A New Geography of Civil War Memory

If you haven’t read Brian Matthew Jordan’s reflections on David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory ten years later head on over to The Civil War Monitor and do so.  It’s an incredibly thoughtful piece and much of it I agree with.  Blight’s book has had a huge influence on my interest in the Civil War generally and specifically in regard to questions of memory.  Toward the end of the essay Brian suggests that we need a “new geography of Civil War memory”:

One unfortunate (and I think unintended) consequence of the laudable efforts of recent historians to reposition race and slavery at the heart of the conflict is that the Civil War has become the nineteenth-century’s equivalent of “the Good War”—not, as the historian Edward L. Ayers has so eloquently pointed out, a “problem to be explained,” but, rather, a modern-day morality play that we tell and re-tell in an effort to exorcise white guilt. Massive death, destruction, and suffering are effortlessly explained away and left un-interrogated because they contributed to the demise of slavery in America. The blood spilled on battlefields from Big Bethel to Palmito Ranch, we are reassured, cleansed the nation of its collective sin. And as soon as that blood washes away the sin of slavery, that blood is itself washed away. The Civil War, we are told, was a necessary national sacrifice. It is time that we critically examine this sanitizing process and its manifold implications.

I am not sure I agree with Brian’s analysis here.  It seems to me that the cleansing of the “destruction and suffering” of the Civil War had been accomplished long before our collective memory took a turn toward a narrative with emancipation at its center.  The veterans themselves bear witness to this point.  James Marten argues that a wide range of factors influenced how Americans during the postwar decades responded to their veterans, who bore the physical and psychological scars of war.  Many veterans experienced disillusionment as those around them pushed their sacrifices off the public stage in light of changing definitions of manhood and bravery.  Blight’s emphasis on the pull of reconciliation and reunion also contributed to this cleansing as well as a growing international presence buttressed by a belief in American Exceptionalism.

Popular culture today seems to have little patience with coming to terms with the death and destruction of the Civil War, which you can see reflected in such things as reenactments and movies.  We seem much more comfortable pointing out the scale of violence and long-term damage in civil wars elsewhere.  In contrast, our civil war was somehow special or unique.  I also don’t see the focus on emancipation in recent scholarly studies of Civil War memory as part of a narrative that downplays the “hard hand of war” in order to emphasize a “Good War” or as part of an effort to “exorcise white guilt.”  If anything, recent scholarship has reinforced a long-term narrative of “promises unfulfilled” rather than a rebirth in 1865 that replaced bondage for freedom.  Even Ken Burns’s celebratory documentary sounds an alarm in the last episode over questions of race and rights in the Jim Crow era.

Those are just a few thoughts.  It is entirely possible that I missed Brian’s point entirely. What do you think?

Brian just published his first book, UNHOLY SABBATH: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862, which I eventually plan on reading.  Oh, and he wrote while still an undergraduate at Gettysburg College.

8 comments… add one
  • Craig L. Jan 20, 2012 @ 22:41

    I was just looking at a history of the Athens Lunatic Asylum in Athens, Ohio. Its doors first opened in 1874 and the institution maintains it served as a model for many such large state facilities built around the country over the next four decades. Apparently the Civil War was considered a watershed event in the history of care for the mentally ill.

    My dad’s first job out of grad school as a newly minted clinical psychologist was with the Veteran’s Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, working mostly with patients identified as victims of shell shock or battle fatigue. Before taking that job he attended an orientation at the main VA Hospital at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. He had just attended his mother’s funeral in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and returned to Lawrence, Kansas by way of St. Louis so he could attend the orientation enroute. Fifty years later he learned from me that his great grandfather is buried in the National Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks. I learned about it on the internet. He honestly had no inkling that his grandfather, who died in a mill accident thirty years before my dad was born, had been orphaned by the Civil War. I told him about it and we made jokes about repressed memory, which was a popular topic in psychology departments in the 1950s.

    My dad took a job at a state mental hospital in 1961. He utilized then new drug therapies to prepare patients for reintegration to the community at large through planned community mental health centers that were then still on the drawing board. He piloted a prototype or model community mental health center from 1965 until 1970 while the state implemented plans to close the state hospital where he had worked previously. From 1970 until 1974 he was a professor, training clinical psychologists for their role in staffing community mental health centers. He spent the next ten years managing a community mental health center while advising government on the fledgeling institution’s proper function and building a private practice serving as an expert witness and evaluating jail inmates he thought might benefit from mental health services.

    My grade school years were spent in a small town whose economy for the previous fifty years had depended in large measure on state funding for the mental hospital it had hosted since shortly after the town was founded. When the hospital opened in 1912 the spirit of the place was very much in the mold of the Athens Lunatic Asylum that opened ten years after the Civil War ended. Ten years later the facility was rapidly expanding to accommodate an influx of WWI shell shock victims. Ten years after that another large influx resulted from the Great Depression and ten years later still, WWII provided another large crop of shell shocked veterans. Throughout much of the hospital’s history it had been a largely self sufficient state work farm, though by 1950 it had become a state pork barrel that used its government subsidy to undersell a local farming community that had come to rely heavily on migrant labor.

  • Brian Jordan Jan 20, 2012 @ 11:06


    Thanks for your post and to your readers for the thoughtful discussion. You are certainly right to point out that the cleansing of the “destruction and suffering” of the Civil War preceded our recent (and laudable) efforts to re-center the narrative of the war on slavery and emancipation. In fact, that cleansing began almost immediately after the war, as I make clear in a recent piece on Andersonville survivors, which argued that the public at large quickly overlaid such a troubled history with more manageable tales of battlefield heroics. As you suggest, James Marten does an admirable job of showing how postwar Americans bristled at the prospect of reintegrating scarred veterans; in my dissertation, I am arguing that the scope of the problem was more far more extensive than even Marten imagined. So I am not at all suggesting a causal link between the “emancipation turn” and the sanitization of the war’s ugly violence. Instead, I am suggesting that we need to realize how much we yet share with the dismissively incredulous postwar civilians who were unwilling to “care for him” who had borne the battles.

    Let me clarify. In the late nineteenth century, those Union veterans who remembered the cause of the war and its deepest meaning were often, and I think not coincidentally, the same veterans who remembered its physical and emotional costs. To remember the war’s expense was to remember just how tenaciously the nation clung to chattel slavery. Such a connection the veterans made clear; they were willing to celebrate emancipation, but only after making evident just what it had cost them and the nation. (No wonder so many veterans were cast aside as strangers at home in the 1880s and 1890s!) Fast-forward over a century. Today, while mainstream popular culture is no longer resistant to the idea that the Civil War was a war about slavery, it is yet reluctant to confront the war’s human and emotional costs. Popular culture has untangled the war’s cause from its consequences. We can embrace emancipation because it poses no insurmountable challenge to the narrative of the war we have cherished for so long – what Robert Penn Warren called our “felt” history. Sure, we have done a much better job recently of recognizing that emancipation did not mean racial equality; but simply re-periodize the history of emancipation as a story from Shiloh to Selma (as the “Civil War to Civil Rights” sesquicentennial theme has successfully done) and the place of the Civil War in America’s exceptional destiny is reaffirmed. The Civil War becomes a necessary “stop” on the road to racial justice. On the other hand, we have yet to entertain a meaningful national discussion about the war’s consequences for its veterans, widows, and orphans. Confronting such tragedies, after all, would make us “feel” anything but approving about our Civil War. In fact, it makes us downright uncomfortable that for four years, we inflicted such remorseless violence and death on each other.

    Retrofitting common soldiers as “race warriors” (Jason Phillips ably unpacks this trope in a recent historiographical essay) and interpolating the Civil War into a redemptive narrative of moral progress comes no closer to a national reckoning with the war’s less happy human consequences than the old reconciliationist narratives peddled by Woodrow Wilson and the consensus historians. Even the belated recognition that emancipation did not mean racial equality does not tackle the fundamental problem of the war’s violence. How do we celebrate emancipation and national unity but lament its costs? In order to answer that question, we need to understand that the sanitization of the Civil War’s memory, much like its segregation, has a tortuous history.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2012 @ 13:36

      Hi Brain,

      Thanks for the follow-up. I have a much better sense of where you are coming from, but I still have a few questions.

      Today, while mainstream popular culture is no longer resistant to the idea that the Civil War was a war about slavery, it is yet reluctant to confront the war’s human and emotional costs…. On the other hand, we have yet to entertain a meaningful national discussion about the war’s consequences for its veterans, widows, and orphans.

      I completely agree with you on this point, but can you point to an American war where this was not the case. We’ve never done a good job as a nation responding to the needs of our veterans. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are perfect examples when considering the many challenges that our returning men and women are facing. As to the hardships of war itself we do a much better job when it comes to foreign wars, but it seems to me the Civil War is an exception. We have trouble acknowledging the level of violence and hatred that existed between Americans in the 1860s as opposed to foreign civil wars. Perhaps it is part of that commitment to American Exceptionalism that prevents us from facing this dark side of American history. Better to focus on shared values or as you suggest a progressive narrative that gets us from Civil War to Civil Rights.

  • Ryan A Jan 19, 2012 @ 8:49


    I understand your point and I agree with Daryl that Brian probably missed or misrepresented the focus on slavery and emancipation. But I understand his point about the use of emancipation as a method of cleansing the horrors of the war, in the same way that veterans used reconciliation for decades after the shooting stopped.

    In both ways, I think it trivializes the actual loss of the war on both sides, when in reality, families both North and South mourned the loss of a generation for decades. Maybe I shouldn’t say trivialize, but I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ view that the war was NOT tragic because the ends justified the means. Certainly the emancipation of millions of Americans in bondage is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that over half a million Americans slaughtered each other for four years and that families and regions were devastated at the end of it.

    The “fake” tones of the reunions simply tried to put a nice face on what was in reality, a horrible moment in our nation’s history aside from the abolition of slavery. I think the “Good War” idea of today is doing a similar thing as we move further away from the war itself. Our remembrance of the war is changing – slowly but surely – but we must always remember that these were people of flesh and blood that many of us are related to. Time does not diminish the soldier’s sufferings any more than it does the slave’s. That’s something about the American Revolution that I think we, as a people, take for granted. Soldiers in that war suffered in greater ways and for much longer. Of course, much of that is forgotten or glossed over in favor of focusing on the eccentricities of Benjamin Franklin or the eloquence of Jefferson and Madison.

    Just my humble opinion


    • Kevin Levin Jan 19, 2012 @ 8:57

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I completely agree with you re: the importance of not forgetting that “these were people of flesh and blood.”

      On the other hand I wonder how Coates’s point about the Civil War stacks up against a claim made about WWII. I assume you don’t believe that WWII was tragic given the cause involved and the results. That war also involved death and destruction on a scale never seen before, but it looks like we are now able to come to terms with the human cost. I am thing of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, which really attempt to capture the horrors of battle as well as the psychological toll on the men in the ranks. For some reason we still struggle with this in re: to our civil war: http://cwmemory.com/2011/05/23/the-problem-with-civil-war-movies/

      • Ryan A Jan 20, 2012 @ 7:57

        I think it’s easier to come to grips with the cost of World War II because of the ability of camera men to imbed themselves with units. Of course, that began with the Civil War but it really hit home with the footage and pictures being sent back from places like Tarawa and Saipan. I think the American people changed as the decades went on, and now we have movies and miniseries like Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific. The cause was righteous but that didn’t diminish the fact that over 400,000 American servicemen died on European and Pacific battlefields. If you talk to veterans and family members who lost loved ones from 1941-1945, you can still see the emotional scars even 70 years later. I think all war is tragic, regardless of who wins or loses.

        For the Civil War, people on both sides have very specific ideas about who was “right” and who was “wrong.” I have my own thoughts about that too, but I confess, I’m a sentimental at heart and can’t help but praise the good in the outcome of the war rising above the suffering. I think that sentimentality (or even nostalgia when talking about Lost Causers) keeps the war from getting to the point at which WWII and Vietnam are today in popular culture. Its a shame but again, its something that’s going to take a while to change.


  • Daryl Black Jan 19, 2012 @ 7:04


    I think you are reading Brian correctly and I think that he has missed the point of the focus on slavery, emancipation and memory. As you point out, historians writing in the emerging tradition of Blight show the ways that the emancipationist narrative was consciously erased by those involved in the reunion movement of the 1870s, 80s and beyond. And they point out the manifold problems such a re-narration created. It seems to me that the best work on race, emancipation and memory struggles exactly with “the problem to be explained” — and that is how did the nation come to embrace a narrative that marginalized/erased slavery, emancipation, and the terrorisitic violence of Reconstruction (actions that laid the groundwork for the late century “reunionist” movement) from the story and what were the impacts/problems/contradictions/crimes that resulted. Blight’s newest work brings this point forward to the centennial/Civil Rights years.

    By looking at the intersection of race, slavery and memory, it seems to me that rather than washing anything away we are being confronted with the contingent complexities that surround the Civil War and the ways that Americans have tried to come to grips with it. The reunionists themselves desired to leave the questions un-interrogated because they knew that by asking questions and trying to honestly anwer them would lead to dicussions of the role that race, slavery and emancipation played in the war and its aftermath. For them, the blood was celebrated as a sacrifice to a stronger, whiter nation. And historians who write about race, slavery and memory make no bones about it. Nor do they make any bones about the importance of acknowledging and acting on the conclusions they draw.

    As Brian conclues, “The Civil War, we are told, was a necessary national sacrifice. It is time that we critically examine this sanitizing process and its manifold implications.”
    Perhaps I am missing something in Brian’s conclusion and perhaps I am hearing too loudly the speeches from the Chickamauga battlefield dedication in 1895 that repeated again and again that the real national sacrifice had been on behalf of a stronger, whiter, more manly nation (what they saw as the “necessary national sacrifice”). And perhpas I am miscontrucing his comments about the “Good war” (a problematic term applied to World War II we are now being reminded). But right now I can’t get my head around any reading of the recent literature that would support Brian’s characterization.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 19, 2012 @ 8:59

      I agree. Perhaps Brian will share his thoughts at some point.

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