Experiencing History

Posted 8/8/2011

Time for us to take history back into our own hands! Don’t worry this is not a screed for or against the Tea Party, although Patrick Henry’s exhortations do come to mind.

Rather I think all of us American history lovers, particularly those who aren’t academically trained, should go out and claim our history. Experience it for ourselves. While you can read the nation’s best historians here at American Heritage, their fine work shouldn’t preclude us from making our own critical discoveries and getting our own hands dirty. By all means read McCullough and Brinkley, but don’t stop there.

Go to a museum and ask to hold a 19th-century musket. Heft its weight and feel how easily the sweat-stained, worn-wood gunstock fits comfortably in your hands. Or hike a battlefield so you can understand with your feet and eyes how the hillocks and forests, rivers and field, changed the course of a battle. And pause in the ruins of a slave quarters, imagining life in bondage 200 years ago.

By doing so, you’ll put yourself into the shoes of earlier Americans—and that’s where remarkable discoveries occur. You’ll need a little imagination. For one thing, you know the outcome, while (obviously) they didn’t. Uncertainty about the future, then as now, plays such a critical part in determining our actions. For people living through the hell of the Civil War, for instance, the entire Union teetered on the edge of falling apart. What would that mean to its citizens? Anarchy? Bankruptcy? A better life? No small matter to be sure.

And the act of imagining life long ago also requires us to take stock of what we know today that they didn’t—everywhere from the seemingly prosaic details of good nutrition and medicine to more cosmic concepts, such as the theory of evolution or understanding that planet Earth contains finite resources.

Just like reading great historians, Hollywood’s interpretation of historical events can also leave us feeling that it’s just easier to let others interpret our history. Cinematic images can easily overshadow and push away our own musings and imaginings. But that’s where visiting a site, or watching a reenactment can help reassert them.

We’re in the midst of the sesquicentennial of that incredible conflict—and, with all the ongoing events, it’s an ideal time for us to experience history first hand. And that doesn’t necessarily mean donning a wool uniform for a hot reenactment at Bull Run. We’ve launched a new Civil War ticker on this website that shows what was happening exactly 150 years ago today. Check back with us over the next days and weeks. I guarantee that you’ll gain a remarkable understanding of how events—and the war itself—began to unfold. And also click onto our Civil War Chronicles department and read selections of original voices caught up in those momentous events. You can share their doubts, enjoy their victories, and sadden in their defeats. You will be as close as any professional historian to what real people were thinking when real events occurred. Not unlike holding that gun or peering into a soldier’s face in a daguerreotype. And by doing so, you’ll begin to own our collective history. This is where I should talk about democracy, citizenship, and responsibility but I’ll spare you the lecture. You get my drift.