Sunday, October 10, 2010

Prove Genealogy Backwards, Read History Forward

As genealogists, we are taught to start with the present and prove our genealogy backwards in time. For each generation we gather enough information to prove our connections and only then do we step back to the next generation. The idea behind this is if you start with an ancestor way in the past you could end up researching someone who is not really in your family tree at all.

Imagine my ears perk up as I was driving this week and heard Professor Gary W. Gallagher tell me to read history forward.

When I go on long distance driving trips I love to listen to a series of CDs called The Great Courses. These CDs cover a multitude of topics from art history to music appreciation, philosophy, history, etc. My local library has a number of different topics but my favorite set is the History of the United States, 2nd Edition.

Typically I listen to the CDs that cover early American history but for my most recent drive to Connecticut I chose to listen to Civil War history for the first time.  The lectures are presented  by Professor Gary W. Gallagher of the University of Virginia.  They were fascinating. 

In the midst of listening to all the political and military details of the times, Professor Gallagher said "Read History Forward."  In the course of the CDs he repeated this not once but twice.

Here's one of the examples that he used to explain what he meant.  The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most important battles of the Civil War.  It was the battle with the largest number of casualties and was considered as the turning point in the war.  Professor Gallagher cautions that how we regard the Battle of Gettysburg today is based on knowledge gained after the war was over. Our historical retrospective provided greater importance for how we now view those events.

Professor Gallagher argues that at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg Americans did not feel that it was a turning point in the war.  His hope is to impress upon listeners the importance of reading contemporary history forward from the time of the actual event to learn how contemporaries really felt about the event.  He stressed that it is important to put historical events into proper contemporary context and be sure that we are accurately recounting how the people at that time felt rather than how we now view an event.

This was like an aha! moment for me.  I had never really considered with such precision the concept that Professor Gallagher presented.  Yet it occurred to me that this philosophy is crucial for everyone who wants to add flesh to the bones of history or genealogy. 

To accurately represent historical figures or our own ancestors we need to not only do extensive research using primary and secondary sources but we need to accurately interpret the context of the times by understanding contemporary point of view.  Contemporary context of public (and private) interpretation of historical events seems as important as adding social history facts to the lives of our ancestors.

Not only should we be saying that the Civil War occurred during our ancestors lives but we have the opportunity to show how people in America felt about those events as they happened.  And we should be accurately representing their contemporary point of view rather than how we feel about those events today.

"Read history forward."  It's definitely food for thought.  I'm going to embrace it and add it to my tool box.


  1. Excellent! "...interpret the context of the times by understanding contemporary point of view."

  2. I love newspapers for this very reason. They put a person's story into context with what else is going on at the time--events, attitudes, prejudices, day-to-day happenings. Letters to the editor are great--everyday people, everyday attitudes. Time passes. Attitudes change. I love reading "contemporary" reviews of great literature works for the same reason. Today's classics weren't always so popular back in the day. It's kind of like looking at history in the same way.

    Thanks for the interesting post

  3. Good thought. I agree with Cynthia. Newspapers do put you in the current thoughts of the time period. Very interesting.

  4. This very much expresses something that has been nagging at the back of my mind as I read through old newspapers - there were some significant differences in how they saw the events of their day.

  5. Marian, I LOVE The Great Courses and just finished History of the United States this week. It was an amazing course, wasn't it? I learned so much.

  6. Double thanks - for the recommendation of The Great Courses and for sharing what you learned from Prof. Gallagher. Great post.