One of the most humiliating intellectual moments of my life was not during a thesis defense, at a conference, or while teaching a class. No, it began in the Baton Rouge airport. Bored, I was looking through the gift shop when I came across a Civil War trivia book. At the time, I was probably 22 or 23, a graduate student: smug, over-confident, a little too sure of my abilities concerning all things Civil War. I was sure I would breeze through this trivia book, which had multiple choice questions and a “magic” pen that you used to fill in the answers. When you answered correctly, it said “Yes” next to the right answer. When it was wrong, the pen revealed a “No.” At first glance, the trivia book looked like something for kids. How hard could it be, right?
What commenced, as I worked on the book during the flight, was an intellectual beat down–the worst since I had taken the history GRE exam as a senior in college (scoring an abysmal 490). As a Yankee, intellectually this was Cold Harbor, Ball’s Bluff, and Fredericksburg all rolled into one. This booklet, which seemed so harmless on the surface, was as unrelenting as Old Pete’s men firing from Marye’s Height’s. Here are a few examples of the kinds of questions asked: “Union general and Quaker, who, though not sympathetic to Brown’s raid, escorted Mrs. Brown to bring John Brown’s body back for burial”:
Hector Tyndale Parke Godwin
Richard Smith Theodore Tilton
The answer is, of course, Hector Tyndale.
Another one: “At the Battle of Nashville, this Union general’s troops had been moved so often under many commanders that he called them “the lost tribes of Israel.”
John Gleason Andrew Smith
Clark Lagow Thomas Rowley
Did you say Andrew Jackson Smith on the first try? No? Well, you obviously didn’t pay attention at the last meeting of the Sons of Union Veterans.
Now, many historians will say that they’re not great at trivia, which usually has very little to do with scholarship. Trivia is for buffs, they might tell you. Who cares about the commander of the Confederate left flank at Pea Ridge if you don’t know how to do research, write books, and successfully make a fresh argument that adds to the historiography?
Well, many people are good at trivia, and sometimes I’m one of them. But nothing will irk a scholar more than getting his ass kicked in a trivia contest. I remember once listening to an NPR show on which a prepubescent boy–and presidential history expert–was schooling a couple of academics who were on the show with him. “I hate this kid!” one of the professors eventually said in frustration.
As Ray Liotta says in Goodfellas, “everyone takes a beating sometime.” He meant a physical beating. But I’ve learned you can take one intellectually, and sometimes, that’s worse–usually physical beatings don’t take place on national TV. Two out of three people on Jeopardy! have to lose. And some don’t even make it to Final Jeopardy. Ken Jennings, the best Jeopardy! contestant ever, won 74 times in a row. But last year, even Jennings was humiliated by IBM’s “Watson” computer, which outscored him by $50,000. All Ken could do was joke during Final Jeopardy about welcoming the reign of our new computer overlords.
I’m not quite there yet. I’m having enough problems keeping up with the humans.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.