My drive home from Shepherdstown today gave me some time to think about the weekend. First and foremost, I had an incredible time. Mark Snell and the rest of his staff put on a first-rate conference. Yesterday we traveled to Washington, D.C. for a tour of Civil War monuments and Arlington National Cemetery. It was a long day, but the weather was gorgeous and both Mark and historian Roger Davidson did an excellent job of interpreting the various sites. [I will comment more specifically in the coming weeks about the various talks and tours.]Today we ended the conference with a roundtable discussion involving all of the speakers. We went for about an hour, but I suspect we could have talked much longer.
I mentioned at one point during this final session that I was originally skeptical that a conference geared towards Civil War enthusiasts would work around the theme of memory. How many times have I said that most people want nothing more than battles and leaders? Thankfully I was wrong and that I was wrong has given me a great deal to think about. The discussions were enlightening and the participants seemed to appreciate having the opportunity to think about a subject that many had not spent much or any time with. One gentleman admitted today during the final session that he believes the study of memory can be applied to many other areas of his life. Plenty of other people voiced their appreciation for having their understanding of the war broadened in a meaningful way. There were a few tense moments during the tours and sessions, but what was so nice was that we were able to talk through all of the issues that came up. No one tried to convince the other that he/she was wrong. It was about sharing ideas and perspective; unfortunately, such openness and curiosity is so rare in certain circles.
For instance, yesterday we spent some time at the Confederate memorial at Arlington, which was dedicated in 1914. As our guides were laying out the relevant background one of the participants suggested that its placement was a reflection of the overdue honor that was owed to Confederate veterans. It was an emotional appeal that needed to be dealt with carefully. We suggested that the time and place of dedication was absolutely essential to understanding the monument. This was during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Washington, D.C. was a southern town, Jim Crow was well established and the federal office buildings had also been segregated under the president’s order. We wanted the participants to think beyond an emotional response to a point where they could think about commemorative markers as historical objects that needed to be explained. Why were they constructed in various places, at different times, and what meanings were they designed to reflect? We honed in on the image of the slave, which was part of the monument’s relief and discussed why slaves were portrayed as loyal and obedient as late as 1914.
It was very interesting to watch people become more comfortable discussing certain issues such as race as the conference progressed. My experience this weekend has convinced me that it is possible to introduce this material to general audiences. My skepticism about the ability of such an audience to handle and think critically about issues of memory I now realize has been entirely misplaced. It was a breadth of fresh air to be able to talk about memory with people who were able to offer a fresh perspective. I thank all of the participants for showing me that.