Your History Geek Installment I: How to Research History

Prologue:

I debated long and hard about writing this installment. You will notice that I changed the title of my blog to Your History Geek rather than Your Civil War Geek. There are two reasons for this, first and foremost, this allows me the freedom to tackle a number of topics, secondly, after the events of the Wednesday 6 January 2021, I have formally resigned from re-enacting. I may continue with living history, or later down the road, I may start a You Tube channel, but I’ve seen a significant change in the re-enactment community that is noticeably different from when I began in the community. I’m not going to elaborate on the deeply personal reasons I left the hobby. Those who need to know the specifics of why I left are aware of my reasons. I’m hoping the community goes back to the way it was when I joined in 2009, but until I see a change in the community as a whole, I’m stepping back.

How to Research History:

There is a growing movement in the United States to launch and assault on education and historical and scientific education in particular.  This is particularly true when that education runs counter to deep seated philosophical beliefs. These beliefs may include but are not limited to, religious, political, social, or beliefs re-enforced by charismatic narratives. Everybody, including myself, has a “position” on things. My position has changed over the years as I’ve learned to research objectively. Objective research may mean you learn that your heroes are complete tools. In the 1970s, I grew up on a diet of Black Sheep Squadron, Hogan’s Heroes and MASH. Of those “historical” shows Black Sheep Squadron set me on a lifelong desire to learn everything I could about the renegade, devil may care figure Major and Medal of Honor Recipient, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. As a nine year old, I read his biography (trust me that is a hard read for 9 year old).  To this day, I still admire what he accomplished and I still enjoy watching the show but I understand that the show is entertainment and not history. It was a show that actually alienated Boyington from many of the pilots he lead in World War II. It was a work of shameless self-promotion that made all of his pilots look like screwups which they most certainly were not. As I pealed back the layers on that onion, I learned that he only commanded the men of his squadron for a very short rotation of combat, albeit with a remarkable record, but his pilots were accomplished men in their own right. I began to read more books written by his fellow pilots, general officers, and I looked into the historical record. I also researched the decades long history of the Squadron that carried on his legacy. He’s still a hero to me, but very, very flawed one, that would not want to follow.

Sources:

Primary sources: Primary sources are written in the time by the witnesses to the events. The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is a primary source. It was written by Grant in the 1800s, as he was dying of throat cancer. Grant consulted official war records, and where feasible, consulted with officers both the Union and Confederate armies to insure that his details were as close as possible to accurate. Primary sources are considered by many to be the best sources because they do not have as many hands touching them. Reading a biography of Grant written by a person in the 20th century, removes the reader from seeing events through the figure’s eyes. You are viewing history through the author’s eyes instead. So, the author may intentionally or unintentionally soften or sharpen language to make it more palatable or more repugnant to a contemporary audience or paint the figure in the historical light that the author chooses. Other examples of primary source materials include official records which may be retained by governments, libraries, municipalities, or organizations. The United States Library of Congress has a wealth of primary source documents for historians to use.

Secondary Sources: These are the sources written by second parties or researchers. These usually analyze the primary source subject. Many secondary sources, if they are worthwhile, have and enormous quantity or primary sources listed in the work. When choosing a secondary source work, go to the very back of the work and look at the reference list, end notes, and index. If it is thin, than it’s a safe bet that the work is pretty thinly researched. I have discovered many such works in my two decades of researching.

Internet sources: The web is simultaneously a goldmine and an open sewer. You should rarely use blogs, web based encyclopedia’s, or encyclopedias as sources for your research. These are great places to get ideas or direction when you are in rut but many web based encyclopedias can be edited with little or ineffective moderation and a regular encyclopedia is not providing you with any depth of information. Encyclopedias are not intended to be research sources (don’t believe me write a master’s or doctoral thesis) they are the cliff notes of research. When I consult the internet for anything, I look at the “about us” tab most sites have. I look at who paying for the site and if there is any peer review process. If a political party, religious organization, or movement is paying for the website I immediately move to somewhere else to obtain facts.

Peer Reviewed Journals: Many people don’t understand what a peer review is. First and foremost, it is NOT a popularity contest. A peer review is  a body of experts in a particular field that examine the quality of the research. For the most part, peer reviews include (as in the case of history and political sciences) people from opposing viewpoints. What they all have in common is a pedigree of expertise in the subject matter and an understanding of how to conduct research. They examine how the author conducted research, what sources were used, and the opinion of the author is not the focus of the review, the integrity of the research is the focus. Peer reviews do not necessarily remove the author’s bias but it does make the author do quality research.

How to Approach Historical Research:

I like the scientific method as a guiderail in historical research. I find, in many cases, it works well with history. You begin with a historical subject and an idea about that subject. For instance, you may want to examine how illness impacted historical decisions at the Battle of Waterloo. Now in order to develop a thesis (hypothesis in scientific research), you actually need to know something about the battle itself. In order to appreciate and understand that battle you need to know something about the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte (and his military education), disease, hygiene in 19th century armies, weather on the day of the battle, and the physical condition of his opponent’s and ally’s armies. 

The scientific method requires experimentation so it will not always perfectly fit with historical research but you can use its precepts as guide. In the scientific method you design an experiment which may or may not reject a null hypothesis (the polar opposite of your hypothesis). In historical research you are trying to prove your thesis and reject the opposite of your thesis. You collect as much primary and quality secondary source data as you can find an then you compare that data to your thesis.

Sifting through Data: It is very easy in historical research just to parrot information you read in multiple sources. It is a true researcher that examines the veracity of the data and compares that data to plausible facts. For instance, when I was in grade school and middle school I was told that the United States won every war it fought. Well this is not consistent with historical facts. The War of 1812 ended in negotiated peace which neither side clearly came out a winner. For all intents and purposes, it was a stalemate which actually favored the British Empire. The belligerents reverted to Status Quo Anti-Bellum (which means as it was prior to the war). We won many of our naval battles, few of our land battles, and our attempts at invading Canada were soundly and decisively repulsed. We did win one thing from that war, we established that we could stand up to a larger nation. By the end of that war, we were almost engaged in a civil war our own and almost economically bankrupt (Toll, 2006).

When you have gathered enough data to support or maybe reject your hypothesis/thesis, submit your work for review. Don’t send it to people who are blindly going to accept it as fact, seek out people who will critically examine it. When I wrote my master’s thesis, my advisor was rubber stamping my work without providing me critical feedback. In point of fact he was virtually telling me I was the greatest thing since the invention of Ziplock bags. This did wonders for my ego but what goes up must eventually come down. When my thesis was submitted for review, a second reader provided me with some stinging and critical feedback that my thesis advisor should have been providing me all along. I learned more from the criticism than I did from the person who was supposed to be guiding me. This is a hard lesson. Interestingly enough, I valued my second reader’s opinion and have used it as a lesson rather than wallowing in self-pity.

Revisionist vs. Apologist:

History does not change, despite what the cynics on the pulpits, lecterns, and speaking platforms my lead you to believe. The events happened, that’s why they are history. What changes is our understanding and or presentation of those events. The people who love to assault “revisionist” history, in many instances, are upset that some of their heroes are not so great after all. The threat of losing that worship factor their hero may have is powerful and threatening to people who are not objective in their research. If you want an experiment in understanding, look at how we have portrayed Native Americans from up into the 1970s in our text books. There is no greater example of how we molded our texts to support our “patriotic” vision. Once text books began examining the injustices, they were immediately vilified and labeled as revisionist by the apologists. Yet, we exploit Native Americans to this day, we look down our noses at reservations, criticize their polytheistic/naturalist based religions, and try to tap into energy reserves on their lands. This is not revisionism, its empirical fact. Up until the 1950s we tried to forcibly eradicate their non-Christian beliefs through government sponsored Indian Schools (Krupat, 2018). I didn’t learn about any of this through textbooks, I learned it through research. I also learned that George Armstrong Custer was and absolute blithering idiot and monster (Tebbel & Jennison, 2006).

A Revisionist: Takes a topic and crafts selected facts to bolster only their viewpoint. Sometimes this is done in very negative light and does not take into account all sides of an argument.

An Apologist: Takes the stance which defends reprehensible conduct of the actors during a particular time in history. There were (and still are) apologists for slave owners, Nazi’s, the KKK, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, David Koresh, and yes even Kim Jung Un.  In many instances the narrative of apologists are true examples of revisionist history that have been in place for decades.

Whitewashing the past is not unique to the United States, but for so many years we’ve criticized how the Japanese barely mention atrocities committed in the years prior to World War II or barbarism committed by their military during the war, yet we have sanitized our history so much that our history books make it look like our nation completely without sin. Apologists want you to ignore the faults and “move forward”. This is exactly why history repeats itself. We don’t want to look at the negative aspects because it’s a major “downer” but just like any recovery program, you have to address the negative to effectively move forward. A note on true revisionist. There are some people who are so biased (one way or the other) that they discard any facts which may challenger their viewpoint (without researching them). I won’t mention any names but there is a former political pundit who loves to write “history books” under a franchised series of titles. I’ve read a couple of his books and they are so badly sourced as to be completely farcical. I wouldn’t even call them historical fiction. Sadly writing history and children’s books is a common profession for exiled pundits who were removed from their positions for sexual misconduct or slander. Don’t let these people teach your children about history.

Research opens your eyes and your mind but beware, you’ll lose friends, family support (in some cases), and maybe even your religion. Oh, and you wont be popular if you conduct proper research. You’ll be vilified, you’ll be called a revisionist, a heretic, and maybe even a communist. You will however be more patriotic (in as much wanting to make your country better can be called patriotism). You’ll also be better able to understand perspectives, think for yourself, and maybe just maybe tap into your humanity and become a better person. Research is not easy, it can be painful and a struggle. But at its core, research is the forbidden fruit. That is why so many religions equate the fall of man with the pursuit of knowledge and that is why politicians launch campaigns against education. Education and research based education in particular is empowering.

In the reference section of this work, I’ve listed both books I use when I formulate a research project as well as the sources I used to support this blog.

References:

American Psychological Association (2011). Publications manual of the American Psychological Association (6th Ed). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Creswell, J. (2003). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed method approaches (2nd Ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Frohnen, B. (2002). The American republic: Primary sources. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.

Krupat, A. (2018). Changed forever volume 1: American Indian boarding school literature. Albany, NY: University of New York Press.

McPherson, J. & Cooper, W. (1998). Writing the Civil War: The quest to understand. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Tebbel, J & Jennison, K. (2006). The American Indian wars. Eddison, NJ: Castle Books.

Toll, I. (2006). Six frigates: The epic history of the founding of the U.S. Navy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

Turabian, K. (2007). A manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations: Chicago style for students and researchers (7th Ed). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.