100 Civil War websites

MilitaryOnlineColleges.org has created a pretty handy list of 100 Civil War websites. It’s aimed at military personnel, but anybody interested in the Civil War should find plenty of useful stuff listed—databases, blogs (including this one), CWRTs, museums, and so on.  Definitely worth checking out.

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Filed under Civil War, History on the Web

We’ve got a Bunker Hill winner

The deadline for entering our second Bunker Hill giveaway was Saturday night, but I didn’t get around to generating a random number and notifying the winner until a few minutes ago.  Sorry about the delay, guys, but I’ve been moving this week, so things have been pretty hectic.

Anyway, the winning number was 1,321.  Thanks to everybody who entered, and to all you fine folks who read the blog.

Oh, and don’t forget that I’m tweeting now, so follow me @mlynch5396.  I’m like the Swamp Fox of Twitter—my band of followers is small, but plucky and enterprising.

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Do historians understand the history of science better than scientists themselves do?

Historians of science and practitioners of science haven’t always gotten along. There’s an interesting piece about their stormy relationship in The Chronicle of Higher Ed.  (The article’s behind a paywall, but you can get a taste of it at HNN.)

Although it entered academe as science’s explanatory sidekick, over the past few decades the history of science has emerged a full-fledged discipline, drawing practitioners mostly from the humanities.…Where scholars based in the sciences documented a rational march toward knowledge, historians—inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—have asked how science is socially constructed and culturally received.

In other words, historians of science who are trained as scientists see a progression toward the truth, as scientists generally tend to have a great deal of faith in their own discipline’s capacity to get things figured out.  It’s analogous to the Whig interpretation of history as a progression toward greater human freedom, except in this case it’s progressing toward knowledge and truth.  All those dumb guys in the past were wrong, but over time there were smarter guys who started figuring things out.  And finally we come to us, and we’ve got more figured out that anybody.

Historians of science who are trained as historians, on the other hand, see the history of science the same way they see the history of any other human activity—subject to power relationships, personal biases, vagaries of fashion, and all the other foibles and quirks to which groups of humans are prone.  Humans and their foibles, after all, are the stuff of history (and of the humanities generally).

Of course, historians sometimes fall into a view of their own field of study as an inexorable upward progression, too. After all, when we talk about historiography, don’t we tell ourselves that all those benighted historians of days gone by ignored race/class/gender/memory/discourse/whatever, and that we know better now because we’re hip to all this stuff?  Sure we do.

But I think historians are a more attuned to the human factors that influence fields of study, since humanity is basically the subject of history.  Because historians study humans (and human institutions, societies, and so on), they assume that the discipline of history itself is influenced by human factors.  You don’t always see farther by clambering up the shoulders of your predecessors.  Sometimes you have to knock over whatever those predecessors are standing on.  In a methods course my first year of grad school, we read Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, because his arguments could apply to history or any other field of study as well as science.  And in all the courses I took, we spent much of our time discussing how historians’ conclusions and interpretations have developed out of the social circumstances in which scholars have worked.  It’s a basic part of getting ready to do history.

I can understand why scientists would be uncomfortable when historians point out the role of human foibles and quirks in the development of scientific knowledge.  But an awareness of the human factors that influence scientific thought can only make science better, because scientists who have that awareness will take care that their conclusions aren’t the result of these non-scientific factors.

Furthermore, I think that coming to terms with the role of human foibles in scholarly endeavor is necessary because it means an awareness of the way things are.  Things like power relationships and the vagaries of fashion do, in fact, play a role in determining what scholars think about the world.

But maybe I think this because I’m a historian by training instead of a scientist.  To borrow some terminology from Kuhn, my “paradigm” is a historical one, influenced by a belief in the role of human contingency, human institutions, human shortcomings, and so on.

One thing scientists and historians should share is a devotion to the truth and a belief that we can, at the very least, approach it.  If approaching it means incorporating the insights of other disciplines into our own, then so be it.

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The Continental Army’s foreign-born bad boys

Lately we’ve looked at how film, TV, and fiction about the RevWar tend to portray the British as arrogant dipwads.  (That’s a technical social science term, is what that is.)

I think there’s a corollary to this stereotypical view of the men who led Britain’s armies in America, and it applies to the Continentals.

Think of the American officers who come across the worst in popular historiography, film, TV, and so on.  The list would probably include Benedict Arnold, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and maybe Thomas Conway.  Arnold’s place on the list is obvious.  The others share something in common: all were foreign-born. Gates and Lee were both natives of England, while Conway was a French-educated Irishman.

Would we have such prominent collective memories of these men as haughty but ineffectual snots if they had been born in America?

It certainly wouldn’t have cancelled out the stigma of Gates’s performance at Camden, Lee’s ignominious capture and unseemly ambition, and Conway’s backbiting.  In other words, they were probably bound to end up on the wrong side of historical memory.  But I wonder if the fact that they were professional veterans of European armies helped the process along.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Count me in

Director Colin Trevorrow has responded to the recent Jurassic World leaks, and I’m feeling a lot better.  I really think this guy has tremendous respect for the franchise and wants to contribute to it in a way that develops organically out of what’s come before.

Here’s a sample of the interview:

Jurassic World takes place in a fully functional park on Isla Nublar.…And there are dinosaurs. Real ones. You can get closer to them than you ever imagined possible. It’s the realization of John Hammond’s dream, and I think you’ll want to go there.…

This film picks up twenty-two years after Jurassic Park. When Derek [Connolly] and I sat down to find the movie, we looked at the past two decades and talked about what we’ve seen. Two things came to the surface.

One was that money has been the gasoline in the engine of our biggest mistakes. If there are billions to be made, no one can resist them, even if they know things could end horribly.

The other was that our relationship with technology has become so woven into our daily lives, we’ve become numb to the scientific miracles around us. We take so much for granted.

Those two ideas felt like they could work together. What if, despite previous disasters, they built a new biological preserve where you could see dinosaurs walk the earth…and what if people were already kind of over it? We imagined a teenager texting his girlfriend with his back to a T-Rex behind protective glass. For us, that image captured the way much of the audience feels about the movies themselves. “We’ve seen CG dinosaurs. What else you got?” Next year, you’ll see our answer.

In hindsight, it’s highly unfortunate that we didn’t get to see the “super dino” within the context of a story. Instead, it came as an isolated revelation in the form of an Internet leak, and a lot of us JP aficionados (including me) freaked out. Let’s see how it plays out as part of an entire film. Let the filmmakers tell us the story, and then we’ll judge that story as a whole.

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Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

Behemoths in Baltimore

I said we’d be seeing Giganotosaurus again soon, and by golly, here he is.

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That’s one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs of all time.  I ran into this bad boy at the Maryland Science Center, within spitting distance of Federal Hill and the USS Constellation in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  I had some extra time after visiting Ft. McHenry, so I stopped by to indulge in a little dino-viewing.

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Most of the dinos at the MSC are casts, including the Giganotosaurus, but they’re beautiful mounts all the same.  I especially like this dynamic, lunging T. rex.

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Donald Gennaro’s last view:

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And here’s Tarbosaurus, T. rex‘s cousin from Mongolia.

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Two very early dinosaurs from South America, Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus.

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Cryolophosaurus, a pompadour-sporting meat-eater from Antarctica.  (Yep, dinosaurs in Antarctica.)

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Finally, here’s an Acrocanthosaurus in the flesh…

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…trying to take down an Astrodon, Maryland’s state dinosaur. This scene is based on a famous trackway from Texas excavated by R.T. Bird and recently reconstructed digitally.

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Bigger and bigger battlefields

In The Face of Battle, John Keegan noted how the environment of combat changed over the course of history.  One way it changed in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is immediately apparent—battles got a whole lot bigger.

If you had four and a half hours to lead a tour of a major Civil War battlefield, what would you highlight?  You’d never have this problem with a Rev War battlefield, at least not a Southern Campaign site.  You could probably lead three back-to-back-to-back tours of King’s Mountain or Cowpens in four and a half hours.

Take a look at King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Gettysburg on Google Maps, all at the same zoom level.  The Cowpens field would likely fit between the Round Tops and Emmitsburg Road, and I think you’d still have room for King’s Mountain.

Numbers engaged illustrate the difference, too.  Greene had something like 4,500 men at Guilford Courthouse; the Confederates fielded ten times that many at Shiloh.  Washington had over 14,000 at Brandywine, which sounds like a lot until you consider that the Union suffered over 12,000 casualties at Antietam.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites