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.