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.