Understanding the Civil War and Its Place in the American Mind

By Kevin Lavery ‘16

Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time with people for whom the Civil War is a life choice, but I confess, there are times when I wonder if we—myself included—sometimes get carried away by our fierce and noble passion for the past. The Civil War is, of course, incredibly important both in its own right and in the long context of American history. But I do wonder if an overly-zealous fascination with the Civil War, especially if it becomes too single-minded, can distract us from other important moments in history, as well as from other types of worthy understandings from other fields of study.

Many people have probably seen that video where college students are unable to say who won the Civil War. A frequent joke among Gettysburg College students is that a surprising number of people in other parts of the country can’t even identify the state where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. Adequate money cannot be found to preserve historical artifacts, or even to fund social studies education programs. As seriously concerning of those examples are, I’m not willing to criticize those who lack the rich conception of history that I am fortunate to have developed during my time at Gettysburg. I can’t hold anything against someone who doesn’t know as much as I think they should know about the Civil War, not when there are so many things in this world worth knowing.

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Photograph by the author.

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The Mysteries of History and the Digital Age

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

My time as a writer for the Gettysburg Compiler is at an end—as is my time at Gettysburg College itself. It’s during endings and moments of transitions such as this where people tend to reflect and ask themselves questions like “what did this all mean?” and “what was I trying to accomplish here?” I’m going to try and answer those questions. To do that, however, I need to start somewhere else.

Over a year ago, in one of my first blog posts, I wrote that I did not consider myself a “Civil Warrior,” or someone deeply passionate or involved in the study of Civil War history, a status which separated me from many other fellows at the institute then as it does now. That was not to say that I dislike the Civil War—quite the opposite, I do find it very interesting—but that my main historical interests lie elsewhere.

Now, at the end of my second year as a fellow and somewhere around twenty blog posts in, I would still make that claim, with the additional, somewhat prideful one that the work I have done here has been great work and good history. This reflection is not meant to inflate my own ego, however: I won’t be sitting back and discussing how wonderful I think my work is. Rather, I want to use my own lack of expertise to try and prove a point: that anyone can do good history.

Tyson Brothers. "Pennsylvania College (1862)." 1862. Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Confessing not to be a “Civil Warrior,” Ryan quickly set himself up as a historical sleuth, with the goal of exploring and understanding parts of history that interested him but were outside of his area of expertise. In the post referred to below, Ryan explored the “Mysteries of Penn Hall.”

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Maybe, Maybe Not: The Tao of History

By Kevin Lavery ’16

Many years ago, I read an old Chinese parable in one of my brother’s books. I haven’t been able to determine its precise origins, but it goes something like this:

One day, a farmer’s only horse broke loose and ran away from his stable. “What bad luck,” the farmer’s neighbors said to him. But the farmer merely replied, “Maybe, maybe not.”

On the next day, the farmer’s horse returned with three wild horses and all were brought back to the farmer’s stables. “What good luck,” the farmer’s neighbors remarked. But the farmer merely replied, “Maybe, maybe not.”

On the third day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses, but fell off and broke his arm. “What bad luck,” the farmer’s neighbors said to him. But the farmer merely replied, “Maybe, maybe not.”

On the fourth day, a band of soldiers arrived to force local young men to join the army. They saw the broken arm of the farmer’s son and continued on to the next house. “What good luck,” the farmer’s neighbors remarked. But the farmer merely replied, “Maybe, maybe not.”

The story ends here, but I could keep tracing the intertwining of fortunes good and bad. From my limited exposure to eastern philosophy in high school, I’m pretty sure it’s a Taoist story given its message of ‘going with the flow.’

Now, you’re probably wondering why I think this Chinese parable has a place on a blog about the American Civil War. Let’s see if I can explain. Continue reading “Maybe, Maybe Not: The Tao of History”

Crusading for the Truth

By Kevin Lavery ’16

Last semester, I received a very memorable critique on one of my more polarizing blog posts. In it, a reader derisively referred to another of the CWI Fellows and me as “truth-driven crusaders” for our commitment to healthy historical engagement. Finding it an appropriate if not excessively romanticized description of the work we do as historians-in-training, my friends and I have since then appropriated the term to describe ourselves. I feel obliged to admit here that the antagonism signaled by the term “crusader” makes me a bit uneasy, but I like to think that we “crusade” against certain ideas, and not the people who hold them. Some interpretations of history are worth fighting for or against—with rhetoric as our weapon, though, not swords and spears.

A rather less benevolent crusader than those of the "truth-driven" historian variety. The Last Crusader by Karl Friedrich Lessing. Wikimedia Commons.
A rather less benevolent crusader than those of the “truth-driven” historian variety. The Last Crusader by Karl Friedrich Lessing. Wikimedia Commons.

I have no intention here of reopening what was a well-argued debate on both sides of the original issue, but rather to offer a reflection on the question it raised in my mind.

To whom or to what do a historian’s responsibilities lie if not to truth?

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The Right to be Forgotten . . . from History?

By Kevin Lavery ’16

Underwood & Underwood. Monument where Lincoln's famous address was made - 979 of the great battle's unknown dead, Gettysburg. 1903. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Underwood & Underwood. Monument where Lincoln’s famous address was made – 979 of the great battle’s unknown dead, Gettysburg. 1903.
Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Some people seek to leave a legacy. They want to be remembered by others for doing something great, whether it be good or evil. But not everyone is alike in this respect. Others want nothing more than to go quietly about their business. They do not want friends or strangers prying into their lives. They do not want their inner, personal thoughts to be read and judged by those around them.

But when they die, their personal belongings may pass to their children and perhaps eventually reach a local archive or historical society. There, their most private reflections become tools for professional and amateur historians seeking a greater understanding of these individuals and the past in general.

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A CWI Fellow Reflects on the Future of Civil War History Conference

By Heather Clancy ’15

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.

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