Finding a Usable Past at Gettysburg

Pete Carmichael at Gettysburg

With all that is being written in newspapers across the country about the Gettysburg 150th most of the editorials have been just plain fluff. The battle is framed as a tragedy that pitted Americans v. Americans or as a crucial moment in the broader struggle for civil rights. Today the New York Times published a short editorial by Civil War Institute Director Peter Carmichael. For those of you who have heard Pete at various events in recent months there is very little that is new, but for those of you who haven’t this is well worth your time.

Tucked away on a hillside, hidden from visitors who descend upon Gettysburg every year, are the outlines of a Civil War burial trench. One of the thousands of Southerners scattered in shallow graves across the battlefield was North Carolinian Charles Futch, shot in the head while fighting next to his sibling John, who never left his dying brother’s side. After burying him in an anonymous grave, a semi-literate John poured out his tortured feelings in a letter home. “Charly got kild and he suffered [a] gratdeal,” he wrote, “[and] I don’t want nothing to eat hardly for I am . . . sick all the time and half crazy. I never wanted to come home so bad in my life.”

In the story of the Futch brothers are timeless questions about what it means to be a nation at war today. How soldiers cope with the trauma of combat, how poverty shapes the military experience, and how acts of mourning influence political loyalties are inquiries that make history engaging and relevant. Unfortunately, the 150th Commemoration of the Civil War has largely missed an opportunity to make the past usable. Too many historians have been afraid to ask hard questions, much of the public is seduced by the heroic view of war, and Congress has defunded the National Park Service (NPS).

How can we find a usable past at our historical sites when Congress has transformed the NPS’ emblem into an easy target for spending cuts? The Shermanesque slash and burn approach in Washington has made them a casualty of this fiscal policy of attrition.

The funding crisis will continue to gut educational programs. But that should not prevent historians from asking the public to consider the methods of fighting, the treatment of veterans, the plight of refugees, and the politics of warfare from the Civil War to today. Journalists, for instance, report that drone strikes can create more enemies than they eliminate, just as the Federal shelling of Petersburg and Atlanta strengthened Confederate loyalties for many white Southerners. Here is just one example as to how the public can consider contemporary issues through the portal of the Civil War. It will take bold teaching, both in the classroom and at historic sites, to create a civic space where people feel free to exchange opposing ideas about the past and today.

As we commemorate the Sesquicentennial, too many historians have positioned the bloodletting of the Civil War on a trajectory of human progress and freedom, lulling Americans into believing that wars are always ennobling. The tragic stories of the Futch brothers gradually disappear, like the faint gravesites on the battlefield, since they exist outside of the arc of progress. Americans’ understanding of Gettysburg, as a result, comes through the comforting words of Abraham Lincoln that “none have died in vain.” John Futch clearly did not share Lincoln’s conclusion.

For those who say that finding a usable past risks alienating general audiences, it is important to remember that historians during the Civil War’s Centennial offered a similar defense for not dealing with race and slavery, claiming that such matters were too controversial, too political, and too divisive for a public in denial about the continued injustices to black America.

Although it is deeply gratifying to see how the current 150th commemorations have trumped the Centennial’s celebration of reunion at the expense of race, I fear that we are leaving our own distinct legacy of omission if we allow Americans to retreat into a fantasy world in which war becomes a spectator sport. In contemplating our Civil War history, we need to find ways to awaken Americans to their civic responsibilities, to both the nation and the world as the United States confronts a dark and quite possibly an inescapable future a dark and quite possibly an inescapable future of unending global conflict.

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9 thoughts on “Finding a Usable Past at Gettysburg

  1. Dudley Bokoski

    “We need to find ways to awaken Americans to their civic responsibilities, to both the nation and the world as the United States confronts a dark and quite possibly an inescapable future of unending global conflict.”

    Are we presume if a traditional view is taken of the heroism and sacrifice of the war will lead to foreign adventurism and war without end? I may be excused for thinking this ship sailed long ago when a long succession of presidents with an acquiescent Congress slipped free of constitutional requirements for declarations of war. They did this unaided by reenactors or the Battles & Leaders school of historical writing.

    To suggest we, as citizens, need awakening to our responsibilities is to ignore the fact our constitution is a document which enumerates the responsibilities of the government to the governed. If we keep our government restrained by its obligations we are most likely to avoid the sort of foreign entanglements Carmichael speaks of here.

    “Too many historians have been unafraid to ask hard questions”. Seriously? Academic historians, whether you agree or disagree with their approach, have done a remarkable amount of scholarship which engages the difficult (or at least historically less asked) questions.

    And how are we to define “usable” past? Usable for what and by whom? Intellectuals have engaged in study of the arts and history as an ends to itself for centuries. It is when we attempt to impose limits or require service to some end that we are most likely to extinguish what is most useful.

    This is lofty rhetoric, but to these ears it scolds more than enlightens.

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  2. Craig L.

    The sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, nearly coincides with the end of the two month Siege of Vicksburg on July 4 that year. Involvement of my immigrant Wisconsin relatives in the Civil War began on February 22, 1864, when my great great grandmother’s 19 year old younger brother enlisted. My great great grandfather and his other brother-in-law weren’t recruited as replacements until October of that year. All three of them served in units that participated in the Siege of Vicksburg.

    Gettysburg gets much more attention than Vicksburg, partly because it was a far more coherent battle that lasted only three days instead of two months, and also because it was fought in the North and not the South. It was really the only point when the conflict became a War of Southern Aggression inflicted upon the Union rather than a rebellion in the southern states that had to be suppressed.

    Why did the Confederate forces advance into a Union state near the national capital at precisely the point when control of the Mississippi was falling into Union hands? The war had dynamics. Historical attention focused on personalities and their various myths and legends can easily lose sight of some of the war’s dynamics.

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  3. Richard Williams

    Doris Kearns Goodwin certainly found a “useable past”, now didn’t she? If the NPS is going to spend taxpayer monies promoting that type of political speech at commemorative events like this, then I have little sympathy for complaining about losing funding. And I’ve communicated precisely that to my congressmen and Senators. Perhaps being forced to be more discreet would prevent them being so reckless with the resources they have.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that you have chosen to reduce the amazing work that the National Park Service does throughout the year all over the country down to one speech.

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  4. Richard Williams

    I’m doing nothing of the kind. You’re putting words in my mouth. I agree they’ve done some amazing work in the past, but what’s going to happen going forward? I’d be less condemning of the NPS (and less concerned) had they come out and distanced themselves from what happened, but I’ve seen no evidence of that which leads me to believe they’re ok with it. So are we to expect more of the same? Someone with the NPS needs to step up and say something about this.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Like I said, it’s one event and I don’t think it ought to cause anyone to worry about “what’s going to happen going forward[.]” I am not looking for an apology. The work that the NPS staff at Gettysburg is doing right now is all I need to see.

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  5. Richard Williams

    I understand and I’m quite sure that the vast majority of park personnel were as uncomfortable with the speech as anyone. I certainly don’t mean to impugn the whole park service. That being said, I still think some kind of statement should be made. This was the most important commemorative event at Gettysburg in 50 years and the NPS is at least partly responsible. I’m curious – you have lots of park employees who read your blog, perhaps one of them might know whether or not Goodwin’s prepared remarks were reviewed by anyone prior to her speech?

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