21 April 2009 by Published in: Research and Writing 16 comments

Dana B. Shoaf is the editor of both America’s Civil War and Civil War Times, and he faces a big task. First, and foremost, it’s a big challenge to find sufficient quality content to fill 12 issues per year of two different magazines. Second, the two magazines have slightly different focuses.

The biggest challenge he faces is finding material that will appeal to the masses but which maintains some scholarly credibility. Dana recently gave a talk on the subject. From yesterday’s issue of the Hagerstown Herald Mail newspaper:

Historian: Articles should appeal to masses

APRIL 20, 2009
HAGERSTOWN — What do Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Sex Pistols have to do with the Civil War?

Not much, but to Dana Shoaf, editor of the Civil War Times and America’s Civil War magazines, their stories are connected to the history magazine business.

Shoaf told an audience of about 30 Monday at Hagerstown Community College’s Kepler Theater that the brothers who created the Mr. Olympia contest — which Schwarzenegger won seven times — bought the publishing group that owns Civil War Times and other magazines three years ago after selling their weight-lifting magazines for $250 million.

Shoaf also told the crowd gathered Monday for HCC’s annual Kreykenbohm lecture series that the touring philosophy of the Sex Pistols, an English punk rock band that formed in the 1970s, held some lessons for what he said was the need for history magazines to reach a broader audience.

The Sex Pistols began touring in dive bars in the deep South that typically catered to a country-western crowd, instead of their usual punk bars. The Southern audiences often threw bottles at the band.

Shoaf said the band’s philosophy was, “You must go where you need to to convert the masses.”

That is what Shoaf argued for during his talk Monday, titled, “When Worlds Collide: The Problems of Academics and Popular Civil War Magazines.”

“The problem with academic historians is they are not reaching a wide popular audience,” Shoaf said.

He said there is a need for factual, well-researched historical articles that are moderately priced and appeal to the masses.

Shoaf said that in his business, people often are reluctant to read social history because they think it is boring. They want articles about battles, but Shoaf said they like social history if they aren’t aware that’s what they are reading.

He gave an example of an article on the depiction of Abraham Lincoln’s face by the press.

“At first it was unflattering, but over time, as the war went on, the depictions became more realistic as people gained more respect for him,” Shoaf said. “That’s social history.”

Shoaf has taught American history at HCC and Northern Virginia Community College, worked for Time Life as a writer and researcher, and published a number of articles and book reviews about the Civil War, according to Joan Johnson, HCC’s chair of English and Humanities. Shoaf also is a board member of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation.

Dana’s point, I think, is well taken. A few years before the magazine group was sold to the Weiders, the prior owner, Primedia, tried out a very well-respected scholarly journal called Columbiad, but nobody bought it, and it quickly died. It was the closest thing to a purely academic journal available generally. North & South magazine tries to cross into both realms, as it offers a mass appeal presentation, but includes more scholarly pieces and includes footnotes with its articles. North & South, however, is very poorly run and only appears sporadically any more. Thus, Dana’s publications are the only ones available regularly, and while he does a great job with them, I do wish that they included footnotes. I think it would lend a little more credibility, but management steadfastly refuses to include them.

This is, of course, nitpicking. Dana does a great job, and I don’t envy him the task of running two mass-market magazines at once. Keep up the good work, Dana.

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  1. Tom Clemens
    Tue 21st Apr 2009 at 8:55 pm

    My wife and I attended last night’s speech by Dana. He did a great job, and we’re proud to know him. And as someone who had an article in the first Columbiad, i know what you mean about missing it.

  2. dan
    Tue 21st Apr 2009 at 8:55 pm

    >I think it would lend a little more credibility, but management steadfastly refuses to include them.

    I completely agree with this. CWTI (CWT) will NEVER be considered “respectable” nor of “value” to intellectuals or students or teachers or scholars without footnotes being included. Every historian knows that footnotes substantiate a piece of historical writing and without them, the work is of little intellectual value. The tragedy of Shelby Foote’s excellent series on the War is that no footnotes were included. Therefor, few historians if any will cite it; because they can’t. I would speculate that every article that CWT publishes is submitted with footnotes. Why not publish them? Put them in the back of the magazine if you don’t want to interfere with the “flow”, or your don’t want to appear too academic. CWT will ALWAYS be a fringe magazine, always until the reluctant editors accept the truth of the matter. Any work of history must include citations so that readers can follow the research of the historian and see how the writer came to the conclusions that he/she did. This is the foundation of “history as science”. We need to show our methodology and how we reach the conclusions that we do. Without showing our research, without showing our proofs we’re like lame physicists who cannot prove our theories with a “proof”. I haven’t been a subscriber of CWT for almost twenty years for just this very reason. Not including footnotes is absolutely indefensible for a magazine of history. Popular history is about TONE, not about lack of scholarship. Embrace the footnote folks at CWT and watch your readership increase. Thanks for raising this obscure but very important point, Eric. If we love the study history, as we claim that we do, we must show our readers that we are qualified in the conclusions that we reach, and that we are qualified to speak to our audience. No high-falutin’ degree in the byline can do this. Only an authoritative voice coupled with the proofs of footnoting can do this. Rejecting this concept is indefensible.

  3. Tue 21st Apr 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Dan –

    While I am all for footnotes and have included them with any article I’ve submitted/published in “popular history” magazines I would respectfully disagree that there is sufficient “magic” in them that it would transform CWTI, for example, into a respected magazine by academics, etc. There is nothing precious about a footnote/endnote, per se. Look at the end of one of Mr. Wittenberg’s whipping posts (rightly so): Tom Carhart’s “Lee’s Real Plan”…you’ll find a dozen pages of endnotes, but that does not add any additional credibility to the book. Foote’s trilogy is not widely quoted by professional historians because it lacks footnotes…what it lacks is original *analysis* or new findings. Methinks a general reader would not know how to discriminate among the reliability quoted sources, etc. in a “footnoted” CWTI article. We would like them, as more experienced readers and writers, of course, but I still maintain that there is nothing about an annotated article that automatically lends it credibility.

    All My Best,

    Jim Schmidt

  4. Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 7:50 am

    I concur that footnotes adds to the credibility of the author and the article. However, I realize that they take up space and that is valuable advertising room (which underwrites the magazine). Perhaps the endnotes can be published on-line and would therefore be accessible to the reader that way?

  5. Dan
    Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 9:15 am

    Like statistics, footnotes are an abusable thing and are not invaluable in and of themselves. But that is not the point. Use of footnotes does not add accuracy, it does however add a level of intellectual vigor for the historian/author and a demonstration of same to the reader that are entirely absent without them. If we embrace narrative and popular history, as does CWTI, I am not sure where your criticism of Foote comes from. His work is excellently written, and very exciting from a reader’s perspective. You may not like his style, but that is fine. Your criticism of Foote suggests that all books of history must be analytical to be of merit. How many books about Pickett’s Charge for example, can the market place bare, or could possibly add to the canon? What new analysis can be done on the strategic and tactical aspects of that event? However, there are many, many more stories that remain to be documented that demand little analysis but still contribute to the literature. I suggest that this reliance on analysis is a serious flaw in historiography and in the academy. There is great value in “telling the stories” of history without putting some fake/faux pseudo-scientific, analytic eye to the matter. Dr. Faust’s recent “This Republic of Suffering” is a perfect example of both the failure of footnotes, and the failure of the analytic approach. Dr. Faust’s book is extensively footnoted but the conclusions are wrong anyway. We are still responsible for the quality of our writing, and any analysis that we present to our readers; however, without footnotes we cannot presume the mantle of scholar, academic, or even expert because our discussion of a battle, campaign, personality, or theme is not sufficient in and of itself to validate us as the author to our audience. As mathematicians are required to provide proofs as evidence, we historians are required to provide the foundations of our research as our own proof that we have “done the work”. I believe that this is an incontrovertable fact and the sooner our more “popular” journals of history embrace this fact the better in my opinion. Anything that elevates the study of history is something I support. Footnotes are foundational to validating the historian to his/her audience; no publication of history that desires respect and later use as a source itself should avoid them.
    With Respect,
    Daniel Mallock

  6. Art Bergeron
    Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 9:21 am

    Well, there is “Civil War History,” although the preponderance of its articles over the past decade or so have tended away from the military aspects of the conflict.

  7. Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 10:55 am

    I understand where you are coming from on the footnote debate. Though I don’t know your background I think it’s a little dangerous to say that any historian’s conclusions (in this case Faust’s) are wrong without some qualification. That’s a pretty bold statement that was thrown out there and then left hanging. I’d like to see your footnotes to support that statement 😉

    PS – I haven’t read Faust’s book so I’m not defending her; just saying that it takes some cajones to throw out something like that without some explanation.

  8. Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 11:08 am


    As a current subscriber and collector of Civil War History, I’ve seen this trending away from Military History firsthand. I would estimate that currently something like two thirds of the articles focus on race while most of the rest focus on gender. In fact, Civil War History is the perfect example of what Dana is talking about when he says people think Social History is boring. It has become increasingly difficult to slog through some of the articles in Civil War History. I’ve got this weird anal thing where I can’t stand to skip articles in the magazines and journals I subscribe to, but it’s getting to the point where I might read one article, skim the other one or two, and just read some of the book reviews.

  9. Dan
    Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 11:12 am


    I am happy to defend my criticism of Dr. Faust’s abysmal book. You can read it here, if you wish.


    My credentials are irrelevent. If you disagree with the argument herein laid out, present your counter-argument.

    Best Regards,

  10. Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Footnotes or not? I tend to read a book or article by way of notations. That’s because I like to know where the writer was coming from and validate what he/she wrote. And ALSO because I’m lazy, and don’t wish to look through several volumes in my library to find the validating information – so I “expect” the writer to point me in that direction. Sort of selfish, but then again the writer is the one making money off the exchange, however little.

  11. Chuck
    Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 1:04 pm

    I gave up on CWTI, North & South and America’s Civil war ages ago. They just don’t have much depth to their articles. I subscribe only to Blue & Gray Magazine. Their articles are well written by known historians, wonderfully mapped and footnoted. They also take the time and space to cover a battle as thoroughly as possible for a magazine format (i.e. 2 issues on Fredericksburg, 2 issues on Shiloh, etc.).

  12. Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Having discussed this topic with Dana at length and having heard him speak on it at ths SCWH conference this past June, I think I can say that to “be considered “respectable” [or] of “value” to intellectuals or students or teachers or scholars” isn’t really what he’s going for (though his magainzes are held in higher regard than some would like to think). CWT has been around for nearly 50 years. It’s never used footnotes to any great extent, and some of the giants of CW history have written in its pages. The point he is making here is that academics are missing out on great opportunities to reach a wider audience and so have a greater impact.

    As for footnotes in magazine articles, I can say that I’ve read plenty of them and they often (way, way too often) do not support what the author has concluded.

    There is an audience (small) for traditional academic work. There is an audience (huge) for popular history without the bells and whistles. Dana is encouraging academics to preach to the folks who need salvation instead of to the choir. Based on who has been writing for CWT lately, I’d say some of them are taking his advice.

  13. Gary
    Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Isn’t this the same trend in philosophy that governs the new museums and visitor centers being built at historical sites around the country? The Abraham Lincoln museum in Springfield, IL and the new Gettysburg visitor center come to mind.

  14. Larry Freiheit
    Wed 22nd Apr 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I have all issues of the Columbiad and agree that it is a shame that it was not more popular. I also agree that endnotes in CWT would make articles within it much more valuable even if the notes were only available on line. The Civil War Regiments series, A Journal of the American Civil War, I thought was also well done with great endnotes but also not popular enough to survive long.

    As Craig said, being pointed in the right direction for further research plus being able to read the sources to understand the author’s arguments is extremely valuable for me.

    I have almost all issues of Civil War History back to 1955 and agree with Brette that the older issues which contain less social history are much more interesting. BTW, I have several dozen old CWH available for trade to complete my collection of CWH, the Civil War Regiments series, and CWT (PM if interested: killsour@hotmail.com).

    Larry Freiheit

  15. John Foskett
    Sun 26th Apr 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I used to be more concerned about the lack of footnotes than i am now. Not conicidentally, my concerns diminshed as the quality of the articles (and authors) has improved significantly in both magazines.In my opinion, footnotes in a popular publication serve two purposes. They allow an interested reader to explore background sources for more detailed information. They also allow the reader to “cross examine” the author. Frankly, I’d wager that the overwhelming majority of folks who subscribe to these magazines don’t bother doing either. That means that for most people footnotes become simply a presumption that the article is reliable (which may or may not be the case). I still think footnotes would be an improvement, but their absence no longer has the effect for me that it once did – a prerequisite for subscribing. And I still remember the article by our friend DiLorenzo about Lincoln and the Tariff in N&S – which had one single, solitary footnote. I suppose that’s compliance….

  16. Mon 27th Apr 2009 at 2:43 pm

    I think perhaps a middle ground approach could be very beneficial here. As someone suggested above, post the article with footnotes in the online version, where it doesn’t cost the publisher in advertising space, printing costs, etc. Simply add one sentence at the beginning/ end of the article: “For those interested in further information on this story, a full version of the this article with footnotes can be accessed at …..”

    The magazine incurs no additional cost or loss of space, the magazine retains its current visual appeal, and those of us who like to dig in and explore have the full means to do so.

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