August 15, 2011

A (Local) Civil War History Renaissance?

From Hardtack and Coffee
The seed is sown...

As I look back at what's been written about Lancaster and the Civil War since 1865, I can't help but feel the topic is sadly underdeveloped relative to the quality of available primary source material that lends itself to (1) compelling local stories with tangible connections to the present that should excite local historical society and heritage groups and (2) critical analysis on or not too far from the frontier of academic Civil War scholarship.

To illustrate, if I were on a lifeboat that could only hold either Samuel Bates' narratives of Pennsylvania Civil War regiments from the late 1860s (not even considering the regimental rosters, which are obviously indispensable) or everything else written about Lancaster and the Civil War, I'd probably choose Bates.  Basically, besides a couple interesting projects*, we really lack both the broad narrative and the raw stories of how Lancaster and its soldiers experienced and remembered the Civil War.  (For now, I'm going to leave alone the foundational question of why local Civil War history is worth our attention; just assume it is.)  I feel bad for the heritage tourism folks and the marketing people they employ, as their efforts sometimes give the impression of running on fumes. 

And that's too bad as, like I said, there's really good primary source material available mostly in newspapers but also in letters, photographs, and other media (e.g., tombstones) about the war itself and how it was remembered.  For example, the approximately 150 letters written by a small group of 79th Pennsylvania soldiers to Lancaster newspaper editors document the regiment's life and usually focus on the more entertaining and/or historically-rich subjects.  The internet has certainly helped, too, by connecting researchers with this material in many ways: simple web searches, Ebay auctions, Google Books, genealogical resources, and more recently social networks and digitized newspapers.

It appears Lancaster is not unique in the secondary-source-to-primary-source quality disparity, so my hope is that the attention of the Sesquicentennial sparks a little bit of a renaissance in Civil War scholarship--or at least a primary source mining boom--at the local level.  I even think there's a really bad metaphor using  Marcellus shale natural gas boom somewhere in what I'm saying.  Anyway, my hope is to see a flood of new stories with an interesting analytical angle that are also relevant today, and I'll try to do my part for Lancaster on this blog.

* I'll cite Leroy Hopkins' work on Lancaster's African-American community, Ron Young's books, the Lancaster Newspapers Civil War articles series and blog, and some yet-to-be-published work by Gary Hawbaker on Cos. B and E, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, as good steps in the right direction.  

...and the crop is harvested 150 years later.
(Me at the Lancaster County Historical Society with the
1862 Daily Evening Express volume that escaped microfilm)

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