Making History Come Alive!

April 18, 2022

Making History Come Alive!

            “If you were my history teacher in school, I would have paid attention!”

What a wonderful compliment!

A member of the West Chester Sunrise Rotary Club made the comment and another colleague quipped that she wouldn’t have skipped class if I was presenting the lessons. The reviews came after my program on my new book, Lafayette at Brandywine: The Making of an American Hero.

History has an undeserved reputation. History isn’t boring. History is vibrant because of those individuals who encountered difficult challenges to influence our past, present and future.

The myth history is boring is reinforced by those presenters without passion, interest and purpose. Promising engaging encounters quickly become tedious tests of endurance. A teacher focusing on dates and timelines will kill a student’s interest in history in about a minute. Academic historians and authors can disassociate eager history students and readers by their presentation of history. Is there anything more daunting than a history book with a thousand pages, thousands of footnotes and references and long explanations on everything tangentially mentioned in the text?

Those volumes are unread books.

I crave history. Writing that, I’m not going to spend my valuable time, and risk a severe headache, to struggle through a tomb of facts strung together to form a treatise on a historical topic.  There is one popular national publisher of history that produces such books. A few years ago in Virginia, I visited a National Park’s gift shop. A clerk saw me pursuing books, including one by the aforementioned publisher. She commented that the book was not an easy read. I silently agreed.

A reader’s attention needs to be grabbed from the opening chapter. Authors need to engage the reader, not give them an opportunity to stop reading. My first published book taught me a valuable lesson. The editor insisted the manuscript be written in chronological order. Wrong, but editors are in charge. This publishing house had a formula for history books. No creative thinking or writing was allowed, just the facts in a straight line order. Ugh. A dramatic chapter should have been the initial chapter. Instead, the engaging chapter was relegated towards the back of the book. The publisher lost an opportunity to immediately engage the reader and make history come alive. I haven’t published any other books with that publisher.

Teachers and lecturers need to have an engaging opening. Those relying on PowerPoint presentations run the risk of attendees falling asleep, daydreaming and answering texts or playing games on their phones. I’ve seen too many presentations that are confusing. I remember one on the Confederate withdrawal from Gettysburg that was totally indecipherable. And why do speakers read read from a slide. The audience can read.

When I’m engaged to do a talk, I’m asked if I have a PowerPoint. I say no. I remember one man saying his group always is given a PowerPoint. He wondered if I could fill up an hour without one. I’ve never had an issue talking for an hour on my subjects.

I engage my audiences. I want to see their reactions. I want them to be focused on the subject of my talk. Speakers need to be entertainers to a degree. You can’t do so in the dark reading from a PowerPoint presentation.

Speakers can’t have one talk for all audiences. While many of my presentations run an hour, service clubs usually want 20 to 30 minutes. Members of a historical organization want more details than elementary school students. During a Civil War history day for students in Lancaster County, I could tell history was a foreign subject to most of them. They knew of no personal connections to the Civil War. Actually they had connections, but they just weren’t aware of those connections. One of my goals that day was to have students ask their parents about ancestors. A personal link to history makes history come alive.

History books are divided into three categories, according to a retired military officer who wrote an introduction to one of my Gettysburg books. There are academic writers trained to impress academically trained professors to attain PhD degrees. This is not a reader friendly group. Another type writes historical fiction. The third type are those who write popular history, he said. I bristled, I admit, at first at the term popular history. I’m obviously in this camp.

Upon reflection, writing popular history is the avenue to reengaging those long lost students. There is nothing wrong in making history lively. Not every minute detail of a subject needs to be included. After my book on the battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777: Washington’s Defeat at Brandywine Dooms Philadelphia, someone pointed out I failed to mention a change in position of a British army unit during the afternoon’s fighting. He was correct. The movement didn’t affect the battle and didn’t add anything to the understanding of the battle of Brandywine. If every bit of minutia was included, readers would have closed the book long before discovering Brandywine was a major defeat for General Washington.

Author motivations are important. At a book signing in Gettysburg some years ago, a fellow author wanted to know what book was I releasing next year. My books take multiple years to complete. My fellow author was churning out the books to produce an income. I’m not sure if he was interested in telling an important part of history, or, having a new title for readers to purchase.

I’ve authored three books on Gettysburg. I didn’t intend to write any books on the famous battle. Thousands of books are authored about the three-day Civil War engagement. During one visit to the battlefield, as I was standing at the Union line where Pickett’s Charge was repulsed, I realized that published books were focused on the Southern charge and not on the Union defenders. By the way, those Union soldiers saved our nation that day. Those brave soldiers deserved a book and I authored Pickett’s Charge: The Untold Story. The story was told from the viewpoint of General Alexander Webb and his Philadelphia brigade. They had the central defensive position that fateful day. The soldiers’ personal experiences comprised the story, not the number of troops involved and the casualties.

From the Pickett Charge book, I was engaged to write about the largest private collection of artifacts from Gettysburg, including the podium used by President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. Thus, the book J. Howard Wert’s Gettysburg was written. A great artist and friend, Karl J. Kuerner, asked me to do essays to go with his 20 paintings of Gettysburg. The book is Emotional Gettysburg.

Books tell me to write them. I don’t go looking for subjects.

The issue of “boring history” came to my attention in connection with a presentation I’m giving at the Authors of the American Revolution event in Quakertown hosted by Nathan’s Papers. The moderator of my panel asked me to be prepared to “dispel the myth that non-fiction is boring and is only for academics.” I’m prepared to do so.

On the panel with me is a fiction writer. I occasionally read fiction but for me, real people are much more fascinating than invented characters. What were their motivations? Why did they do what they did? What were the consequences of their actions? History hinges on those answers. I’m glad readers like historical fiction. I just hope readers realize it is fiction. The movie Gettysburg is based on the book Killer Angels. There is one fictional character in the book and I’ve had rangers at the national park tell me many people thought the character was real and wanted to know where he died.

Which brings us to destructive history in the form of books, movies and television reality shows that distort or downright invent “history.” The unknown is part of history. Historians need to acknowledge that there are facts that are lost to time. Speculation is fine as long as the recipient knows it is speculation. Hollywood movies “based on a true story” usually means it is a fictional story and not a documentary. A book overhyped just to gain sales is doing a disservice to readers and history. The same goes for reality shows. One series speculated Hitler didn’t commit suicide in 1945 and was seen at various places worldwide after the end of World War II. The show was utter nonsense.

I’m always grateful when I receive comments like the ones uttered after the Sunrise Rotary meeting. History did come alive for my audience. The Congress of Civil War Round Tables named me a “5-Star” speaker. The one comment that made me smile came from PBS’s Grover Silcox, host of Counter Coulter on WLVT PBS39. During an interview, he said I have “a keen sense of curiosity and a gumshoe’s nose for storytelling.”