I have been an unabashed Civil War buff for 30 years. I got bitten by the bug in the 4th grade, to such an extent that my social studies teacher asked me to teach this period of history to our class; imagine how that went to the head of a ten year old! In the 6th grade, I began a Gettysburg cyclorama in newsprint that took two years to finish. Some of my fondest memories are family trips to Virginia battlefields. I was briefly a teenage reenactor. I know which ancestors participated in the war (North and South) and have a keen interest in their experiences.
If you looked at the bookshelves in our house - and there are many - you would find the Civil War section dwarfs all other historic periods (though the Africa section, reflecting 4 years spent in Namibia, is a respectable second). I have outed myself to you all as a collector of high-end Civil War toy soldiers. If, when I was in college, I had considered going forward with a PhD, it undoubtedly would have dealt with this era.
I will always have an interest in the history of the United States during the 1860s and an affection for the subject of the Civil War. I have gradually come to realize, however, that the nature of that attraction is changing. For all my delight in the minutia of the past, and my capacity to retain and relate vast amounts of historical data and statistics, I find as I grow older that my first obsessive love of the history of the American Civil War has mellowed to a fond regard rather than a fierce and abiding passion. I am not sure that the label "buff" still applies.
By way of example, consider this blog's archive category for the American Civil War. There are some fine posts in there, but of late the Civil War has been mentioned only in passing and not as a central feature. In all there are now 38 posts of mine that make reference to the American Civil War. That is 38 out of 856 posts since this blog began. Compare that to the posts that relate to the American Revolution. There have been 37 of these in this year alone, and 64 all told. Clearly, I have a more recent interest in the topic, but what else is going on?
A fresh interpretation still has the power to challenge and inspire. At the moment I am finding more that challenges and inspires in the reading, writing and research I am doing on Revolutionary America. Perhaps this says as much about me and my broadening interests as it does the state of scholarship in these periods. Part of this shift in emphasis can be explained by the rich archival material I inherited in 2003 relating to branches of my family with prominent members of the Revolutionary generation. As an historian as well as a genealogist, I find fertile ground in this era with fewer furrows preceding me than with the massively discussed and documented Civil War period. There is more elbow room for a pioneer, more details about the events of the Revolution that are known to fewer people. It is a bit like those hardcore birders who several years ago got into identifying lepidoptera and dragonflies. It was something fresh to do in tandem with the initial interest and activity.
Part of it, though, has to do with significance of these events. Both the American Revolution and the American Civil War are imbued with myth in modern memory, and it is interesting to compare where we are in our national conversations about the Founders and our founding with how we understand and remember that great tectonic rift in the American psyche with the Civil War at its epicenter.
Invoking the Founders - "what would George do? " - is a distinctive feature of our national politics, and divining the intent of the Framers of our Constitution as important as legal precedent in our judicial philosophy. In popular imagination, we tend to look at the creation of our independent democracy as if it were either miraculous or inevitable, and at those who brought our nation into being as peerlessly farsighted. The achievement was great indeed, but the Founders were very human and whether by design or default, our Independence was neither assured nor the greatest of long shots.
We do not re-fight the American Revolution the way so many of us grapple with what Faulkner calls "the instant when it's still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863": the moment available "(f)or every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it." I am unaware that the British rehash "what might have been" had the American War of Independence gone their way. The descendants of Tories exiled in Canada are proud of their loyalist roots but there it ends. The descendants of those loyalists who remained in America are assimilated into the national identity.
The American Revolution, unlike the American Civil War, is not an open wound for those who were defeated. We do not stare out over the Battlefield of Cowpens yearning for victory for our loyalist ancestors who fought there. We do not, as a rule, have passionate arguments over what books are available at the visitor center at Saratoga as happens today at Gettysburg, or whether battlefield interpretation adequately honors the memory of those on both sides who fought there (though perhaps we should). What is unsettled about the Revolution is not how we reconcile and remember the war and its consequences, but rather "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure" and how we moderns understand what it will mean to form "a more perfect union."
"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
I think, in the end, that Lincoln's words get to the heart of what I appreciate about history today, and what may have changed from when I was ten years old. I still love the details. I still delight in new discovery (and sharing new knowledge). But even as my heart thumps and I yearn to join in the play whenever I get around reenactors (those of earlier periods as well as 19th Century), my historical interest looks both ways. I believe our understanding of the past informs our future, a future that is neither predestined nor predetermined. Whether it will actively inform the choices we make or merely provoke reaction depends on us.