There doesn’t seem to be any let up in the number and range of Civil War memory studies published or soon to be published this year. As someone who has contributed to this body of scholarship you might expect that this brings a smile to my face and you would be correct. That said, I do think we need to be wary of a tendency that is at the center of this particular genre.
Implicit in the act or performance of historical memory is the assumption that the event or individual in question ought to be remembered. Historians of Civil War memory don’t simply focus their readers on a dead past they dig down to show why something was forgotten and why it ought to be remembered and perhaps even celebrated. We cast a moral lens on the generation that supposedly ignored or intentionally dismissed some aspect of the past and we make a moral claim on our own generation as to its importance.
I am reminded of this having just finished a brand new book on the subject that I need to review for one of the Civil War magazines. It’s a solid book and one that I will recommend, but it did raise for me the question of whether historians can go too far in making claims on our own sense of justice regarding the contentious ground between forgetting and remembering. I was certainly guilty of this in my early research on William Mahone. Not everything needs to be remembered or given a prominent place in our collective memory.
More importantly, not everything that is forgotten is a moral injustice. That’s tough for a historian of Civil War memory to appreciate especially if we assume a role as something akin to a moral crusader who sets out to bring moral balance to the historical universe. A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but I don’t mind admitting that I need to be much more attentive to this tendency in myself.