Sunday, December 08, 2013

Writing a regimental history: Academic versus Interpreter

So who is best suited to write a regimental history, a professor, or maybe a historical interpreter? Well, both, and neither. But before we tackle that question, let's look at another: who is going to be reading that regimental history?

There are only a handful of really famous regiments from the war years. Those that come to mind off hand are those of the 20th Maine and the 15th Alabama, famous because of Shaara's Killer Angels and the later Gettysburg movie; the 26th North Carolina, once again because famous actions at Gettysburg; the 1st/11th North Carolina (the Bethel Regiment), the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (because those fellows carried lances), the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry, and the 54th Massachusetts. And each of those regiments already has a history of some type.

Since the list of regiments that might have a broader appeal is so limited, who is going to buy this book? The answer to that one is simple: the descendants of the men who served in that regiment. Yes, there might be a few scholars interested because of something that they are working on, and yes, there are a few collectors out there who collect just regimental histories, but the vast majority of people will have some tie to the regiment on which you are working.

Back to the original question: who is best suited to write a regimental history? An academic is going to have an edge on the research process. An academic will understand all of the places that he or she will  need to go to conduct the research and the necessary historiography hierarchy.  What does that mean? Furay and Salevouris in their 1988 book The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide define historiography as "the study of the way history has been and is written – the history of historical writing... When you study 'historiography' you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of individual historians." That is what is taught to inspiring new historians in our Universities today. You do not study and chronicle the events themselves, just how our interpretations change regarding those events.  

While it is of some importance to understand how the interpretation of events has changed over time, the people who are really interested in a regimental history could care less. They are interested in how their great-great grandfathers survived the War, what he experienced, how he coped. So what an academic (in this situation) fails to bring to the table in this instance is an ability to effectively communicate to the public the  tactile information that they desire.

Someone who is an interpreter, or living historian, or re-enactor will bring a different set of skills to the process. An interpreter is highly specialized in the minute details of a soldier's life, the gear he carried, the way he lived, and often times, interpreters can effectively communicate those details to the general public. Why? Because they do on a regular basis - five days a week working with school kids at a historic site, or on weekends working with the general public.  And an interpreter will have some research skills.

While I am college educated, I believe that being an interpreter better prepared me for writing about the lives of soldiers than a college education did. I was more than just an interpreter. I planned events and living history scenarios, researched sites, and for six years, commanded an infantry battalion. Since I was so immersed in how a regiment operated, I could understand to what the soldiers were referring in their letters home and after-action reports.

Do you have to be an academic to write a good regimental history that the general public wants to read? No, but you must go a mile in the soldiers' shoes. Find a good living history group and learn what it is like to march wearing brogans and how to handle a musket or rifled-musket. Do you need to be an interpreter to write a good regimental history? No, but you must learn the academic process, how to find those good sources. We'll have more on that topic in the next post.

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