Earlier this week, I spent a profitable afternoon at the New Jersey Historical Society in downtown Newark. The Marcus L. Ward Papers are incredibly rich, and I will be sharing some of my findings from that collection in forthcoming posts. What struck me during my visit, however, is how under-appreciated and little utilized local and state historical societies really are.
A private, not for profit organization, the New Jersey Historical Society operates with a shoestring budget, employing only one part time librarian who keeps the place running three afternoons each week. Sadly, budget and staffing cuts are the norm at state historical societies across the country. I have encountered similar situations at the Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine Historical Societies. In several of these places, I was the lone researcher.
There is an unspoken assumption that local and state historical societies are more the province of antiquarians and genealogists than they are the dominion of academic historians. Especially in Civil War studies, the utility of a research trip to Barre, Vermont, or Providence, Rhode Island is not readily apparent. Hopefully, as we continue to apply the tools of social and cultural history to the Civil War era, this will no longer be the case. Some of the most important tasks I see on the horizon for emerging Civil War historians are northern community and town studies.
The social history revolution missed Civil War studies when it exploded in the 1960s and 1970s, but fortunately, historians are increasingly turning in that direction, filling a huge void in the literature. Nicole Etcheson’s study of a single county in Indiana during the war is a fine example of what we have left to learn about the northern home front. John Neff is also finishing up an autopsy of Civil War memory in the all-important city of Chicago, which promises to be a signal addition to the literature. I look forward to serious books about Cleveland, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts; and the all but neglected upper Midwest during the war and the peace. The oft-repeated statement “there is nothing new to learn about the Civil War” has never been so erroneous.