Saturday, November 27, 2010
A few words regarding Civil War memory
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
Well - we are nearing the Civil War sesquicentennial. Damn straight. 150 years since the good people of South Carolina fired on Ft. Sumter and kicked off four years of fun for all.
This landmark anniversary has got people thinking. People like my Twitter friend (@cjceglio) want to know about the national memory of the war. What has been emphasized; what has been suppressed?
It just so happens that Civil War memory (in my humble opinion) is in a state of flux at the moment.
For the longest time, historians have stressed the "forgetfulness" of the national citizenry when it came to the war. The spirit of national reconciliation, scholars such as David Blight argue, paired reconciliationists with white supremacists and they wrote the memory of the war on southern terms. Meaning - the issues of slavery and emancipation were essentially written out of the war's memory. Suppressed as it were. Instead, so the story goes, parties from both sides remembered the war as reconciled Americans. they emphasized the shared memories of valor, devotion, heroism, and a mutual defense of cause - all worthy virtues.
The problem is - the veterans of the war didn't see things quite this way. Recent scholarship on this subject (my own included) accents the contentious memories of the war. So long as the participants of the war lived, issues such as slavery , state rights, treason, and tyranny remained in the fore.
And the veterans' legacies lived on. It seems that Americans have been fighting a war with words ever since. Oh sure, there has been some suppression of the more bitter memories here and there. But overall - northerners and southerners have been at each other for the last 150 years over what exactly the war was about. The issues remain just as salient today as they did in 1861.
Except one. It seems that treason has slipped below the surface. With all the talk (important talk, mind you) about slavery, we have sort of collectively misplaced the notion that millions of southerners supported treason against the United States government. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and anyone else who donned the Confederate gray committed the highest crime conceivable against their nation. You can say all you want about state rights, southern honor, blah blah blah. That doesn't negate the fact that white southerners turned against their legally elected government. Hmmmmmm. I wonder how that would fly today. Just sayin'.....
But those are my two cents. Lots of you out there will probably disagree with me (some of you might want to punch me in the face). So be it - I have spent most of my adult life trying to figure this out....I let the evidence speak for itself.
Now if you want more I suggest a number of things. To begin, there is a FIRST RATE blog that deals with this topic in an unparalleled fashion. Historian and High School history teacher Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory is well worth reading and sharing with your friends.
Also, you will want to check out David Blight's book, Race and Reunion - this is probably the most important book that I argue against. A fine work to be sure but not quite right.
The counter argument is just getting going. Stay tuned for my book on Civil War veterans and commemoration, Across the Bloody Chasm: Reconciliation on the Wake of Civil War. For a preview check out my article of Union vets and emancipation. Also, historian Joan Waugh has written an excellent book on U.S. Grant and Civil War memory - and that's just for starters. The topic of memory is alive and well...thankfully.
If you want to bust my chops on this, go ahead....I am ready. Send me a Tweet or Facebook me anytime :)