This past Tuesday students made the trek down to the Kenosha Civil War Museum to listen to the Homeric Ed Bearss compare the Vicksburg and Gettysburg campaigns and their relevance to the war effort. A few notes on the event.
1) I am interested how high school students react to a lecture like this where the only “bell” is Bearss’s unending knowledge and only “whistle” is his unique voice (click the video above for a sample). This is the second time I have brought students to see Bearss and student reactions are typically positive as Bearss’s unique voice and inflection typically grabs in any listener. I noticed something this night though. Whereas the majority of the audience sat and nodded their heads or smiled at some of the facts or anecdotes given, for some of the students they felt like they were not in on these inside jokes. Most did not understand when/why the audience giggled at his criticism of General McPherson in the Vicksburg campaign or the jokes about Pemberton’s wife letting him “hear about” their transfer to the backwaters of Mississippi at bedtime.
For most at this lecture which consisted of a mostly mid-forties and up age group, it was entertainment. Ed is a rockstar and many in attendance have heard his speeches before and can sometimes anticipate what story he is going to share. Like a fan going to a music concert, you know the banter the frontman will share and the sounds of your favorite song.
2)It is interesting that this historical genre has created “rockstars” like Catton, Bearss, McPherson, and Foote. Cable’s History Channel and Ken Burns’ Documentary helped facilitate the stardom where many Americans have an idea who most of these people are. For example, when it comes to Foote you only have to say, “He’s the bearded historian with southern accent who talks about rabbits at Pickett’s Charge in the PBS Civil War Documentary” to get a nod of understanding from most history enthusiasts. Even the generals, soldiers and battle units have garnered rock star status with t-shirts and other memorabilia.
As I sat in the audience, I wondered who are the next Civil War rockstars? Is the suggested decline in Civil War interest due to the fact few historians have been able to follow up this generation of what I would compare to stadium-rockers? Or has the expansion of Civil War related topics and use of technology (Bloggers and history websites) helped broaden the field and therefore provide more outlets to obtain Civil War information. Those aging icons hit their prime when their voice and books were the only source of information. Perhaps it is similar to how Youtube and iTunes diffused MTV’s role as the lone source of music and videos.
It seems that today more non-historians like Bill O’Reilly are better recognized than whom I would classify as the arena-rockers like David Blight or Gary Gallagher. These two respected gentlemen are known but not as well known to the masses as those icons listed above. Tuesday night showed that like the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Paul McCarthy, Ed at ninety years old, can draw fans from hours away and still entertain. Simply put, we are drawn to the legends. Who would you consider the stadium and arena rockstar historians of today? Should more academics be using technology to reach a wider audience and help maintain interest in this era?
3) But should the Civil War entertain? And is Tuesday’s lecture on military campaigns still relevant to understanding the war in the 21st century? Recently, Gallagher argued military history is still imperative to understanding the war. I agree. The military aspect of the war should not be lost but I also recognize it can be easier to understand and more entertaining to discuss than the murkiness of why the war was fought or the legacy of the war. I have found the military interest is still the driver for students to take my Civil War course. That interest in the war, born from a battlefield visit, war movie or illustrated book leads to the opportunity to spend time grappling with the causes and legacies in classrooms and museums.
4) Bearss really connected with my students when he stated that “Grant and other Civil War generals benefitted greatly from the absence of smart phones and other communications technology.” He compared the call to General Schwarzkopf to halt his advance on Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm to Grant’s decision to disregard telegrams from Washington (already out of date in relation to his advance) when they reached him below Vicksburg. American generals then, Bearss continued, had more independence. They could improvise and were not tethered to politicians as they are now. That point has the potential to lead to some rich discussions of the role of technology in our society then and now and its impact on decision making on the battlefield, in society, and in student’s own lives.