Are You A Civil War Buff?

As I was putting the finishing touches on my AHA paper a few weeks ago I reread parts of Stephen Cushman’s book, Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle. The book is about the Battle of the Wilderness and was published in 1999. I’m sure you Civil War bibliophiles out there are probably wondering how you could have missed a recent examination of this battle. Well, don’t worry; this is not your typical Civil War battle history. In fact, it’s not a battle study at all, but a reflection on the way the event has been represented or imagined in letters, diaries, memoirs, public celebrations, and histories. And Cushman is not a historian, but an English Professor at the University of Virginia. Although it may be tempting to dismiss him because of this, I find that Cushman brings a fresh perspective, fueled by his background in literary analysis and a solid grasp of the historiography surrounding this battle. The combination makes for a very enjoyable and reflective read.

There is a very short chapter in the beginning of the book which examines the meaning of the label “Civil War buff.” Cushman notes that the word “buff” is defined by Webster’s New International “As an enthusiast about going to fires”, and by the Third New International as a “Fan, Enthusiast, Devotee.” A recent Random House Dictionary defines “buff” as “a devotee or well-informed student of some activity or subject.” Cushman then proceeds to explain what troubles him about these definitions:

What’s wrong with the definitions above, or, more accurately, what is incomplete about them, immediately becomes apparent when we try to use buff as though it were merely a neutral synonym for a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable person. If, for example, one were to call a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable student of Christianity “a Jesus buff,” that epithet would sound disrespectful and offensive to many ears. Or if we called a passionately committed specialist in the history of the Nazi concentration camps “a Holocaust buff,” the tasteless trivializing behind the phrase would be palpable. We would never think of describing Abraham Lincoln as a “Union buff,” Jefferson Davis as a “states rights buff,” or Frederick Douglass as “an abolition buff.” (p. 22)

The problem with these definitions, if I understand Cushman, is the tension between the seriousness on the one hand and the playfulness or hobbyist nature of the buff. It is this latter quality that I was trying to point out in my earlier post, “Civil War Entertainment.” Cushman is correct to point out that it is only with the passage of time and the accompanying psychologically safe space that one can be entertained by the Civil War.

It is only in the safety of peace that people can have fun with war. When a man plasters his pickup truck with bumper stickers reading, “Happiness Is a Northbound Yankee,” “I had rather be dead than a Yankee,”. . . . “Southern by the Grace of God,” he seems to be carrying out a kind of deep memorializing that keeps the war present in his mind and that of anyone who sees his truck. But in fact he’s having it both ways, since it is only because the war is so long gone and absent from most people’s awareness that he can afford to brandish these inflammatory slogans. He appears to urge remembrance, but he does so in terms that depends on forgetting. (p. 25)

One can reduce Cushman’s explanation to what all of us already know, that bumper-stickered vehicles are driven by shallow people. The bumper sticker indicates that the individual is not serious about the past or at least unwilling to move beyond a set of simplistic and emotionally-laden assumptions. This crowd is perhaps the clearest example of a more diffuse population that relishes in entertainment side of Civil War remembrance. Here is how Cushman closes this chapter:

As for me, though I confess there are many moments when I can manage to forget the war and think about something truly amusing, the war itself is not a source of amusement. I’m not enthusiastic about chasing firefighters, and the word buff does not describe me. For one thing, I don’t feel as secure about the boundary between war and peace as I’d like to, for reasons I’m still trying to discover. In the meantime, what word does describe my condition and that of people like me however many or few we are? I’m not sure, but I think it might be the word “sufferer,” as in the phrase “allergy sufferer.” I think I must be a Civil War sufferer. How else can I explain the itchy throat and watery eyes when I pass the Wilderness sign?

So are you a Civil War buff?

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