From John Hennessy:

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments offered up on Part 1 of this post, which you can find here. Bear in mind that what follows will be far more useful if you read Part 1 first.

Burying the dead at Fredericksburg

It strikes my limited brain that there are three reasons public historians choose to portray violence:  To shock (an easy thing, but rarely useful in itself, and indeed often gratuitous). As a tool to generate empathy (sometimes useful, when used to a higher purpose, but sometimes mis-used). And as a means to greater understanding (of either a major theme of history, a place, or people).

But there is a fourth outcome, invariably unplanned:

While portrayals of violence are often powerful tools for engaging an audience, we also have to recognize that for many people violence is a formidable barrier to understanding. One woman I greatly admired, possessed of an inquisitive, expansive mind, rejected every opportunity to understand the Holocaust because, she said, she simply could not endure the images (literal or described) that invariably accompanied the discussion. Likewise my wife struggles with battlefield interpretation, in part, she declares, because there’s such a focus on stories and images of violence. It is more than she can bear.  She is by no means alone in her struggle. Many people view battlefield interpretation as captive to graphic detail, some of it making little contribution to greater understanding.

Yet, violence is an essential part of history. The violence that permeates our sites and stories tells us important things about human behavior and human struggle–struggle against each other, and against violence itself.  More than that, violence–subtle and brutish, literal and symbolic, psychological and physical–is the birthplace of empathy.

And in turn, empathy is the siren song of public history. Visitors crave it; interpreters love engendering it. Certainly, for any kind of understanding on a human level, empathy is essential.

But, I would suggest, we fail when empathy is the end game, for empathy does not always carry with it understanding, and nor does it always tell us something important. It is, rather, a tool.  Which brings us back to the three accounts we discussed in Part 1 of this post.

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg, May 3, 1864--perhaps the most immediate image of carnage and destruction made during the war--and one that provokes a powerful emotional response.

All three of them in thoughtless hands can be purely gratuitous–mere tools to provoke shock. I cannot really imagine a circumstance that I would use in a public setting Theron Haight’s description of the field hospital at Manassas. Minute particulars of gore are not in themselves especially useful (though fifth grade boys love them)–and his description is physically revolting. But I could easily see using the the other two accounts to great good with the public. Bliss’s account, for example, might be essential to constructing a program that focused on the numbing power of fear on the battlefield at Fredericksburg (a place that is a particularly vivid testament to fear). Ward’s testimony about the whipping at Sherwood Forest begs the question, why the brutality?  And that in turn can lead to a very useful discussion about the extent, nature, and purpose of physical punishment in a slave society. I suspect few who have been to Sherwood Forest and listened to or read that account will ever forget it. But far more important than that, I’d guess (or at least hope) a significant percentage of them recall still the larger point associated with it.

We have to remember, though, that the use of such narratives or images comes with a cost: by using them, we are simply closing the door to understanding for a significant segment of our population who simply cannot or will not engage history through the prism of extreme violence. At battlefields–the most violent of all our historic places–we have traditionally dismissed such people as uninterested or unrealistic. But, in fact, the Civil War has shaped their world every bit as much as it has shaped yours and mine, and that provokes some interesting questions.

Is it our responsibility to find methods and stories that will convey the significance, meaning, and legacy of the war (and the battles within it) to those people as well? Or, put another way, are battlefields simply not for everyone?  If not, where then do we send those who reject narratives constructed dominantly on violence?

While violence is clearly central to the story of battles, is its exploration and recounting in detail the only path to empathy and understanding?

Is the empathy engendered by narratives of violence essential, or has empathy simply become a cultural imperative?  (It does seem to me that the place of the Civil War in American culture–North and South–is to a great degree wrapped up in empathy, and any threat to the traditional role of empathy in rendering that history is liable to meet stiff resistance.)

In a nation that has chosen battlefields as its dominant vehicle for public understanding and commemoration of the Civil War (a legacy we have inherited), and in a society that revels in both portrayed violence and real empathy, these questions represent no small challenge. And for me, having spent most of my life writing or speaking about the Civil War and, in particular, its battles, the questions rile the brain.

Mind you, this is no summons to sanitize history, smooth its contours to make it universal (I, like most public historians, revel in history’s complexity), or stomp out empathy as an interpretive tool. But I do think we face some significant challenges in reaching the American public, and it’s worth recognizing that our devotion to narratives of violence is both an interpretive boon and barrier. And it seems to me, when we recognize a barrier, we ought to seek ways to circumnavigate it.