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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum: Centennial vs. Sesquicentennial

Feb 29th, 2012

4) How do think recent scholarship on memory has shaped current perceptions of the Civil War?


KN: I think the answer depends upon whose perceptions one means. On the one hand, one of the hallmarks of recent scholarship certainly has been a flowering of memory studies within the discipline of Civil War studies. Not so long ago, dealing with memory meant recommending that students read the two standard works on the Lost Cause tradition by Gaines Foster and Charles Reagan Wilson. Now I assign an entire graduate reading list on memory and teach a Civil War memory course to undergraduates. The end result is that more than ever in the academy we tend to recognize different, constructed traditions of Civil War memory and commemoration. The academic zeitgeist makes it increasingly easy for university-trained historians to recognize and even deconstruct familiar facets of commemoration and celebration, whether the earliest stirrings of the faithful slave motif within the Lost Cause tradition or its latest incarnation in the debate over so-called black Confederates. On the other hand, many people beyond campus are increasingly suspicious of what they hear about all of that. To them, what David Blight calls a “reconciliationist” or “white supremacist” interpretation is just the truth, and indeed a truth being undermined by partisan intellectuals. Resistance inevitably will follow when a memory-based interpretation runs headlong into what essentially is a secular faith in a revealed truth of the past. Yet I think it’s a conversation worth having. Frankly, I was surprised and delighted at how much my undergraduates embraced my memory course and made it their own. A year later, I still get emails from some of them about sesquicentennial events and issues. So we can talk about how various strands of memory shaped visions of the era and still reach a larger audience.

RC: Recent memory studies, driven by Maurice Halbwach’s critical insight that historical memories are socially constructed, have had a very positive impact within the academy, especially insofar as they have demonstrated the conflict’s power to mold American politics and culture far beyond the formal cut-off date of 1865. In this respect, they have confirmed the view of southern writer Robert Penn Warren that the Civil War “is, for the American imagination, the greatest single event of our history.”8 By demonstrating how war-born memories had a crucial impact on the making of the Jim Crow South and the reunified United States, leading historians of Civil War memory, such as David Blight, have breached traditional period divisions between the Civil War and the Gilded Age. Numerous topics have been enriched by their work, among them the development of public architecture in the United States, the election of 1896, and the role of white women in the New South. Further research will likely deepen our awareness of the war’s impact on later periods of American history, including the Great Depression, which witnessed multivolume histories of Lincoln and Lee, movie depictions such as Gone with the Wind, and the final gathering of veterans at Gettysburg in 1938.

RC: Although Reconstruction is now attracting attention from memory scholars, historians have shown only limited interest in probing the impact of constructed historical memories on the conflict itself. It is true that most scholars are aware that Revolutionary memory played an important role in the coming of the war. However, there is more to learn about how memories of the Missouri Compromise debates or the Nullification Crisis affected Republicans and secessionists during the winter of 1860–61 and how old contests over politics and religion at the local level heightened antagonism between unionists and Rebels in the wartime South.

DS: Scholarship on memory has affected the way I look at my magazine, I can tell you that much. Whenever I read an article submission, I try to make sure the author has considered memory studies. I also try to have content in the magazine at least a couple of times a year that deals with memory-focused topics.

RC: Memory studies have probably had little effect so far on the way Americans outside the academy view the Civil War. Here is another area in which professional historians can use their skills to influence the sesquicentennial. The more ordinary Americans understand why they think about the Civil War in the way they do, the better. It’s not easy to change someone’s mind when they say that their parents or grandparents acted or thought in a particular manner, especially when that mode has been sanctioned by years of government support. But showing how individuals, groups, institutions and events contribute to the inherently political process of memory-making may, at the very least, add another dimension to a person’s thinking. If the Civil War sometimes seems like unfinished business 150 years on, we all need a more robust idea about why this is the case.

JW: Work on memory has had a significant impact on academe, especially after David Blight’s brilliant book, Race and Reunion. Memory is an exciting new way to study the war and its aftermath, but I suspect this is a conversation taking place almost entirely within the academy. I have no sense from my speaking engagements that the general public has any awareness of or interest in this.

DS: Ironically, in a way, I think memory studies may be contributing to the concerns some states and organizations have about the sesquicentennial and, who knows, maybe the federal government as well. Back in the day, it seemed, at least, to be easier. Want to commemorate the Civil War? Well, go out and have yourself a big battle reenactment, which involved a lot of white guys firing blanks at each other with flags waving in the breeze. White, heroic memory of the Civil War was the standard.

DS: Today, many organizers are aware that is too simplistic an approach to things, but at the same time, they are hesitant to proceed for fear of offending people. I’m not saying memory studies are “bad”—I’ve already expressed how I include them in Civil War Times—but I do think such scholarship has had unintended consequences. I know this will rankle some readers of Civil War History, but I have heard such concerns expressed by others as well.

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