My Two Cents

I’m terribly interested in history. Just ask anyone who knows me.

I take trips to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from time to time. It’s best if a friend will come along, since then I can give a tour.

They watch the 30 minutes of Ken Burns Civil War that concerns Gettysberg and the fight on Little Round Top. The first place we stop is on that hill.

I explain what happened there, 358 men holding out against more than 800. They piled rocks up for cover and fought like crazy. The defenders were down to about 200 men when they ran out of ammo. So they fixed bayonets and charged….and by some miracle managed to win.

At the end of the talk I pick a pebble up and hand it to whoever came along. “This might be part of that wall.” I say. Usually there’s a bunch of misty eyes all around, including my own.

After that we always walk all over the battlefield. If the weather’s nice we hop a few fences and see parts of the park that no one except the forest rangers have visited for a century.

The reason I’m writing this is due to this post, where Michael Hiteshew asks for history text suggestions. It seems that he wants to encourage his 24 year old daughter to develop an interest in history.

Many people have left comments, and after reading them I now want to go out and get several of the books that have been suggested. But just about everyone has missed the target.

See, you don’t read a book about history and enjoy it until after you are already interested in history!

This is very important, but it’s tough for people who are already passionate about our past to understand that there are those who don’t share our interest.

The only person who understands the basics is Fuz. He suggested that Michael start with an old documentary entitled The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke. It’s very engaging, easy to watch, and it shows how decisions and events echo through the centuries.

Hey, isn’t that why we’re interested in history? Because we want to see how we got here?

Michael, forget the 1,000 page books. If she’s not interested before you give her a huge tome like that she’ll take one look at it and use it for a doorstop. Listen to Fuz and lay the groundwork before you saddle her with college level reading material.

And if you’re every planning a trip to Gettysburg, I’ll meet you there.

7 thoughts on “My Two Cents”

  1. I found Antietam even more amazing. It’s not as well developed a park, true. But the topography…

    I went winter and early fall in subsequent years. In winter you can see the lay of the land, follow the battle maps, and shake your head that units could miss each other so completely.

    Then you go in early fall, before the harvest, and you can’t see hardly anything, unless you stand on a rock. And then you shake your head, how did anyone figure out anything, and why wasn’t there a 100% casualty rate for the officers. People tend to shoot high, and someone on horseback is likely the only person you can see outside your own unit.

    My favorite battle field was Yorktown, because my parents took me there and Saratoga NY one summer when i was about 8. Young and impressionable really works.

    Matya no baka

  2. How about this novel then: The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.

    In this sf, what if book, radical racists go back to the past and give Lee AK47s to help win the Civil War. You learn an awful lot of history reading this what-if, and Turtledove who was a historian educated at Caltech and UCLA knows his stuff. Plus it’s very complex and nuanced and will really make you think.

    Anyone vaguely interested in war/political fiction should find this fascinating and this book would push a great many people to want to learn the details of the Civil War.

  3. Matya, you beat me to it. My interest in history really began when my father took me and my brother to Antietam battlefield when we were children. Antietam Creek, Burnside Bridge, Bloody Lane and the Observation Tower are all still clear as crystal in my memory.

    I’ve also been to Gettysburg many times with my own children. Beautiful place. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest. It’s beautiful in the fall.

    There’s a small hill there where you can look down across a mile or so of pasture to a line of trees. That hill was the center General George Meade’s lines. General Picketts’ division crossed that field into the concentrated fire of Union cannon and riflemen. It’s an eerie place. That land has not forgotten the battle. You can see those poor rebel bastards crossing that grass, the cannons firing next to you straight into their lines, hear the rifle fire, hear the screams. Almost everyone I know who has stood there has had that experience. It’s almost spooky. Maybe we just have overactive imaginations.

    Interesting tidbit. I remember reading after Gulf War I about the pentagon tacticians planning for the assault across WWI style Iraqi defenses along the Kuwaiti border. An early form of the plan called for a straight up the middle attack, right through the area that was heavily mined and where the Iraqis had pre-sited their artillery. After presenting their plan to the JCS there was a moment of silence from the chiefs. Almost in unison they looked at each other and said, “Pickett’s Charge.” The tacticians were summarily sent back to try a little harder.

  4. James is onto something here. You either have this bug or you don’t. I don’t know what you can say or do to make someone else SEE what you see or experience what you experience when you read about the past. There is the chill you get reading about Joshua Chamberlain, and there is the different kind of buzz you get when you read something on a less dramatic episode or development and it clicks and you suddenly have an insight into how the world worked and why it worked out the way it did — David Hackett Fischer’s Albions Seed does this. There is a lot of intellectual thrill in reading history — but some people seem to lack the receptors in their brains for it. While I don’t know the material FUZ refers to, it is at least answering the deeper question of how to get someone interested in history in the first place, by saying, here, look at this, this is what I am talking about … . I don’t know where I’d start. I’ve been like this my entire life. I think a lot of us are like that.

  5. “See, you don’t read a book about history and enjoy it until after you are already interested in history!”

    I disagree. In my own case, I did not become interested in history until well after I was researching another, non-historical, topic altogether. But I kept having to do what I didn’t want to do: read some history to understand the past. But I didn’t like it until I made a habit of researching the past to explain the present.

  6. “While I don’t know the material FUZ refers to, it is at least answering the deeper question of how to get someone interested in history in the first place, by saying, here, look at this, this is what I am talking about … . I don’t know where I’d start.”

    Back in 1978, Brit historian James Burke wrote and produced a 10 episode documentary series. Entitled “Connections”, it showed how innovations or decisions led to other innovations, which led to others and so on.

    Just for example, he asked how Roman aquaducts led to our GPS system. Wonder how that happened? Get the series and watch it.

    Nothing like this had ever been done before, so he takes some time to explain what he’s doing in the first episode. You might want to skip that one and come back to it after watching the rest of the series.

    I can’t recommend this series enough. Go to the library and see if you can’t borrow a DVD or two.

    It was so successful that Burke went on to make four other series (that I’m aware of). Any of the “Connections” series are pretty good, and the one Fuz suggested entitled “The Day the Universe Changed” is simply incredible. But you should start with the first “Connections”, in my opinion.

    There is one doc Burke did that should be avoided. “After the Warming” is his cautionary tale about global warming, told as if a history professor in the far future lectures about us dopes in the 20th Century. It’s incredibly dated, and makes the same non-scientific assumptions that drive the rest of the Boyz batty with frustration.

    But that doesn’t detract from his other work. Watch “Connections” or “The Day the Universe Changed”.


  7. James Burke is amazing! And Connections most
    definitely inspired my son’s love of history.

    Once she has the “real” facts down, Harry
    Turtledove is a wonderful way to imagine
    ‘What if?’.

    Excellent suggestions all around.

Comments are closed.