Monthly Archives: September 2008

What can you do with a photograph?

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.)


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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Reading the Revolution

Next semester I might get the chance to design and teach a class on the American Revolution.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I’ve had the assigned reading for a course like this worked out in my head for years.

My favorite one-volume history of the Revolution is Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause, part of the Oxford History of the United States.  An updated edition just came out a few years ago.  Comprehensive and readable, it’s the logical choice for the main textbook. 

I’d supplement that with Bernard Bailyn’s classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, or maybe just the first few chapters.  It’s a very important study that clarifies a lot of otherwise puzzling aspects of the period’s rhetoric.  I don’t want to focus on politics to the exclusion of military affairs, so Joseph Plumb Martin’s firsthand account of life in the Continental Army would be a good middle-of-the-semester read.  I’d love to assign Charles Royster’s magnificent A Revolutionary People at War, too; it’s one of my all-time favorites.  Of course, I’d probably have to pick a chapter or two in order to fit it in with everything else.  I’d wrap things up with Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, assigning a final paper asking students to assess the Revolution’s results in light of Wood’s arguments and the other material covered during the class. 

This class, though, will be aimed specifically at non-history majors who are interested in taking an upper-level U.S. history course for one of their required electives.  I don’t want to smother their enthusiasm with too much reading material.  The Glorious Cause is massive (the new edition is over 700 pages), so if I stick with it, I’ll probably have to jettison some of the supplemental readings.  I could abandon a main text altogether and rely entirely on chapters and excerpts, but as a student I much preferred the convenience of a short stack of assigned books to the hassle of downloading or copying a different assigned reading every week.  My problem is that all these books are very near and dear to my heart, so I’m faced with some agonizing choices.

It’s therefore time for a little audience participation.  Chime in with any suggestions you might have, but bear in mind that this class will cover political, military, and social aspects of the struggle for independence.

(My thanks to the always-handy Wikimedia Commons for the Trumbull painting of the surrender at Yorktown.)


Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, Teaching History

Virtual tour of the French and Indian War

I’m working my way through a book that’s been on my reading list for a long time: Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766.  It’s a fantastic piece of work that’s set me to thinking about the French and Indian War.

Some time ago, I posted about virtual battlefield touring via Wikimapia, the collaborative website that lets you mark points of interest on satellite imagery.  Since the French and Indian War is one of those overlooked conflicts, I thought I wouldn’t be able to find many relevant entries about it, but I was wrong.

It turns out that all those fortifications from the showdown between Britain and France make for some interesting landmarks.  Take a virtual visit to Fort Ticonderoga and the Fort Carillon battlefield, Fort William Henry, Fort Necessity, and Forts Duquesne and Pitt.  A major thoroughfare runs through the Pitt site, so only a few of the bastions have been reconstructed, but it’s still pretty neat.

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Filed under Colonial America, History on the Web

The Trivial Lincoln: Let’s Get Physical

One of my favorite classes to teach is Lincoln’s Life and Legacy, an introductory course that my college requires of all incoming freshmen.  I assign an entrance essay that asks students for a short description of what they know about Lincoln and where they’ve gotten their information about him.  Because every student has to take the class, the responses offer an interesting look at popular conceptions of the sixteenth president. 

These essays are usually pretty similar.  They invariably reference the Gettysburg Address, emancipation, and Lincoln’s assassination.  A lot of them mention some aspect of Lincoln as a tragic hero (the loss of his loved ones, his depression, the cost of the war, and so on).  This semester’s papers were different in one respect.  My section is predominantly composed of nurisng students, and a lot of them knew something about the question of Lincoln and Marfan syndrome, an idea proposed by Abraham Gordon in a 1962 article.

First described about thirty years after Lincoln’s death, it’s a genetic disorder affecting connective tissues, resulting in long limbs, a narrow chest, and a hollow face.  Marfan was present in a distant Lincoln relative, and the president himself had some of the outward characteristics, as the photo at left shows.

More recent scholars aren’t so sure.  Marfan also affects the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and there’s no evidence that Lincoln suffered any of these symptoms.  Marfan patients often suffer from near-sightedness, whereas Lincoln was far-sighted.  Finally, Marfan patients generally have slender, delicate hands; Lincoln’s were anything but, as is obvious from the casts made by Leonard Volk in 1860.    The preponderance of the evidence suggests that Lincoln wasn’t a victim of Marfan.  One skeptic, in fact, suggests that Lincoln’s symptoms indicate a fatal genetic cancer syndrome, which would have doomed him to a relatively early death even if the assassination had not taken place. 

If you ask me, all this medical speculation is interesting but not terribly significant.  None of it explains Lincoln’s place within the nineteenth-century American political spectrum, or his rise from backwoodsman to national leader, or the policies he pursued as president.  It doesn’t address any of the questions historians should be asking. 

There’s no way to understand this man and his era other than by immersing yourself in reams of source material and applying mature, sophisticated thinking to what you find.  One of the challenges of history is the fact that there are no shortcuts to approaching the truth.

(The standing, long-limbed Lincoln photo is from the National Portrait Gallery’s Civil War site.   The image of a cast of Lincoln’s right hand is from the Library of Congress.)

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory

Ringside seats to the heritage wars

There’s an interesting post at Civil War Memory on the perils of engaging Confederate history.  It’s an emotional topic that’s sometimes tied up with questions of modern identity, so things can get a little heated.  That’s especially true on the web, where disgruntled readers can weigh in with as much vitriol as they can muster.

 One of the advantages of being from East Tennessee–aside from getting such wonderful, aw-shucks manners–is the ability to enjoy these debates with absolute delight.  Having a background that’s neither Yankee nor secessionist makes me feel like a guy at a cockfight who doesn’t place any bets.  He can sit back and enjoy watching the blood fly, secure in the knowledge that his own backside isn’t on the line.

When I worked at a Lincoln/Civil War site, tourists used to ask about my sympathies with some frequency.  On the one hand, I was employed at a Lincoln museum, so many visitors assumed that I was heartily anti-Confederate.  On the other hand, I pronounced “get” as “git,” so they suspected that I had some repressed resentment over the way the whole late unpleasantness turned out.  When I told them that I wasn’t rooting for anybody, and that I had nothing but respect for the participants on both sides, they were always a little disappointed.  Who studies history just so they can understand it, anyway?

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, History on the Web

Earl Hess rethinks the rifled musket

I was lucky enough to be an undergraduate in Dr. Earl Hess’s history courses, and he probably did more than anyone to get me started on a career in the field.  I’m therefore a little predisposed to like his new book, which challenges a lot of well-worn assumptions about the influence of technology on Civil War tactics.  But I’m not the only one who’s talking about The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth.  Check out the buzz from Civil Warriors, Civil War Bookshelf, and TOCWOC.  Better yet, order your own copy and see why he’s one of the finest Civil War scholars working today.

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Filed under Civil War, Historiography

Fee proposal at Gettysburg

In case you haven’t heard, the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center is considering a change in its free structure.  Instead of a combined price of $12.00 for an adult admission to the film and Cyclorama, the proposed change is a flat rate of $7.50 for admission to the exhibits as well as the movie and Cyclorama presentation.  The NPS website has more details.

Protests to the contrary, I can state with a fair degree of professional certainty that $7.50 is quite reasonable for admission to a large museum.  Furthermore, a lot of NPS sites already charge flat admission fees, visitors who want to see the film and the Cyclorama will save money, and the battlefield itself will still be free.  Why should any of this be controversial?


Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites