Beyond the Battlefields: A Greater Understanding of the Civil War

Friday, April 8, 2011

April 12 marks the 150th anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter in the Charleston, S.C., harbor, and signals the beginning of a multi-year commemoration of the United States Civil War (1861-1865). Accordingly, many national Civil War parks and sites – like Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, Pa., and Shiloh, Miss.– are ready to receive a bumper crop of visitors over the next four years, as our nation revisits this time from our history.

Civil War expert Randall Miller, Ph.D., professor of history at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, has led tours at sites like Gettysburg and Antietam, Md., for students and other groups, but Miller thinks it is important to raise awareness about the war’s impact away from the famous battlefields.

“It’s estimated that there were more than three million men who wore either a blue or gray uniform during the war, and more than 600,000 of them died,” Miller says. “When you start to think about the long reach of the hostilities, you have to imagine that nearly everybody living here was affected in some way. It’s essential that we widen the scope of understanding about the war beyond the battles.”

Miller says one way to accomplish this is to develop the story of the home front by recognizing places and people involved in mobilizing and making war. “Many local historical societies are looking at their own collections to see how they might discover and relate stories of wartime,” he notes. “This will broaden the extent of inquiry into why the war started and why people fought and died for their cause. It will help us understand the meaning of the war for contemporaries and later generations.”

In Philadelphia, Miller points to organizations like the Union League, which was formed in 1862 to promote the war effort, or the Mutter Museum, with its collection of materials on trauma wounds and repairs from the Civil War. “These organizations, and others like them in other cities and towns, are rich in resources that can tell a more complete story of the war.”

According to Miller, this new focus does not downplay military matters. “Rather, it can provide richer content that will help us come to terms with the causes, character, conduct and consequences of the war,” he says.

A renowned scholar of the Civil War era, Miller has appeared in and been consulted for documentaries that have aired nationally, on cable and on public broadcast channels, and has served as a consultant and writer for numerous museum exhibitions. He is also the author or editor of numerous books and articles on the topic.

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