I’ve been reading through some of David Blight’s essays that are collected in his book, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War. The essays are pulled from academic journals, edited collections and public talks. In the epilogue Blight ends with a series of questions that once again raise the major themes of the book, including the connection between memory and battlefield commemoration, the political construction of memory, reconciliation and reunion, and the memory of race. Blight emphasizes throughout the essays that the construction of memory is a constant struggle between different social groups and the resulting narratives are the “cultural frameworks, conscious or not, that give shape and meaning to our lives.”
Such has surely been the case with America’s struggle to forge collective memories of the Civil War. Nations may not remember, but they are evolving creations of high stakes contests between groups that do remember and contend to define the past, present, and future of national cultures. Is the United States the nation that preserved itself in the War between the States, or the republic that reinvented itself in a war that destroyed racial slavery and expanded freedom and equality? Was the war a terrible bloodletting on the way to a better, more unified nation ready to play its appointed role in world affairs? Or was the war a deep national tragedy, the meaning of which is embedded in many different group memories—those of defeated white southerners, victorious white northerners, black former slaves, the descendents of free blacks, or European immigrant groups who made up significant percentages of the Union armies? Indeed, who owns the memory of the Civil War? Is it those who wish to preserve the sacred ground of battlefield parks for the telling of a heroic narrative of shared military glory on all sides? Or is it professional historians with academic training, determined to broaden the public interpretation of Civil War sites to include slavery, social history, women, and home fronts? Should the master narrative of the American Civil War be an essentially reconciliationist story of mutual sacrifice by noble men and women who believed in their equal version of the right? Or should the master narrative be a complex, pluralistic story of sections and races deeply divided over the future of slavery, free labor, and the character and breadth of American liberty? If everyone fought for “liberty” in the Civil War, then whose collective memory of the struggle should have a privileged place in textbook, films and on the landscape of memorialization? Indeed, whose claims to “liberty” prevailed? (pp. 278-79)
Blight’s questions include an implicit assumption that the construction of a collective memory is a matter of choice. It is very easy to see determinism at work in many of the studies of postwar America and the evolution of Civil War memory. While individuals emerge such as Frederick Douglass, all too often the conceptual apparatus of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists overshadows any real potential to bring about significant change. With the Civil War Sesquicentennial celebrations just a few years away I hope the above questions guide the various organizations and publishers who will put together educational programs, lectures, brochures, and other publications.