Recent Additions to the Memory Landscape

Nice to see that Dimitri Rotov has had an opportunity to update Civil War Book News. I thought I might point out a few new titles in the area of Civil War memory that are worth examining. This particular field is in full swing since the 2001 publication of David Blight’s Race and Reunion. Blight’s book does an excellent job surveying the process by which Americans chose to remember their Civil War. According to Blight, both Northerners and Southerners ignored the divisive issues of race and emancipation in exchange for a story that emphasized the heroism of the soldiers, thus making reunion much easier by the turn of the century. The books impact can be seen in more recent studies that either expand on or take issue with specific points in Blight’s overall argument. Two in particular, John Neff’s Honoring the Civil War Dead and William Blair’s Cities of the Dead, argue that the process of reconciliation occurred despite lingering bitterness. Blair’s study is a more localized examination of Virginia during Reconstruction; he argues that civic ceremonies were intended to maintain an identity rooted in the ideas of the Confederacy and the Old South. W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s, Southern Past provides a thorough analysis of how and why the African American legacy of the war was supplanted by a narrative that emphasized the values of white Americans. Brundage compares the distinct advantage that white Americans possessed in communicating their preferred history of the war to the general public with the limited access of African Americans due to discrimination and disfranchisement. Most importantly, Brundage reminds the reader that African Americans continued to celebrate their preferred history of the war even if much of the country remained unaware or disinterested. Brundage’s book is a first-rate study! One of the more interesting books to be published this year is Bruce Levine’s, Confederate Emancipation. Levine tackles the controversial topic of Confederate plans to emancipate and equip former slaves into the ranks. I just finished this book and highly recommend it. Although it is a straight-forward history of the heated debate that took place throughout the South, the final chapter focuses specifically on why it was so important for southerners during the postwar years to claim that large numbers of slaves willingly fought in Confederate ranks. Given my interests this forced me to rethink a number of assumptions in reference to how Southerners chose to remember black soldiers at the Crater. I plan to say more about this book in a future post.

An increased number of memory studies have focused on specific battles, military leaders or individual units. In the first category, Carol Reardon’s, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory is a very readable account of the mythologizing of the famous charge. (It was published in 1997 but it is a great place to start in thinking about battlefield remembrances.) I’ve learned a great deal from this book and it has served as a useful model for my own work on the Crater. Shiloh is explored in Timothy Smith’s, This Great Battlefield of Shiloh. Smith utilizes Blight’s concept of reconciliation in tracking the battlefields evolution to National Military Park. Hot off the presses is John Cimprich’s, Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory. I have to say that I was very disappointed with this one. It is thoroughly researched, but there is very little on public memory. Given the racial component, I thought there would be much more on public history. Finally, there is Christopher Waldrep’s, Vicksburg’s Long Shadow, which I have not had time to read.

On the memory of individuals, see C. Wyatt Evans’, The Legend of John Wilkes Booth: Myth, Memory, & a Mummy, which is a very interesting read. Evans examines why both Southerners and Northerners encouraged the legend of Booth’s escape and how some profitted by it. Donald E. Collins tracks Davis’s evolving public image throughout the postwar years and following his death in The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis. This is a relatively short book. (I am supposed to have finished a journal review of this book by now.)

Needless to say that I’ve only scratched the surface of recently released titles. The genre seems to be alive and well.

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