Tuesday, March 15, 2011

John Neff's Honoring the Civil War Dead - (his take on) the Problem With Reconciliation

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

And what a perfect morning it is - the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the helicopters are circling overhead. It is a beautiful day in Los Angeles.

Given my tendency to reflect on my work of the past several years, I thought it appropriate to discuss one of my favorite books on the issue of national reconciliation in the wake of civil war (sheesh - that would make a great book subtitle!).

John R. Neff is one of the few (and I mean few) who go against the grain by suggesting that all was not so benignly reconciliationist (for better or worse) during the post war decades - especially in terms of commemoration. Sure, as he admits, there were a great deal of spread-eagle, but alas, issue-free reconciliatory efforts/movements/gestures...or whatever you choose to call them...

...but what of those who persistently reminded citizens of the more troubling memories of the war years? What of those memories that did not fold neatly within the confines of the current understanding of reconciliation? Where do they fit in the commemorative ethos? Neff’s book, Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation, examines those outside the reconciliation framework defined by most scholars. Basking in the light of the “cause victorious,” Neff argues, many of the Union veterans mourning their fallen comrades harbored bitter resentment toward their former enemies.

Reasoning that veterans could in no way imagine the memories of their fallen comrades apart from the contentions of war, he suggests their sentiments represent the key challenge to reconciliatory efforts in the late-nineteenth century. This compelling study does more to expose the lingering bitterness than any of its predecessors.

Yet it oversimplifies antagonisms by reinforcing a dichotomy of reconciled versus unreconciled veterans. Analyzing these individuals in terms of stark opposition – those who were committed to reconciliation and those who were not – may indeed be a dead end.

It is this over simplification that I find so troubling - and what I also find to be the hardest thing to overcome when considering this era. But riddle me this - Can one favor....even embrace reconciliation on antagonistic terms? It seems that yes indeed, one can - especially if you were a Civil War veteran.

I have fired more than one warning shot right here on Cosmic America - and have written a (soon to be published) book on the subject. So stay tuned...there will be more to follow.



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