Why Most People Don’t Read History: Vicksburg Edition

Occasionally I encounter sentences or whole paragraphs that make me shake my head a little.  These are passages which I would expect the average reader to have difficultly digesting: run-on monstrosities, bludgeoning via thesaurus, or simply so many different references as to cause mental overload.  Let me present the latest:

“After reaching Jackson on the thirteenth, Johnston went to the Bowman House hotel where he received a report from Gregg.  Gregg told him Pemberton’s location and then commented, erroneously, about Sherman being at Clinton with four divisions.”
Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened The Mississippi by Michael Ballard (p. 274)

Eight mentions of seven different named people or places in the span of two sentences.


Was It A Civil War?

Americans generally refer to their 1861-1865 war as The Civil War.  More technically it is the American Civil War (ACW) to differentiate from all the other civil wars.  Citizens of the USA call themselves “Americans” although really the term could be applied to anyone from North or South America so perhaps it should really be the United States Civil War (but nobody calls it that).  The horribly generic “War of Rebellion” was used for the official title of the published records of both sides, more commonly referred to as the OR (Official Records – shorthand for the wordy The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies).  Some folks, particularly in the South, prefer other names so they can avoid calling it a civil war.  War Between The States is the most common term and was championed (albiet not until after the war) by many ex-Confederates.  The more embittered types call it the War of Northern Aggression, Second American Revolution, or War for Southern Independence.  More accurate and unbiased terms like the Union-Confederate War, War of the Southern Rebellion, War of the Confederate Rebellion, or (my personal favorite) War of the Southern Secession don’t seem to have much traction.

Although I still usually call it the Civil War because that is the most common name for it, I have come to dislike the term.  The Roundheads and the Cavaliers fought an English Civil War.  The Catholics and Protestants fought an Irish Civil War.  The Spanish had a civil war in the 1930s, the Chinese in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Lebanese in the 1980s.  What do all of those wars have in common?  Whichever side won would control the entire country.  That was not the case in the American Civil War; if the CSA had won they would have achieved independence from the USA.  Rebellion, revolution, war of secession, or war of independence would all be far more correct.

Of course, the other side is fuzzy too.  The American Revolution (of 1776 fame) included an aspect of civil war, with Tory/Loyalists who stood by England during what was otherwise clearly a war for independence.  The French Revolution was actually a civil war between several factions which can be oversimplified as pro-monarchy and anti-monarchy.  The Russian Revolution was very much a civil war between reds (communists) and whites (monarchists and democrats).  The term “revolution” itself is a bit murky since it can refer to a something that may or may not be sudden.  Merriam-Webster offers both “a sudden, radical, or complete change” and “a fundamental change in political organization, especially the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed.”  Perhaps it is best to say that revolutions often trigger civil wars.

Merriam-Webster broadly defines a civil war as “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country” which would encompass both struggles for total control of a country and attempted independence by part of a country.  I do not like that both types of war are lumped together under a single term like that, but going by the dictionary the common usage of American Civil War is correct.

The war was commonly called a civil war before and during the years it was fought.  Lincoln repeatedly used called it a civil war, perhaps most famously in the Gettysburg Address.  The term at the time was not solely used by the North.  After Lincoln’s election, the Vicksburg Daily Whig referred to “disunion, with all its attendant horrors of rapine, murder, and Civil War…”

How I Came To Be A History Lecturer

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I give history presentations.  At the time of this writing, the topics have been: First Bull Run / Manassas, Causes Of The Civil War, Shiloh, Peninsular Campaign & Seven Days Battles, War Of 1812, Second Bull Run / Manassas, The Atomic Bomb & The End Of War With Japan, and Antietam.  During that time period, I also gave two geocaching-related presentations: one at the library and one at the local annual geocaching event (Cacheapalooza).

As I mentioned in that same post, I am currently attending FAU but it was not my first choice.  I was originally in college a decade ago, completing my general education courses at the local community college (IRCC – now IRSC) before spending two years at UNF in Jacksonville.  I was a computer science major, though I also took a few history courses as electives.  Why I was attempting that degree at that college and why I left college without a degree are a lengthy story of their own which I will save for another day.

Not quite 6 years after I left UNF, my mother died.  Arrangements were made to intern her ashes in her home state of Virginia which was felt to be something she would’ve wanted.  I had not left Florida for 8 years and decided to make the most of the trip: a whole week in May 2009, with visits to several historical sites I had long wanted to visit, especially Gettysburg and Antietam.

I have been reading nonfiction books for fun since I was in elementary school, most commonly military history.  I think I became interested in the American Civil War in particular because of the movie “Gettysburg”, coupled with playing the old computer game Civil War Battleset and reading Shelby Foote’s three volume “The Civil War: A Narrative” in high school.

I think it is safe to say the trip was a life-changing experience.  Not too long after that trip, I decided to take a history course at FAU in the spring.  The main FAU campus is an hour away in Boca Raton, but they have a branch campus in Jupiter a half hour away.   It was a fairly easy, but enjoyable and educational course and I decided I wanted to go back to college and get a history degree.  My trip and this class also ramped up my reading efforts, including many books and authors I was not previously familiar with.

I looked into all the public universities in Florida (and a few of the private ones) and concluded I liked the FSU history program the best.  FSU also offered a Geography degree; since maps have long been another interest of mine and complemented History nicely, I had an obvious choice for a minor or possibly a double major.  After taking another course at FAU, I was also considering Political Science as well and even rather ambitiously seriously contemplated triple majoring.  A visit to FSU itself confirmed my decision.  I was well aware of FSU’s popularity for other reasons, but my interest was purely academic.  I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the degree(s), but I planned to keep my ears and eyes open for “opportunity”.

The whole plan hit a serious snag when FSU rejected my application.   Among the problems was a poor cumulative GPA stemming from my time at UNF.  Immensely frustrated by being penalized this way, I resolved to raise my cumulative GPA and meet the other requirements.  I did try to explore other college options, including looking out of state.  My ideal choice would have been Gettysburg College, which offers a History degree specializing in Civil War Studies, but the cost combined with admissions possibly more difficult than FSU meant I scrapped that idea.  Ultimately, due to several issues relating to my credits, I reluctantly decided to just finish my degree at FAU.

As part of my efforts to boost my cumulative GPA, I took a couple summer courses at IRSC.  The history courses were taught by Professor Farley, who I knew by positive reputation but had not taken any courses with when I was at IRCC a decade earlier.  The classes were again easy, entertaining, and somewhat educational (I knew a lot of the material already), but most important was the extra credit.  Farley offered extra credit to any student that attended a variety of documentaries and lectures outside of normal class time.  One was a lecture at the library by Farley about the life of Abraham Lincoln.

A few weeks after that presentation, I spoke to the library’s program director and inquired if there would be any further Civil War-related presentations since it was the 150th anniversary of the war.  The program director told me she would like to have some presentations, but did not know any military historians.  “I could do it.”

That first presentation was to a full room, but it went very well and I was able to turn it into a reoccurring event with freedom to choose my own topics.  It was only the second PowerPoint presentation I had ever given; the previous was earlier that year and about 5 minutes long.  Due to limitations of work and college, I unfortunately can’t give a presentation every month and it doesn’t pay remotely well enough to make it my main job.

I’ve been complemented by many audience members who really enjoyed the presentations.  The most common question I get is “Where do you teach?” and they are quite surprised to learn I am still a student.  I’ve been praised for my calmness and the effortlessness of my speaking.  I’m also quite pleased that pretty much every presentation I have managed to say a few things that were intended to draw laughs from the audience and succeeding in doing so.  People who knew me as a shy, quiet kid in grade school probably wouldn’t recognize me now.  I’m still trying to work out various details with sound, lightning, and the right way to mix of photos, maps, and text in the PowerPoint slides so it is a perpetual learning process.

So how does one stand in front of an audience for an hour and lecture effectively with no notes beyond a PowerPoint outline?  I think some skills are simply natural abilities that I am blessed to have and if there is a way to learn them I don’t know what it is.  I have a natural encyclopedic memory for certain things, history and trivia being among them.  I have a passion for history which is noticeable in my speaking and I don’t think can be faked.

As for learned skills, I’m fairly well read on the topics I speak on.  I’m not a true academic or expert; I reading a couple major works on the subject for each presentation and building on what I already know.  I have a rapidly growing To Read list and many of the books are ones I got from the public library or FAU library to research one of my presentations and didn’t have time to read.  As for my style of presentation, I owe much to Professor Farley for inspiration.  I also have to credit Dr. Engle, a great history professor at FAU whom I had the great fortune to take a class from in Spring 2012.  He is an outstanding speaker and does so with less outline or notes than I use.  I asked him about his speaking skills; he attributed his law background (which makes sense) but also that he’s an expert on a particular time period (the US from post-Revolution through the Civil War).  I definitely agree that vast knowledge on a subject is invaluable when speaking about it: you sound like you know what you are talking about because you really do.

For practice in extemporizing, I probably owe some credit to a year spent in Debate class high school – a class I did not think I learned much from.   The best practice I’ve had extemporizing is travel photos.  I have some friends and family I’ve shared my photos with and as I go through the photos I explain not only what the photo shows, but to expound upon my experience when I took the photo or some trivia or history related to it.

Geocaching is also good for this: I am somewhat well-known in the SE Florida geocaching community for writing logs which say much more than “Found It!”  I try to relate what I was doing that day when caching, what I experienced, and whatever the cache makes me think of.

Until next time, may these 1500 words remind you to follow your passion.

For Those About To Rock

Let me start by plugging my Goodreads account where people can see what I’ve been reading.  It’s mostly non-fiction, but I’m definitely not one of those people who rates everything either 1 or 5 stars (don’t be one of those people).

This is not my first go-round in the blogsphere, but at the tail end of 30 I’d like to think it will be far less self-deconstruction than the better part of a decade spent on LiveJournal.

I am currently enrolled at Florida Atlantic University as I finish the last year of a bachelors in History.  No, I do not want to be a teacher.  Okay, maybe – we’ll see.  I give history presentations at my local library system which I seem to have a knack for.  The American Civil War is my favorite topic.  Contrary to implications of the banner image, this will not be a Civil War blog – at least not entirely.

I will share thoughts stemming from my readings, class lectures, news, internet, conversations, or whatever the heck else triggers ideas colliding in my brain.  I expect I will post some rough drafts of Introductions to non-fiction books I want to write, assuming I make myself write the darn things.

I’m inevitably also going to talk about politics, philosophy, and/or religion (which I consider rather interrelated).  My views are not entirely orthodox so be forewarned, but maybe it’ll all end up published one day in a manifesto.  Let me just break that seal by saying the Republicans and Democrats are both frequently short-sighted and foolish; I’d rather get my US news from the BBC than Fox News or MSNBC.

I may also talk about geocaching and my adventures relating to it so let me explain it up front.  Geocaching is a kind of GPS scavenger hunt; geocachers use GPS coordinates and other information (from “cache pages” on websites dedicated to the hobby – predominately geocaching.com) to find hidden containers.  Once a container is found, the geocacher signs the paper log contained within, possibly trades nick-knacks (“swag”) or leaves a signature item or swaps out trackable items that move between caches (“travel bugs”), and finally returns the cache container to its hiding spot.  Geocaches range from tiny “nanos” the size of pill to military surplus ammo cans to massive containers large enough to stuff a person inside.  They are hidden in both urban and rural areas all around the world; there are in excess of 1 million active “hides” and an estimated 4 million cachers.

The appeal of geocaching varies from person to person: an activity they can do as a family, the competitive thrill of racking up lots of finds, the challenge of difficult hides, a kind of organized exploring, or most commonly the enjoyment of being taken places they wouldn’t otherwise have gone to see things they wouldn’t have otherwise seen.  Geocaching also has a pretty good community, which tends to be more middle-aged adults than adolescents or retirees (though both are also well represented).

The hobby has been around since 2000 (when civilian GPS devices no longer had their accuracy limited by the GPS system) and has been particularly growing in recent years as smartphones put GPS devices in the hands of lots of people who wouldn’t otherwise own one.

That’s 500+ words so I’ll wrap this up.  Readers are encouraged to ask “So what do you think about…” – means not having to brainstorm my own topics as often.