Heritage v. History (Redux)

The heritage syndrome, if I may call it that, almost seems to be a predictable but certainly a non-conspiratorial response–an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest.  Heritage is composed of those aspects of history that we cherish and affirm.  As an alternative to history, heritage accentuates the positive but sifts away what is problematic.  One consequence is that the very pervasiveness of heritage as a phenomenon produces a beguiling sense of serenity about the well-being of history–that is, a false consciousness that historical knowledge and understanding are alive and well in the United States.

Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, p. 626

To understand something historically is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient detachment to see it from multiple perspectives, to accept the ambiguities, including moral ambiguities, of protagonists’ motives and behavior.

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream

5 comments… add one

  • Chrisitne Smith Mar 22, 2011

    Somehow, when I look at the picture I don’t think of any but how awfully young they were, and that probably a mother lost two sons within days of one another. What a terrible blow that must have been for any family, North or South.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2011

      I bring my students to this site every year. The cemetery contains the remains of Confederate soldiers who died in the hospitals around Charlottesville. Many of these men died far away from loved ones. It is a very sad image.

      • Chrisitne Smith Mar 22, 2011

        I think I’ve said this before, but I live in Indianapolis and teach at Butler University, just a few blocks away from Crown Hill Cemetery. The prisoners who died at Camp Morton are buried there in a common grave in “The Confederate Plot” under large concrete and bronze markers for each state. On Memorial Day they have a procession which begins at the Confederate Plot and goes over to the National Cemetery part of the cemetery. Someone I know quit attending the ceremony when they started to include the Confederate Plot in the memorial. I go there a couple of times a year and reflect on the men buried there so far from home. I was recently requested, through an online connection, to see if I could find a name and take a picture of the Virginia stone for someone. Have yet to get down there to do it, but plan to do so tomorrow if the weather isn’t too rainy. I always ask my students where Confederates are buried in Indianapolis and why, and they never know.

  • Matt McKeon Mar 22, 2011

    Now that you’re moving to Boston, it might be interesting to compare heritage of the Civil War period, and the preservation movement in New England from about 1900 to the 1960s, with the purchase and restoration of colonial era buildings and artifacts.

    There’s a definite ethnic tinge to it, as Yankees and Brahmns sought to preserve a culture they saw as threatened by immigrants.

  • Phil Ross Mar 24, 2011

    One of my professors back in grad school had a very succinct way of looking at the distinction: Heritage is history that has lost its power to p*ss people off.

    By that definition, southern heritage — at least where the Civil War is concerned — is an oxymoron. I think of heritage as consensual history. We have a ways to go yet.

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