Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Pick of the Week: Burying the Dead but not the Past

A decade or so back, the theme of historical memory had developed into a Juggernaut among academics. Well count me in - if there is anything more fascinating than an analysis of how people come to terms with - and remember - their history I don't know what it is. No joke. I have been elbow deep in this corner of scholarship for the better part of ten years, and I don't plan on slowing down at all.

A handful have suggested that the theme has run its course - that there may not be much left to talk about. Perhaps...just looking at all the book subtitles (i.e. "fill in the blank" in History and Memory) one might arrive at the conclusion that the topic has been drained dry.


I am happy to report that historical memory is alive and well. Thankfully so. But the literature is crying out for a set of revisions - CRYING. From where I sit - there is no final word on memory, so I applaud those who travel down well worn analytical paths to...I don't know, maybe find a few new ones.

Which brings me to the book pick of the week. Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies' Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause by Caroline E. Janney. If you thought you couldn't possibly learn anything new about the Lost Cause - well then you can just think again.

This is a wonderful book about the origins of the Lost Cause and Confederate memorialization. Janney suggests that rather than the much better known Daughters of the Confederacy in the late 19th century, earlier groups - Ladies Memorial Associations - were the designers of powerful Lost Cause mythology. What's more....and here is the real nugget folks - while upper and middle-class southern white women were not considered political actors in the traditional sense, their work with burials and Confederate Memorial Day activities suggests that they were indeed intensely political, and in fact were some of the chief proponents in keeping Confederate memory alive.

So have at it. And if you are ever in Richmond, be sure to visit Hollywood Cemetery and check out some of the LMAs finest work. They were instrumental in the reinternment of the Gettysburg Dead.
If you want to follow historian Kevin Levin's fantastic blog concerning Civil War Memory, click HERE.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cosmic America: Book Pick of the Week

Want to learn all about 19th century Americans' ideas of a "good" death? Want to know what these same folks do when they are faced with the deaths of 620,000 young men - who die far from home and family?

Today I am reading a mighty fine book: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. It is the latest from Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, prominent Civil War historian, and a person with whom I sometimes agree.



Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To Bind Up the Nation's Wounds - Reconciliation Reconsidered


Greetings all. This is the first in what will certainly be a series of posts concerning - you guessed it - post Civil War reconciliation. This is a topic that has been very close to my heart for the last decade. Just to open things up, I want to say a few words about the intersection between national reconciliation and the veterans' efforts to commemorate the war.

Commemorative themes have intrigued historians for decades. Their conclusions can best be described by what I have called the reconciliation premise. The premise, in a nutshell, goes something like this: The overwhelming majority of Civil War veterans moved on from the war and let bygones be bygones. The commemorated the war essentially free from controversy and instead, celebrated the mutual valor of all participants. Civil War commemorations were about remembering bravery and fortitude and forgetting divisive issues such as treason and slavery.

Historian David Blight has proposed that reunion rested on the solid ground of shared racism. In short, being able to write the vexing issues of slavery and emancipation out of Civil War memory allowed the veterans to quickly forgive one another and commemorate the war on "southern terms."

Hmmmmm. Well, I can't deny that Civil War veterans, by our standards, shared the racist assumptions of most people in the 19th century. But is this what reconciliation boiled down to? While Blight and his legion of followers make a compelling argument, I believe that they obscure what was really going on.

Reading through the historical records, one can quickly see that veterans left behind a wide range of opinions on the nation, the war, and their former enemies. The proponents of the reconciliation premise would argue that any individual stirring up a sectional fuss was either an Unreconstructed Rebel or a Bloody Shirt Yank - and definitely an anachronism during the reconciliation era.

But here's the problem. Some of the most vehement, the most vocal, and yes...the most sectional, claimed to be reconciliationists at heart. Reconcilationists talked at length about treason, tyranny, slavery, and oppression. And as it turns out, their commemorative efforts were loaded with highly controversial expressions after all.

Maybe then, reconciliation was something altogether different from what historians have led us to believe. I won't give it all away here - you'll just have to stay tuned. But for now, just think of the reconciliationist commemorative ethos as a heated competition.

Most veterans saw reconciliation as a fact. Nothing less. The Union cause had been about reconciling from the very beginning - preserving the Union explicitly demanded it. Former Confederates had little choice in the matter. But the terms of this reconciliation - and how the reunited nation and the world would remember the war - were highly contested. In some ways, this winner of this battle has not yet been determined.

While many historians insist that reconciliaiton was really about forgetting, I disagree. Reconciliation was about remembering - preserving the memories that led them to war in the first place.

For a couple of books that support the reconciliation premise (books that I argue against), see:
Race and Reunion by David Blight
Ghosts of the Confederacy by Gaines Foster