Public History or Public Psychology?

Few topics in history command as much obsession and relentless discussion as wars. This is no surprise. After all, wars have always been a main stage for great heroes and malicious villains. Even if these heroes and villains are storybook versions of the real thing. If world history was a movie, wars would be the action scenes. And who doesn’t love a good action scene? For many Americans, the greatest (grimmest may be more accurate) action scene is that of the American Civil War. As Tony Horwitz makes abundantly clear in his book Confederates in the Attic, the Civil War occupies a starring role in the lives of many Americans. These people eat, sleep, live, and breathe (literally in several cases) Civil War.


Union and Confederate dead, Gettysburg Battlefield, Pa., July 1863. Photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan.(National Archives)

What is it that makes wars, and the Civil War in particular, so interesting for Americans? Unfortunately, a definitive answer to that question is not easily found. For some, such as Robert Lee Hodge, who adorns the cover of Horwitz’ book, it may just be a fascination of a life so foreign to their own. In Hodge’s own words, “When you get into the grim details of the War, you realize you’ve lived a soft life” (16). For Hodge and other reenactors, the Civil War is a form of escapism. For all the reasons to be obsessed with the Civil War this may be the most benign. It may seem a bit goofy to some, but the same could be said about a variety of other hobbies.

Sometimes, however, the Civil War is more than just a weekend obsession. It is a lifestyle. Such is what Horwitz encountered in North Carolina. These people centered their community around confederate clubs. Largely, what this amounted to was a glorification of the Confederacy and its heroes. However, for some, such as a twelve-year-old girl that Horwitz talked to, confederate clubs were just something people did. This young girl did not have an agenda, she just liked the confederates for their underdog status.

Nevertheless, slavery is undeniably tied to the Civil War. Horwitz strategically juxtaposes the confederate clubs of North Carolina with a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He talked to a young pastor named Michael King who saw what he called confederacy worship. King concluded, “remember your ancestors, but remember what they fought for too, and recognize it was wrong” (44).

Wars, often, represent the boiling point of differences in ideological views. Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many people find wars so fascinating. As a historian, it is tempting to just paint everything in black and white to prove a point. But that might not be the answer. For Public Historians, interpreting the past can benefit from differing viewpoints. The National Parks Service has done this sort of thing by showing the “transformative power of exposing visitors to the original openendedness of history by shifting from fixed explanations of the past to considering the past moment as the original participants experienced it when they did not know what the outcomes would be” (Imperiled Promise, 44). These viewpoints should not be presented as choose-your-own-truths, rather they should cause the viewer to consider the differing viewpoints and come to the truth through careful consideration. But that is the hard part: sometimes public history means braving the storms of public psychology.

One thought on “Public History or Public Psychology?

  1. Great post! I think you really explained this week’s reading in a well-thought way. I found it interesting about just how prevalent the War between the States still is in the South and how the societies are just a way of life down there. They even have prizes for the youngest member, in this case a five month-old baby, he obviously doesn’t have an agenda, he can’t even talk yet! Anyway, I though this week’s really was extremely interesting and I also thoroughly enjoyed your post! -Lauren K.


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