Friday, February 10, 2012
Dr. William Shea Lecture (part 9): Arkansas in the Civil War
From The Arkansas Toothpick:
Note: This lecture was based on Dr. Shea’s recently-published “The War We Have Lost” in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly:
Now that brings us to my final point which will cause you to break out into applause, as no presentation of this sort complete without a rhetorical question. Let me ask the mandatory rhetorical question: Why has the Civil War in Arkansas received so little attention from historians and everybody else? And why has that attention been so uneven so irregular?
The New York Historical Society, the Denver Public Library, The University of California at Berkley, the Wisconsin Historical Society, the National Archive sin Washington, the Illinois Historical Library and dozens and dozens of other institutions scattered all across the country contains thousands of pages of documents and photographs, reports, maps, letters, diaries, memoirs- that tell the story of the Civil War here in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi. And they tell it in rich detail, but today few historians have attempted to burrow through this mass of material.
Pioneering research- going where no scholar has gone before, beating the bushes, in other words, is really difficult. Blazing your own research trail, ransacking dozens of archives- large and small, without any clear idea of what you may find, or if you find anything at all. It is a task that requires a substantial investment of time, of energy, and above all- of money. And it is an investment that not every historian is willing or able to make. In other words, anyone can be a historian, but not everyone can afford to be a historian; it costs money to do this kind of stuff.
I hate to add that state and local archives and libraries here in Arkansas contain valuable information and they are stamped by dedicated professionals but the simple fact remains that the full story of what took place here in Arkansas can’t be discovered, it can’t be told without casting a research net really all across North America to the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast and that is no small undertaking.
Nevertheless, during the past 20-30 years a handful of intrepid Arkansas historians- they have begun to mine this rich load of material- this vain of overlooked and forgotten facts, and doubtless many other people will follow. Microfilm being supplanted by digital downloads of one sort or another. It is gradually becoming easier to access, say, a diary of a Union soldier who was stationed at Pine Bluff. His children moves west after the war. The diary is now in the hands of, say, a women who his living in the suburbs of Seattle and she has donated it to a local library and it is digitized and you can access it now. Again, this is a slow process but at least you don’t have to take a plane to Seattle and maybe the information will come to you.
We have not really lost the Civil War in Arkansas, but we have misplaced a good deal of it from popular memory. In addition to forgetting so much of the Civil War in Arkansas, what we do remember is sometimes not right. We have a kind of mangled memory that is getting better, things are coming into focus and we know more about the truth now more than 30-40 years ago, but it is still hard to wrap our minds around it. Times are clearly changing and after being ignored and misunderstood for more than a century, the Civil War in Arkansas and surrounding states, whatever you want to call it, is emerging from obscurity ; that’s really good news.
Once it was dismissed as a meaningless sideshow, it’s now gaining respect as a legitimate area of study, public interest is increasing here today. New books on the subject are appearing with heartily regularity. The national battlefield parks in Arkansas and neighboring states: Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge- have invested millions of dollars in new museum displays and new battlefield interpretations. State battlefield parks, particularly our own Prairie Grove State Battlefield Park near Fayetteville is also experiencing a similar Renaissance with a fabulous new museum and so forth.
Efforts to preserve and improve other historic sites, activities like this one today, are seeking to expand public awareness. I urge all of you to continue to seek out your local sesquicentennial events and not to waste any time.