Navigating Through the Intersection of 9-11 and Civil War Memory

It’s always nice to have someone who can do a better job of expressing a thought that you are struggling to formulate.  That’s how I feel about this editorial by John Hennessy, which appeared yesterday in the The Free Lance-Star.  I heard John give a version of this essay a few months back as part of a keynote address at a conference on public history at North Carolina State University.  I am pleased to see it in print.  This particular passage jumped out at me:

Something else has shaped how Americans view the Civil War: their intensely personal relationship with it. Visitors to Civil War sites are often highly invested and possessed of information that reflects generations of conventional wisdom or family tradition. Spend time at a Civil War site, and before long a visitor will appear to assert his or her understanding of the war: “My great-great-grandfather didn’t own slaves–he sure as hell didn’t fight to preserve slavery. He fought to defend his home, the way of life of his community and state. You are wrong to tell people the war was about slavery.”

This sort of soliloquy highlights one of the salient facts about the Civil War’s place in American culture: In no other era of American history have we as a nation permitted the personal motivations of participants, often imperfectly remembered or revised over time, to define in the public’s mind the cause and national purpose of war. This is one reason why there is often a vast difference between the ongoing scholarship about the war–which consistently pegs slavery as a central cause and “cornerstone” (as Vice President Alexander Stephens said in 1861) of the Confederacy–and popular perception, more often shaped by our interpretations of personal narratives.

This highly personal investment in the men and events of the Civil War sometimes renders scholarship that sheds light on the causes of war not as academic exercise, but as an affront. To say the Confederacy went to war to sustain the institution of slavery often challenges a descendant’s understanding of the motivations of his ancestors. The response is sometimes the dismissal of solidly documented history as “politically correct” or “revisionist.”

This touches so much of what I experience here at Civil War Memory.  On one level I can relate to the kind of identification with the past that John ascribes to a certain number of people, who embrace the personal and maintain a vigilant stance against perceived threats to that interpretation.  At the same time I have little patience and even admit to a dismissive attitude when it comes to folks who embrace this perspective.  Let me try to explain.

This coming September the nation will mark the 10th anniversary of 9-11.  It will no doubt be a solemn day full of commemorations that recall the bravery of the firefighters and the lost lives of so many in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.  The most attention, however, will be directed at the families of the WTC victims and the firefighters.  The parents, siblings, husbands, and wives play a crucial role in keeping the memory of those lost alive.  My family will do its part to remember my cousin, Alisha Levin, with a run to raise money for a memorial fund in her name.

We give the families a great deal of influence over how the day is remembered and commemorated.  They constitute an important link to that day.  You will see them read the names of the victims at “Ground Zero”, address audiences in various venues, as well as provide advice and even approval for memorials at key places.  It goes without saying that most of us believe that the families ought to have a certain amount of involvement and even control over 9-11 commemorations.  Their relationship to the event is through a personal narrative and our collective memory of the day is constituted, in large part, by how we choose to weave those individual narratives together.

However, at some point the generation that lived through that day, including anyone who had a personal connection to the victims will no longer be around to tell those stories.  At that point we as a nation will have taken a crucial step in our collective memory of 9-11.  The storytellers will be further removed from the event in question and the agendas that drive decisions around various forms of commemoration will also evolve.  The emotional connection will continue to dissipate and in its place will come a more “objective” form of remembrance.  The personal connection will also grow weaker with each generation, to the point where families may lose any knowledge that an ancestor was directly involved in the events of that day.

However, even for those families and individuals that maintain some type of identification or connection I don’t know too many who would suggest, for example, that the great great granddaughter of a 9-11 family ought to be given a special status simply because she identifies or holds to a certain personal narrative.  This is not to suggest that the personal narrative has no value.  What I am suggesting is that we should not expect or demand that the personal be given a privileged status that other individuals and groups are expected to shape their own narratives around, regardless of whether we are talking about formal histories, interpretation of historic ground or memorials.

21 thoughts on “Navigating Through the Intersection of 9-11 and Civil War Memory

  1. Kate Halleron

    What intrigues me is the idea that a person’s ancestor can do no wrong – gg-granddaddy’s motivations must have been pure because he’s *mine*.

    Yet everyone has petty family squabbles – ask the same people if they think their parents, siblings or cousins are all perfect and you’ll probably get a long tale of family wrongs and idiosyncrasies.

    Yet there are thousands of us Southerners with perfect ancestors. It’s a puzzle.

    Reply
    1. Andy Hall

      Yet everyone has petty family squabbles – ask the same people if they think their parents, siblings or cousins are all perfect and you’ll probably get a long tale of family wrongs and idiosyncrasies.

      That’s a good point. I suspect that not having known those veterans personally — or in many cases, never having known anyone who did — actually feeds a lot of personal myth-making that goes on, both for individuals and collectively. When all you really have to go on is a microfilmed service record from the National Archives and a few anecdotes, filtered down through three or four generations, it’s easy to fill in the gaps with happy fanatasy, and build an entire persona around those things. I imagine most people aren’t even aware of doing this, but it’s nonetheless something that people need to be conscious of, and not to mistake that for actual history.

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        1. Andy Hall

          That plays a role, too, but I’d submit that more often than not, they have no idea why their great-great granddaddy volunteered. Obviously some men left a contemporary record of their thoughts and motivations, and we can generally about the different things that drove soldiers as a group but that’s a different thing.

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          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            I envy those people who have a rich written record of an ancestors’ experience at an important point in the past, but I contend that the luck of possession does not grant that individual some kind of privileged access. They are in the same position as the rest of us who work to better understand history.

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  2. Margaret D. Blough

    Kevin-There are a minority hard-core neo-Confederates who are so extreme that they’ll even defend slavery. IMHO, most Confederate descendants who care passionately about it are not that way. Many of the ones I’ve met accept that slavery is an evil institution. That, however, creates major cognitive dissonance in dealing with their need to feel proud of their ancestors. Their resolution of this dissonance generally comes by embracing a false syllogism:

    1. Slavery is an evil thing.

    2. My Confederate ancestor was a good man.

    3. Good men do not fight to protect evil things.

    4. Therefore, the Confederacy was not based on slavery.

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  3. London John

    There are at least 3 separate fallacies here. The first is pointed out by Ray O’Hara above. The second is that all soldiers were sub jectively fighting for some cause, rather than say to try to stay alive when the other side was trying to kill him, or that he had joined up because his friends did and they were fighting for each other.
    The third is that a Confederate soldier who didn’t own slaves couldn’t be fighting for slavery. Every observer from de Tocqueville on has noticed that Americans were exceptionally aspirational and optimistic. In the South, success in life meant owning slaves – even if not in a business using slave labour, any successful man would have to own domestic slaves. So a young soldier might be fighting for the slaves he expected to own later. This doesn’t prove he was, of course.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      An individual could have volunteered to join the Marines in 1965 for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with national policy, but that does not preclude historians from arguing that the Vietnam War fit into its policy of containment.

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      1. London John

        Kevin, as I understand it that’s the same point Ray O’Hara made, that objectively the Confederate cause was slavery whatever the soldiers thought they were fighting for. I was trying to say that descendents are mistaken in thinking that since great-grandfather couldn’t have had an evil cause he must have had a good one.

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  4. Boyd Harris

    Thanks for the post, Kevin. It is interesting to see your perspective, considering that I have encountered a bit of this “family thing” myself while working at Appomattox Court House NHP this summer. We always have people come into the park and say that their ancestor was at Appomattox Court House, particularly those with Confederate ancestors. We have the parole book available at the park, containing over 28,000 names. We allow these visitors to peruse it and find their ancestor. Unfortunately, from time to time, a visitor will not find their ancestor’s name. Some accept the new information and adjust their own conception of their ancestors, but a small few hold firm in their own understanding. It can be difficult, and a little awkward, when park rangers are put in the position of defending the historical record against “what Great-Grandaddy said.” For example, I had one lady tell me that the parole book was wrong, despite the fact that the only evidence she had of her ancestor’s presence at Appomattox C.H. was a pension application from 1908. She would not budge from that position and the conversation only ended with the observation that the parole list could be updated if new information came to light. It was, and I freely admit this here, a thin ray of hope. Yet, it was enough for her to continue to believe that her ancestor was at Appomattox C.H.
    I agree with John Hennessy’s observation and would add that these personal stories seem to convey a power far beyond just having a connection to a historical moment. There seems to be other emotions wrapped up in these stories. Feelings of pride, belonging, or even a sense of worth are attached to these family stories. This occurs, despite the fact the actual event has not occured in their lifetime. This worth may seem under attack when they discover that the family story is not entirely true. It seems ridiculous in some respect. There is no prize for those visitor’s who can identify an ancestor at Appomattox C.H., yet these visitors have placed a great emphasis on this “truth.” It has equally fascinated and frustrated me during this summer, but overall it has reminded me that the Civil War remains a very intense site of collective memory in this nation.
    As always, keep up the good work. Hope you are enjoying Boston and I look forward to your next post.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the kind words, Boyd.

      You said: “I agree with John Hennessy’s observation and would add that these personal stories seem to convey a power far beyond just having a connection to a historical moment. There seems to be other emotions wrapped up in these stories. Feelings of pride, belonging, or even a sense of worth are attached to these family stories. This occurs, despite the fact the actual event has not occured in their lifetime. This worth may seem under attack when they discover that the family story is not entirely true. It seems ridiculous in some respect.”

      That’s the crux of the matter. The fact that there are so many emotions tied up in a personal identification with the past is interesting as a reflection of historical memory, but at the same time I don’t believe that others are obligated to honor it beyond their responsibilities as teachers, historians, and park interpreters. In the end, this is the individual’s personal baggage and they must choose how they are going to respond to others when there is a rub.

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      1. Ray O'Hara

        Maybe her ancestor deserted or was taken in the period between Five Forks and the surrender..
        I could see a vet not wanting to admit he took an early vacation

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  5. Edwin Thompson

    On the subject of collective memory, today an article was published in the NY Times by an Israeli visiting his family burial site Khotyn, Ukraine. His ancestors were murdered there 70 years ago. At the end of the article, he asks the 60 year old graveyard caretaker why she tends the old Jewish cemetery. She replies: “You can’t begin to understand, you will never understand.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/opinion/revisiting-khotyn-70-years-after-a-holocaust-massacre.html?ref=opinion

    Perhaps the civil war is a distant, foreign event beyond our understanding – how could some of our ancestors have fought to maintain the right to enslave people? Well – they did. People were murdered in Khotyn also. That is why we need historians to study and document the history.

    Also – My sympathies on the loss of your cousin Alisha. Personnal losses are always difficult.

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  6. Lyle Smith

    Obviously this also applies to the descendants of Federal soldiers and to the descendants of slaves. Although the descendants of slaves then had Reconstruction and segregation to go through to get to today. Which is why I try to avoid slavery in race discussions and instead focus on segregation, which was a nearer abomination experienced by a lot of people still alive today. I’d argue there is a connection between slavery and segregation though.

    Condolences for Alisha Levin.

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  7. Dudley Bokoski

    Is it not possible to have it both ways? Obviously the war was about slavery, how could anyone argue otherwise? But must all Southerners have gone to war because of a personal commitment to maintain slavery? Put another way, is there only one correct narrative of why soldiers fought for either side? If all Southerners fought to preserve slavery, by inference must all Northerners have fought to abolish slavery? Clearly, on that point the historical record is clear there were a range of motivations involved. Would we then argue that anyone who fought for the Union was capable of having had a range of personal reasons for doing so, but all soldiers for the Southern side had to hold a single perspective on the war?

    Just because Southern soldiers did not all personally fight because they wanted to defend slavery does not take away from the fact that the preservation of slavery was why the Southern ruling classes took the South to war. Or, to go one step further, the South fought the war not only to defend slavery but also because of a fear of what would come after slavery. The 1860 census is suggestive on that point.

    It was morally wrong, and unrealistic, to go to war to preserve slavery in perpetuity. But I believe there were soldiers who went to war not fully committed to slavery or believing it could be sustained, but driven by the sort of nationalism/sectionalism that has taken misguided populations to war through the ages. Mix in with that resentment of the North and the war can be seen as an overheated boiler which simply blew up in 1861. Slavery was the proximate cause, but sectionalism provided the heat.

    We can recognize in history which side was in the right in a conflict, but at the same time history is context. That the South was in the wrong on slavery, whether your moral perspective and context is from 1861 or 2011 is unquestionable. But to judge the motives of the all too human participants of the events of 1861 based on the values and understandings of 2011 is less than fair.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Dudley. I am in no way suggesting that the reasons individuals went to war can easily reduce to a desire to slavery. There is an incredibly rich literature out there on Confederate soldiers that focuses on why they joined as well as why some deserted and others stayed in the army even late in the war. Keep in mind that many were drafted. I would also suggest that people are motivated to do things for complex reasons. You may even want to focus on when Confederates joined the ranks. I found Ken Noe’s Reluctant Rebels to be particularly helpful.

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      1. Dudley Bokoski

        There’s an old country story, milked beyond comprehension by one particular Southern comic years ago, about a man who went up a tree after a bobcat. There ensues snarling, yelping, and screaming for help until finally the man calls down to his friend and tells him to shoot up into the tree. His friends says, “But I might hit you just as easily as the cat.” To which the man up the tree replies “Fire amongst us, at least one of us will get some relief.”

        I think of the coming of the Civil War like that. Passions were so inflamed that, even knowing the ruin which would come with war, the two sides just had to have some relief from the heat that had built up for so many years. It was rational, but going to war filled a deeply felt need North and South.

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