Thursday, November 1, 2012

Symposiuming: Perspective of a Historian

Stones River National Cemetery is only one of the battle's many legacies.
As promised, I am writing on my reflections of the Stones River National Battlefield symposium from a variety of understandings. In this post, I want to approach the two-day event from the perspective of a historian. I have a hard time dwelling in just the history of things; I tend to think "how can one interpret that to a broader audience," or "how would this be received by the average visitor?" I am always considering how to take information "down from the top shelf." Even as the symposium progressed, the gears in my brain constantly turned about what seemed effective and well-received.

Again, I applaud the battlefield for hosting an excellent event. The planners of the symposium secured some talented and smart speakers. I anticipated both Larry Daniel's presentation as well as Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley's. Daniel recently published a new work out about the battle (and completely immersed in all-things-Stones-River), so I was excited to hear what new material he would bring to the table. I also wanted to see what Pitcaithley would say regarding sesquicentennial events in the midst of the sesquicentennial.

I am not sure what is the best way to approach evaluating the event through the eyes of a historian. What criteria do I use to assess the event? The speakers gave excellent presentations that included quality arguments, quality evidence, and in most cases, quality visual aids. The speakers presented ideas under new light and challenged some of the existing scholarship of the battle. The discussions flossed crevices in my mind that haven't seen the light of day in a long time. Overall, I walked away with some ideas that I want to investigate further regarding my knowledge of the Battle of Stones River. Talking with other attendees, I know that many others also appreciated the content and wanted to learn more about the battle, more about the Western Theater of the war. Based entirely on those things, the event was a success. However, I never stop pushing, I never stop asking questions, I never stop expecting less than the very best. There is more to the story.

While the symposium fed me new ideas, I still felt that the symposium did not reach its full potential. The symposium's title "The Legacy of Stones River: Why the Battle Matters 150 Years Later" suggested more of the discussion would address the legacy of the battle. The "About the Symposium" introductory paragraph of the program read:

"On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Stones River, we turn our thoughts to the fighting that raged here from December 31st, 1862, throught January 2, 1863. The Battle of Stones River left thousands of dead and wounded and shaped local and national events during and after the Civil War. We will examine how this bloody fight in the heart of Tennessee helped shape a town, a nation, and a legacy that has lasted for 150 years." 

Park ranger Jim B. Lewis and historian Antoinette van Zelm co-presented a program called "The Local Reaction" that discussed some of the effects of the battle on the local population, stretching the story into Reconstruction a little bit (some of their discussion reached into the 1870s; most was about the impact of the battle immediately after the battle). But three of the four guest speakers focused on assessing the battle and choices made during the battle by those who were involved in the battle (Richard M. McMurry even discussed how Jefferson Davis made choices that impacted the battle from afar). We examined some of the "bloody fight" but little of how it specifically "helped shape a town, a nation, and a legacy."

As a historian, I operate with the mindset that societies view the past through the lens of their era, their culture, and their understandings. Throw events and memory of the events with the telling (and re-telling) of the events into a blender, add a dash of legend, and you have yourself some history. We use what we have (primary sources, secondary sources, etc) to help us understand the past, but our collective understanding will always be shifting. Seeing how we currently treat the American Civil War serves as a reflection of contemporary society as much as a reflection of the past. In this case, we have a hard time pushing ourselves to delve into the effects of the war or the legacies of the battle without diving into some pretty uncomfortable arenas. Even today, discussion about race, about economics, about class, and about regions prove difficult, so we often avoid those topics.

Dwight Pitcaithley was scheduled to be the last speaker (the remaining event included a variety of programs that did not include lecturing). His argument started with the idea that when we only dwell on the discussion of soldiers or battles or fighting without including discussions of meanings or causes or effects we trivialize the whole war. Pitcaithley stated those with the best intentions to honor the fallen soldiers do a disservice to those same soldiers by not engaging about the complex reasons the soldiers fought in the first place. I found his presentation an interesting way to end a symposium where the majority of the speakers focused on the battle and neglected to discuss much legacy.

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the
National Park Service addressed symposium attendees,
challenging how many historians approach the American Civil War. 
During the "Questions and Discussion" session (before Pitcaithley's presentation), I served as photographer and quietly stood off to one side of the auditorium while processing the types of questions the audience asked. I lost my own nerve to ask "in a sentence, can one of the presenters please tell me WHY what you said was important?" Seriously, though: why should historians (or anybody) bother studying the maneuvers, the strategies, the tactics of battles if you don't bother understanding their larger significance or deeper meanings?  I leave that question out in the open and wonder who will be willing to take a shot at answering it?

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