Stephen King once said something to the effect that his highest aim in writing horror stories is to engage readers’ deepest, psychological fears, while grossing them out with explicit nastiness is strictly a last resort. That sums up my general attitude toward public history content. Make ’em laugh and cry if you must, but do so in order to draw them into what you really have to say. This is about education. If you want catharsis, the Greek theater is down the road.
But there are times when hitting a visitor or a listener in the gut is either unavoidable or irresistable. Take Civil War battlefield photos, for example. They have such a simple and immediate emotional power that it’s hard to resist the temptation to throw one or two into an exhibit or a lecture for no reason other than to stop people dead in their tracks. In fact, it’s somewhat hard to consider them as actual historical sources. We pore over written documents and we analyze three-dimensional artifacts, but photos like these pack such an emotional wallop that it’s easier to throw them around with nothing but a simple caption. Thanks to the work of creative scholars like William Frassanito, historians are more comfortable using photos critically as primary sources than they used to be.
But these photos’ emotional impact may have a significant role to play yet. In a recent item over at Civil War News, Garry Adelman points out that the pictures’ emotional appeal makes them very effective tools for generating interest in battlefield preservation, especially when we can link these photos to specific locations.
Adelman’s got it right. Making strides in preservation means changing hearts and minds so that people care about the sites. Our abstract arguments about a battlefield’s significance aren’t nearly so eloquent as the upturned faces of men lying on the same ground that we plow and pave without a second thought.
(These two images, from Gettysburg and Spotsylvania, are from the fantastic Civil War photography section of the Library of Congress website.)