The Anatomy of a Commemorative Talk

I don’t mind admitting that I am just a little nervous about the upcoming commemorative speech that I will give in Fredericksburg on December 14.  I’ve never delivered such a speech before.  It’s much easier to present a traditional conference paper where the speaker at least appears to be detached from the subject at hand.  A commemorative talk on the anniversary of a famous Civil War battle, however, demands that the speaker share something more personal and in a way that facilitates an other-regarding emotion in the audience such as empathy or sympathy.  I assume most of the people who attend will want to hear something uplifting, perhaps something that reinforces a personal connection through an ancestor who fought in the war or maybe even something that dovetails with our popular perceptions of the Civil War, which at times border on the celebratory.  In the end we want to know that they (the soldiers) matter and that the bloodshed, death, and sacrifice continues to occupy a central place in our broader national narrative, one that is characterized by its exceptionalism and intrinsic goodness.

It seems to me, however, that to get to this point one must engage in a great deal of reductionism from the complex to the overly simplistic.  Doesn’t this constitute a significant portion of the history of Civil War commemoration from end of the twentieth century onward?  By their very nature commemorative talks must look beyond moral complexity, contingency, and doubt to embrace the whiggish principles that Americans so easily embrace.  I’ve never felt comfortable approaching the past in this manner.  An example of what I am getting at can be found in Mark Grimsley’s most recent post at Civil Warriors which includes a refernce to an essay by Kent Gramm:

In the introduction to a recent book on Civil War combat, historian Kent Gramm opens with a surprising comment: “One of the most harmful consequences of the Civil War results from our very interest in the war, and our attraction to it.” As a Civil War buff, he explains, you can vicariously march with the indomitable veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, you can learn from the men of the Army of the Potomac’s Iron Brigade what it means to be a hero, you can return in imagination to a moment when “the hopes of a nation are still young and still full, and a kind of clarity and innocence are still poised to win the future — and the smoke and noise and dirt of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have not yet swept in behind the buzzing machines of our age.”

“Who would not love such a war?” Gramm asks. But that war, he continues, “is a war of fantasy, myth, and entertainment,” not a war of carnage, horror, and desolation. “By replacing this actual Civil War with an imaginary and beautiful war,” he argues, “we misunderstand our own natures, and we allow ourselves to fall for what Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’: that it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country. Falling for that old lie, we enter more easily into what should be entered into only as one would enter a corridor to hell: you go that way only because all the other ways are shut.”

I venture to suggest that while much of my audience operates within the confines of the first paragraph I have my feet firmly planted in the latter.  No doubt, this has much to do with the fact that I have no familial connection to the war and no childhood experiences of traveling to Civil War battlefields or dreaming of what might have been at Gettysburg.

Still, I can’t help but think that there is a commemorative element in how I use Civil War battlefields such as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville as teaching tools.  Just the act of visiting and walking the ground serves to collapse the distance between present and past.  Yes, I tell plenty of stories of heroic acts, but the goal of the visit has very little to do with celebrating heroism or war in any of its guises.  How can I celebrate something that I have no direct experience with?  I am much more interested in planting questions in my students than giving them answers.  What do these battles tell us about American democracy?  Did the Civil War lead to a rebirth of freedom?  Was the outcome of the Civil War worth the price in blood and suffering?  It’s not my job as a teacher to answer these questions because they are not questions that can be answered by any one individual.

I am even more reluctant to wax poetic about Civil War soldiers.  I’ve never been able to walk a battlefield and reduce the fighting to time-honored heroic categories that are staples of Civil War commemorations and remembrance.  In fact, it seems to me that this is a straight-path toward simplifying their stories to the point of triviality and meaninglessness.  I want my students to embrace and understand both the individual and collective stories of these men without coming away with an overly sanitized view that has no connection beyond the battlefield and the divisive questions that were of paramount concern and which help to explain why they fought to begin with.  To ignore these tough questions is to use these men and the past as a means to our own ends.

To be continued…

3 comments… add one

  • Jim McGhee Nov 25, 2008

    Kevin: I would get too worked up over the presentation. I mean no offense when I remind you of Lincoln’s memorable sentence in the Gettysburg Address:

    “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, …”

    I am afraid that most of our speeches fall into that category, and I have made many of them over the years.

  • Jim McGhee Nov 25, 2008

    Obviously I meant to say I would “not” get too worked up!

  • Kevin Levin Nov 26, 2008

    Jim, — Thanks for the reality check. You are absolutely right, but the problem is that I will note and remember what I say there. I just want to do a good job. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

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