At the Civil War Institute’s Spring Conference held March 14 through 16, a stunning variety of historians and Civil War enthusiasts (many armed with smartphones and tweeting away with the hashtag #cwfuture) grappled with the many challenges littering the path to a meaningful future for the study of Civil War history. As an undergraduate student training to join the field of Public History in the years to come, this academic conference (my first) was a thrilling foray into the ongoing inquiries and dialogues between those already established in the field. Having taken a week to mull over individual panels and the conference as a whole in my mind, I would like to briefly share with you my own personal impressions of the conference, including what I consider its strongest successes, but also areas in which I believe it showed untapped potential.
Let us begin with the good—and there was a lot of it! As expected, the conference was a refreshing turn from the notoriously controversy-shy centennial commemorations. Topics of battlefield trauma, gender, violence, race, and perceived American exceptionalism all served to complicate the existing narrative as panelists reminded us that historians must never again relegate such issues to the footnotes of history. In addition, several panels emphasized the desperate need for more engaging and respectful interactions between the various fields within the broader field of history, including academics, museum professionals, Nation Park Service, and even reenactors. Conference-goers found themselves constantly challenged to reevaluate the ways in which they conducted their study of history, and I can honestly say that over the course of three days, this conference was the catalyst for at least three new epiphanies for me in my own study of the past.
However, despite an overwhelming insistence on continued and increasing focus on challenging topics, the troubling—or perhaps encouraging—question that popped up repeatedly during the conference remained “So what?”
Ah, yes. That most innocent, most casual, most seemingly simplistic question that despite its minimalism forms the backbone of historical interpretation. For as we all well know, there would be no truly rigorous analysis of the past without the question of significance. It can be an off-putting question to face when panelists and audience members alike are basking in the glow following an otherwise phenomenal argument. Indeed, I confess to falling under the spell of theoretical scholarship from time to time; it is an easy mistake to make, but we must recognize it for its inherent danger. When we neglect the issue of significance—of utility, of implementability—our arguments become all too much like straw houses, undermining even the most well-structured and groundbreaking theses.
History’s value as a discipline derives its main defense from the ability of historians to make that which is distant significant by sharing their findings and conclusions with the broader public. If professional historians fall back on theory without thinking critically about how to implement their findings on the ground and in realistic interactions with the greater American populace, their profession and their field are both at risk of becoming irrelevant. For those of us who truly love the study of history, the notion of the field’s uselessness and impracticality as a profession is absurd, even obscene. Unfortunately, this is not the case for much of the public. Therefore, we cannot, must not consider the presentation of innovative scholarship among others in the field to be sufficient to guarantee the preservation of the discipline. Instead, it is critical that the question of usability be always in the forefront of our minds.
Thus, while I consider this year’s Spring Conference a great success on the part of the Civil War Institute and an excellent first academic conference for a budding young historian, I found that it stopped just short of enlightening the practicality of this new scholarship for the audience. As a result, I cannot help but wonder—how much of an answer did this conference truly provide to the question “What does the future of Civil War history hold?” If future Civil War Institute conferences— including what I expect will be a dynamic one this summer—will consider this issue of practicality, I firmly believe that a vibrant synthesis of scholarship and practicality will be produced.