Last month I was honored to be asked by an editor at the Wilson Quarterly to respond to an essay by Christopher Clausen. I was given roughly a 300-400 word limit, which didn’t give me room to go into much detail so I decided to offer a few words about one particular passage that I thought was worth a response. Regular readers of this blog probably will not see much of anything that is new in terms of my own thinking about this subject. You can now read Clausen’s essay on the WQ website. Here is my response, which will appear in the next issue:
Christopher Clausen’s article [America’s Changeable Civil War,” Spring 2010] offers a helpful overview of the influence that the Lost Cause and the broader trend of national reunion exercised on the nation’s collective memory through the Civil Rights Movement. Few will deny that the tendency to ignore the role of slavery and emancipation as crucial aspects of Civil War history and public remembrance were exposed as Americans were confronted with images of bus boycotts, “Freedom Rides,” and marches. While the nation confronted its “most ignominious legacy” through legislation it did not significantly alter the nation’s Civil War memory. However, much has changed over the past forty years, which may give us pause in accepting Clausen’s assumption that “what was actually won and lost [in the Civil War] is less settled than you might expect after 150 years.”
The election of Barack Obama has opened up numerous opportunities to discuss the history and legacy of slavery and race and our understanding of the Civil War specifically. In 2009 the president was petitioned to discontinue sending a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery – a monument that glorifies the Lost Cause with images of “loyal slaves” and an emphasis on states rights. Rather than incite further controversy, President Obama chose to send an additional wreath to the African American Soldier’s Memorial, which celebrates the history of United States Colored Troops. Those states that have organized Civil War Sesquicentennial commissions are choosing to emphasize the “Emancipationist Legacy” of the Civil War, including Virginia, which will hold a day-long symposium in September 2010 on slavery and emancipation.
Finally, the recent controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation (sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans) is arguably the clearest indication that we may be witnessing a shift in our collective memory of the war and its legacy. The debate, which ensued and his eventual revision, suggests that a commemoration of Confederate history without any mention of slavery is now seen by a growing number of Americans as a gross distortion of the past. While it is too early to tell, the interpretation of the war that takes hold publicly by 2015 may be unrecognizable to Edward A. Pollard and other Confederate apologists.
Like I said it isn’t much of a response. I’m just pleased to have been asked to contribute. Hopefully, it will bring in some new readers and possibly an opportunity to write a more substantial essay in the future.