the North.

I’d always assumed the Vatican had something to do with it, but even I was surprised to hear that both the North and the South were under Jesuit control. As somebody who’s been probed by aliens on no less than three occasions, I guess I should have known better.

Phelps further explains that the Vatican—and I swear I’m not making any of this up—started the slave trade, instigated slave revolts, inspired the abolitionist movement, brought on the War of 1812, engineered the Missouri Compromise, stopped the black colonization movement, split the Democratic party in 1860, sabotaged the Confederates at Gettysburg, stopped Meade’s pursuit of Lee, implemented the Union’s hard war policy, set off the New York draft riots, and masterminded the Fourteenth Amendment.

Those Jesuits got around, didn’t they?

And did you know that Lee and Longstreet deliberately threw the Battle of Gettysburg?  Or that Lee and A. P. Hill conspired to have Stonewall Jackson knocked off?  That right there is the kind of thing your history books will leave out.

Phelps then switches gears, explaining his belief in “white predominance,” which refers to “predominance in intellectual capacities as reflected in culture, the arts, sciences and nations.” Other races, he maintains, have “obviously lower cultures,” and the important thing is that “White raced-peoples must be preserved.”  Accordingly, he urges, “we must observe racial separation as mandated by the Word of God when the Lord created the races to keep mankind separate.”

But he’s quick to point out that he avoids the phrase “white supremacy,” and with good reason. “Since this term conjures up the ideas of the White KKK and the White Nazis,” he states, “I do not use this term.”  See, if he started using terms like “white supremacy,” people might mistake him for some sort of racist kook, instead of the mild-mannered advocate of white intellectual predominance and racial separation that he actually is.

Is the Internet great, or what?

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Tweeting the home front

LeRae Umfleet of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources has set up a Twitter account and accompanying blog that will run throughout the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Each tweet will be a snippet of first-person testimony from a Tar Heel State civilian who experienced the war on the home front, with a fuller excerpt in the matching blog entry.  Looks interesting.

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Blogging public history and the Civil War

A new blog called “Interpreting the Civil War” debuted this month, and it sounds right up my alley:

“…I think our blog title sums us up pretty well. Interpreting The Civil War – Connecting Civil War to the American Public describes a great deal what this blog is going to focus on, and what we’re all about. Basically, our blog is going to discuss public history mainly through the lens of the Civil War.”

With the Sesquicentennial underway, these guys won’t be lacking for material. Head on over to the site and have a look.

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I’m not wearing hockey pads

The people who leave the most hostile comments on this blog are folks who are upset when I question outlandish claims.  I find this same pattern at work on other history blogs.  The more improbable the claim, the angrier its proponents get when you challenge it.  The readers who want to tear me a new one are generally the ones responding to posts in which I’ve discussed subjects that lie outside the bounds of conventional history, like extensive pre-Columbian contact, black Confederates, and so on.  They want to know why history bloggers dismiss these ideas with such contempt.

What I hope to do here is explain why I and other history bloggers sometimes come across as dismissive.  I submit to you that there are some occasions when failing to take an idea seriously is not only excusable, but unavoidable.

Here’s what a reader said some time ago in response to a post dealing with dubious Native American history:

Once again the so-called experts and historians have slammed the door shut on a new thought.…When anyone says he is a ‘classically trained’ anything, I shudder because they are usually so locked into what is ‘accepted’ that they would choke on a new idea. My respect for what our colleges and universities are turning out as scholars continues its free fall. When will the minds of intelligent people be freed from this stranglehold of ‘experts’ who are much more interested in their own opinions than they are in what might actually be the truth?

The “new idea” in question was an artifact from an excavation here in East Tennessee, now discounted by most researchers working in relevant fields of study as a hoax.  Ironically, some of its detractors published their findings in a professional journal, which isn’t exactly what I’d call “slamming the door shut on a new thought.”  Professional journals are where new thoughts go to either flourish or die.  This one hasn’t exactly flourished.  It happens.

So whenever historians encounter a challenge to the status quo, so this notion goes, they instinctively close ranks and charge bayonets, too closed-minded to accept anything that doesn’t fit through the narrow doors of their ivory towers. (I guess I should be flattered that they’d consider an adjunct with a mere master’s degree to be an elitist expert, but that’s another post altogether.)  Historians, teachers, curators, and some of us bloggers supposedly dismiss arguments out of hand, simply because we don’t like to share our sandbox.

It reminds me of an early scene in The Dark Knight where a gang of young, would-be Batmen, decked out in hockey gear in place of armored Batsuits, show up at a parking garage where crooks are arguing over a drug deal.  The Batmen try to bust the bad guys and end up making a royal mess of things.  When the real Batman arrives, he tells them to butt out.

“Don’t let me find you out here again,” he says.

“What gives you the right?” one of them asks.  “What’s the difference between you and me?”

"Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot." This is two consecutive posts containing a DC Comics reference, by the way. That's got to be a first for the historical blogosphere. Image from buysuperherocostumes.com

Now, Batman could reply that he’s spent years studying martial arts, or that he’s developed an arsenal of cutting-edge weaponry, or that he’s mastered all the techniques of criminal investigation.

He doesn’t say any of those things.  What he says is simply, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”  He has a point.

Similarly, there are a great many statements and beliefs inhabiting the seedy underside of our collective historical consciousness which are so incongruous with generally accepted facts that they undermine the credibility of the persons promoting them. In other words, the very act of making some statements indicates that you don’t know what you’re talking about, because if you knew what you were talking about you wouldn’t have said something so asinine in the first place.

Are some historians closed-minded snobs? Absolutely; there are some in every profession.  Contrary to what some critics claim, however, academic history actually puts a premium on originality.  The “original contribution” is the holy grail of scholarship.  Every grad student, every author, and every university press is looking for the new interpretation that’s going to push the field in another direction.  Historians who present fresh arguments of tremendous explanatory power and who set the agenda for other scholars working in the same field are the ones who advance to the pinnacle of the profession.  Those are the folks that other historians carry on their shoulders in triumph, like the kid in the Old El Paso commercials.

But history is still a discipline, and all disciplines have parameters and standards. An “original contribution” needs to be original, but it also needs to be a contribution.  It needs to make sense within the context of all the other evidence accumulated over the years.  Adding something new to the conversation is great, but disregarding the entire conversation isn’t.  You can always disagree with the literature, but you’ve still got to make sense of the information at hand.  That’s where we draw the line between “original” and “crackpot.”

Historians saturate themselves in the work of other historians because they recognize that other intelligent people have invested a great deal of time and effort in the subject, and they’re hesitant to disregard all that accumulated knowledge without good cause.  If you’re setting out into the wilderness, the sensible thing to do is take a few maps, even if those maps are sketchy or incomplete.  That’s why the prefaces and introductions of so many historical books summarize the earlier work on a subject and then outline where the author intends to go.  It’s a way of saying, “I’ve done my homework here.  I’ve looked into what’s been done, and this is what I think I can bring to the table.”  It’s not snobbery that prompts this concern for the lay of the landscape.  It’s conscientiousness.  It’s a kind of humility in the face of those researchers who have charted out the ground before them.

The fact that you’re going against the grain of consensus doesn’t mean you’re wrong—every revisionist has to do so to one degree or another—but it should at least inspire some healthy caution.  The folks who have established a paradigm have already made their case; now the burden of proof is entirely on your shoulders.

If you think the historical consensus is wrong, fine.  Show us why you think it’s wrong, and give us a framework for making sense of the past that’s more helpful than the one we have and accounts for the primary sources at our disposal.  This is how knowledge advances, with new evidence and better interpretations replacing outmoded ideas.

I started blogging because I wanted to join this growing online conversation about the past, not because I wanted to have the last word.  So if I argue that some claim or another is pseudohistorical nonsense and you’ve got information that indicates I’m wrong, or if you can demonstrate that my logic is faulty, then feel free to chime in and set me straight.  Do the same in any exchange about history.  What I want is to make sense of the past, and I don’t care who helps me along the way.

But don’t try to substitute conviction when information is lacking.  That’s a recipe for making a complete fool of yourself. That’s why I wish some folks would at least entertain the possibility that they have no one but themselves to blame when they can’t get a hearing.  Maybe the problem isn’t that historians are closed-minded ideologues.  Maybe you just look like a doofus, standing there in a cape and hockey pads.

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Nice blog! Which way to the weird Glenn Beck rock?

“I have always found revisiting my novels painful work,” wrote Larry McMurtry in the Foreword to a collection of his essays, “and the novels, after all, are the marriages and great loves of one’s imagination.  In comparison, the columns and articles which follow are quick tricks and one-night stands, the offspring of opportunity rather than passion.”

If an essay is a one-night stand, then a blog post must be something quite ephemeral and tawdry indeed.  Perhaps it’s a drunken French kiss in a back alley, if we were to extend McMurtry’s metaphor.

Such an insubstantial format probably doesn’t merit much of importance, which is why it seems fitting that my most-visited post of 2010 wasn’t one of my lengthy meditations on the nature of historical memory, nor one of my carefully composed site reviews, nor one of my periodic reflections on the historiographical state of a given subject.

No, the post that got the most traffic (by far) in 2010 was an irritable rant on Glenn Beck and the Bat Creek Stone.  In fact, I continue to get irate comments on that post from readers who take my skepticism toward an obscure Tennessee artifact very, very personally.

Oh, well.  I suppose that if you’re going to go Googling for historical information, it’s best that you do it for something like spurious archaeological finds rather than more substantial topics like the origins of the American Revolution.  For the latter, you’re better off reading a book, anyway.

I wish all my readers, both frequent and occasional, a happy and prosperous 2011.  I hope you’ll continue to make this blog one of your regular online stops, no matter what brings you here, and whether you agree with these unsolicited observations about history or not.

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From the dark recesses of cyberspace to your child’s brain

Here’s a reassuring item.

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.

The passage appears in “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” which was distributed in the state’s public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.…

The book’s publisher, Five Ponds Press, based in Weston, Conn., sent a Post reporter three of the links Masoff found on the Internet. Each referred to work by Sons of the Confederate Veterans or others who contend that the fight over slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War.

Where would black Confederates be without Google?

Masoff is also the author of Oh Yikes!: History’s Grossest Moments. I wonder if this one made her list.

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A new blog appeared this month

…that looks worth keeping an eye on.  It’s called Historical Digression, and it’s maintained by the director of a historical society who was kind enough to stop by this site and leave a comment.  Check it out.

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The surprising thing

…isn’t that one can purchase an article of clothing bearing an image of Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris.  The surprising thing is that it’s this particular article of clothing.

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