What is Your First Memory of Historical Significance?

Screen shot 2014-01-08 at 5.49.48 PMSo today I step away from Civil War and California history and my usual rants about the effectiveness of social media to address memory – specifically, our lived memory.

I’ll throw in my personal memory of some – shall we say – more recent history. The date was August 8, 1974 – I was only seven but I remember clearly as if it were yesterday….Nixon addressing the nation and resigning the presidency, effective the following day at noon. What I remember most were not the details of the scandal leading up to this broadcast, but simply the term “Watergate” and how it had been dominating the media for what seemed like (to a seven-year-old) forever. What I do remember is venting my frustration to my grandmother, the person with whom I usually watched television, explaining (in an Alabama accent that I have long since lost) that “Watergate was the only thing on TV anymore.” She, a Nixon supporter, had to agree.

In those days, my favorite shows were Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney. I had had enough of Watergate, especially when it preempted my programs. These days, I do not own a TV. And to be honest, I have not really trusted a politician since.

So….tell me, what is your first memory of a historical event? How has that shaped your view of the world?

You can watch the Nixon resignation speech below – just for fun.

With compliments,
Keith

 

Can Social Media Bridge the Gulf Between Academic Historians and the Public?

Screen shot 2014-01-07 at 9.10.39 AMYears ago, before the Internet opened the doors for real-time access to just about anyone anywhere in the world, the television historical documentary probably stood alone as the medium most likely to serve as the middle ground on which academic historians and an informed public might relate.

But any potential for a sustained conversation emerging from this medium quickly withered on the vine. In 1996, historian Gary Gallagher, writing of Ken Burns’s The Civil War, noted reactions among academics, who protested the absence of issues falling outside the field of military history (such as the home front, religion, or gender themes) and the public, who focused on the military and picked nits over missing campaigns and the prominence of the eastern theater of war. The two groups could not see eye-to-eye.

But Gallagher really went after academics. They, he argued, were “content to speak to one another in a language that [excluded] anyone outside the university community…a sense of “we know best” [permeated] much of their commentary about Burns.” In short, scholars were put off by the public’s fondness for battles, generals, and narrative integrity. They wanted “real history” as defined by scholars. One might assume then, that these scholars returned to their studies and continued to ignore the public. Perhaps they proceeded with their dense works laden with esoteric language that no one ever read. Who knows?

Has anything changed? Well…there is certainly hope for a bright future. The advent of blogging and micro-blogging (i.e. Twitter) has extended the reach of those academics who are both ready to accept the literate public into their super-special club, and willing to embrace the tools that make it possible.

The limits of blogging are defined only by the limits of the blogger. Not all blogs are created equal. Academics who blog, and there are a number of first-rate bloggers, are successful precisely because of their openness, their consistency, their engagement with the commenting public (regardless of the comment) and of course, their historical content – often defined not by scholars…but by the public scholars seek to reach.

Twitter is perhaps the most powerful, but alas, most misunderstood and misused tool. Many historians, historical institutions, and lay people alike miss opportunities to create and maintain informed conversations on historical matters (in 140 characters or less – believe me…it’s possible) by ignoring this communication powerhouse or at best using it as a virtual bulletin board. Granted, Twitter can be a number of things – a platform for self-indulgent narcissists with too much time on their hands, or, it can be a media dumping ground – harnessed by would-be marketers for free advertising. Both fail miserably to reach anyone. But with patience and attentiveness, Twitter can (and does) facilitate discourse between academic and academic, academic and the public, and the public with everyone.

In 2014, the University still is what it is (snicker…more on that later). For now, exclusivity reigns triumphant, and a significant number (but most certainly not all) of its scholars look condescendingly at a public who just doesn’t know any better…all the while creating more of the same. But as things change – and they always do – some academics are extending their reach beyond the hallowed halls of academia, breaking traditions, defying convention, coloring outside the lines, and (if you can believe it) functioning in the real world.

Which means the way we teach and learn history is changing too. And yes, I’ve long ago added my Twitter handle and blog addresses to my vita. You know…I am not kidding about this.

With compliments,

Keith

Memory and Popular Culture

Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 2.09.04 PMIn the early twentieth century a new medium – the motion picture, helped disseminate any number of Civil War and Reconstruction era recollections. One could argue (and many have) that the popularity of movies such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation helped cement particular (often southern) memories of the war era and its aftermath into the national vernacular.  Well, they certainly had a lasting impact when it came to how Americans remembered the conflict and what followed, but not everyone was on board. The NAACP, for example, was not so keen on the film and its depiction of slaves, freemen, and black soldiers. Union veterans in many cases also found this film to be a great misrepresentation of the cause.

Below is among the most controversial scenes. You will note that the film would suggest black representatives in the South Carolina Statehouse during Reconstruction did not necessarily wear shoes. Or, that they liked to drink whiskey and dance around waving chicken while in session. And it also seems that legalized interracial marriage could move black legislators to burst into a uproarious celebration.

Like it or not, this is precisely how many Americans (especially white conservative southern Americans) “remembered” the period. So much so that memory and history seemed to blend seamlessly. A good number of people thought – just as Griffith had hoped – to be witnessing a true representation of history as it unfolded in the past. I can imagine why this caused such a fuss from opposing parties. I think it is difficult for people today to get their head around this film. I have showed it to students and they are not really quite sure what to say. If you have had similar experiences or have just now become acquainted with this film, I would love to hear your thoughts.

With compliments,

Keith

 

Bayyyyyyoooooooneeeeeeetttts….CHARGE! The 20th Maine in the film, Gettysburg

Screen shot 2014-01-05 at 1.31.46 PMYessiree – films have a powerful affect on us all. I am going to wager that pretty much everyone with an interest in Civil War history has had a look at Ron Maxwell’s 1993 film, Gettysburg. I will also wager that pretty much everyone has something to say about it – good…bad…or somewhere in between.

For starters, I have to say that I enjoyed the film (I can’t say the same about Maxwell’s follow up prequel, Gods and Generals – but that is a story for another day). I saw Gettysburg as a student, and I have shown it to my own students as part of an on-going effort to get at how Americans understand the history of their greatest national conflict.

I am particularly interested in how this film has helped catapult Joshua “don’t call me Lawrence” Chamberlain to the upper echelon of Union heroes. As we all know, Chamberlain’s unit, the 20th Maine, was positioned on the extreme left of the Union line at Gettysburg on July 2nd, 1863: Little Round Top. Their orders: hold the position at all costs.

Admittedly – this was a precarious situation. While they held the high ground (and thus a tactical advantage) the 20th was up against an Alabama regiment of Confederate General Longstreet’s Second Corps (some ass-kicking Rebels) and their left flank was exposed…hanging out in the breeze, really. Failure to hold this position could have essentially threatened the entire Union line – and everybody knew it. Anyone who has been to Little Round Top can plainly see that properly deployed Confederate guns would have been in a perfect position to roll up the Union left flank. The film suggests that this was the pivotal moment in the battle and the war. “If we lose this fight,” declares Chamberlain in the film, “we lose the war.”

Bummer. So the whole enchilada hinged on the commanding prowess of one man – and a college professor to boot. No worries – Chamberlain and the 20th won the day. A bayonet charge just when all seemed lost pushed the final Rebel advance off the hill and voila – the UNION WAS SAVED!!!

Not so fast. Now I am not trying to retrospectively kick Chamberlain in the nuts here, but let’s have a look at the bigger picture. I think, and most would agree, that Chamberlain and the 20th did a splendid job at Gettysburg (and Jeff Daniels did some bang-up work in the film, too). But did one man save the Union? I think not.

So why does this one soldier have such a hold on the American imagination? Well, it works a little like this. No one had heard much about Chamberlain until 1974, when Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels, a novel about the Battle of Gettysburg on which the film Gettysburg is based. Apparently Shaara was taken with Chamberlain’s story. A thoughtful college professor of rhetoric with a keen sense of right and wrong and an uncanny ability to master the art of warfare seemingly made for an excellent central character and a wonderful narrator of the Union cause. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and elevated Chamberlain in the eyes of Civil War enthusiasts.

But things really took off in 1990. Ken Burns, the self-proclaimed future of documentary film making, brought the Civil War into the living rooms of millions of Americans with his epic multi-part film, The Civil War. According to Burns, The Killer Angels was a “remarkable book that changed my life.” So it stands to reason, then, that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine would hold such a prominent position in the documentary. And if Burns’s film didn’t prove once and for all that Chamberlain essentially saved the Union, Gettysburg sealed the deal. Historians virtually ignored Chamberlain for the longest time, it took popular culture to shed light on this intrepid savior.

Okay Chamberlain fans…you can just relax. I love me some 20th, and Chamberlain was the real deal. Hell, he won the medal of honor for his gallantry on Little Round Top – and deservedly so. Let’s just be clear on a few things. He did not win the Battle of Gettysburg and save the Union all by himself.

For one, the 20th held only one end of the line. On the Union far right – Culp’s Hill – Colonel David Ireland commanded the 137th New York and held his position against an entire Confederate division. A loss here could have been equally catastrophic for the Union cause. But he is not mentioned in Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Burns’s The Civil War, or Maxwell’s Gettysburg. Too bad for Ireland. His cultural resonance is merely a blip against the Chamberlain juggernaut – even though his work was equally daunting, equally crucial, and was executed with equal fortitude and gallantry as Chamberlain’s.

But my quibbling with Chamberlain’s role in Gettysburg really leads me to my bigger point. The film has helped instill the idea in the greater American narrative that the war all came down to one battle. It did not. The Gettysburg as “high tide” of the Confederacy story really did not take hold until after the war, when analysts and historians looked retrospectively for the moment when the Confederacy had its greatest chance to secure independence. From this perspective, things went steadily downhill for the Rebels from July, 1863 to Appomattox. This is a powerful idea in many ways – but believe me, very few (if any) people in 1863 saw Gettysburg as deciding things one way or the other. Citizens of the Union were thrilled by the news of victory, citizens of the Confederacy were devastated by defeat. But the war went on for nearly two more years – and the people from both republics looked to the armies in the field for news of victory that would bring them closer to securing their respective causes.

The film suggests otherwise – and no one understands this better than our hero, the sagacious Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Gettysburg leaves the viewer with the knowledge that Gettysburg would have been the decisive battle for Confederate victory and, thanks to Chamberlain, this victory would not take place. Thank goodness that one colonel had the cajones to make the crucial decision to order a last ditch bayonet charge at the most critical moment in the battle. The film thus falls in line with one of the greatest misconceptions regarding the war: that Gettysburg was the war’s turning point. And this is ultimately what the Chamberlain story tells us. But misconception or not – Chamberlain is today among the top ten Civil War cultural icons…right up there with Lee and Lincoln. After all, you can’t find a David Ireland t-shirt for sale at any Gettysburg gift shop. This may be the most devastating fact of all.

Of course, that’s just my opinion – judge for yourself…

The Killer Angels
The Civil War
Gettysburg

With compliments,

Keith