In Praise of Elite Media Blogs: Disunion and A House Divided

One of the recurring worries about the Sesquicentennial is about whether this event will allow professional historians to influence in a significant way the public’s understanding of the American Civil War. That is, can the last few decades of scholarship, emphasizing race, gender, and class in Civil War studies in academia influence the popular memory of the war? A memory heretofore dominated by “drums and trumpets” accounts heavy on celebrating the martial valor on both sides, but light on serious analysis and moral judgments. And especially, can professional historians keep marginalized the so-called “neo-Confederates”? History buffs that industriously seek to air brush slavery from southern war aims (“it’s about heritage not hatred”) and assert that many African Americans voluntarily supported the rebel cause to the point of making the preposterous claim that tens even hundreds of thousands of black soldiers fought in the Confederate army.

To judge from the elite media, professional historians are having the impact they seek. Civil War Emancipation already has much referenced the New York Times blog Disunion, which thus far proven a showcase for the last several decades of Civil War scholarship and featured numerous academic contributors, including some of the top experts in the field. In essence, Disunion has given this scholarship some of the best exposure to the general public it has yet received, especially its emphasis on slavery as the central cause of the war.

Another noteworthy effort is coming from the Times longtime rival, the Washington Post, with its blog, A House Divided. This blog is following the Civil War chronologically via Twitter through excerpts of original sources, often 150 years to the moment after they originally were produced. Thus far, A House Divided has provided a fly on the wall perspective from the best vantage points to understanding the conflict in the original words of the participants.

Certainly, these blogs are not perfect. Civil War Emancipation has already covered when Disunion produced two blog entries on Frederick Douglass in less than a week’s time. Disunion also has allowed a few historians to write blog entries that would be more at home in a scholarly publication than a blog aimed at general readers. A House Divided has done a generally laudable job of adapting primary documents to the 140 character format of Twitter, but occasionally reading 19th century sources in text message format can be a little disconcerting. The blog also varies tremendously in volume, going silent for several days sometimes, only to see a considerable flurry of Twitter posts when the 150th anniversary of some notable event arrives. It also could feature more documents dealing with slavery, although in its defense as A House Divided is now in the earliest days of the war when events directly relevant to slaves and slavery were less frequent. Hopefully, when the sesquicentennial of Benjamin Butler’s “contraband of war” policy arrives next month, this blog will feature more slavery-related documents.

Still, Disunion and A House Divided are overall doing a tremendous service in using blogs to bring primary sources and professional scholarship about the American Civil War to the general public. By doing so, they are enriching the sesquicentennial during a time when federal, state, and local governments have had in many cases to curtail or even cancel commemoration activities due to recessionary budget cuts. Civil War Emancipation hopes that other media will follow the fine efforts of the New York Times and Washington Post in regard to the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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