For weeks since I started this course, I have been trying to figure out where I stand on the question of “illegitimate” or non-academically-sanctioned history filtering into our scholarly world. After reading this article in DH Quarterly it occurs to me that I’ve been looking at this backward. I should be asking how digital humanities can infiltrate and move opinion in the realm of popular history.
Let me start at the beginning. My main academic focus area–the U.S. Civil War–has developed over the last several decades a huge divide between popular conceptions of that history and academic output. Shortly after the war ended in 1865, Southern sympathizers began a conscious campaign to soften the blow of having lost the war by constructing an alternate history of the conduct and causes of the war. In this version of the war, the Confederacy never could have militarily beaten the North to gain its independence. Thus, for Southern soldiers fighting against such impossible odds made the effort to fight a more noble enterprise–a Lost Cause. Thus, the mythology of the Lost Cause was born. Facets of this myth include that the war was never about slavery (it was about “states’ rights”), southern armies always won battles, but lost the war, and that the war was unwinnable by the plucky Southerners.
All these assertions have been historically disproven, but in the highly active realm of amateur Civil War history, many of these falsehoods are taken as fact. Recently, for instance, the governor of Virginia got in trouble over a commemoration of the war that forgot to mention slavery. He later corrected this small detail, but the instinct to remember the war as being about something other than slavery is quite widespread.
Which brings me back to the point of this somewhat rambling post. I’ve been thinking about this divide all wrong. I should be considering the ways that I and my fellow historians can infiltrate and guide the chatrooms/reenactments/websites of the amateur historians who dominate this Lost Cause, latter-day neo-Confederate sensibility. More to come.