The Civil War Is Our History

clioMany of you know that I have a personal connection to 9-11. I lost a cousin on that horrific day. It should come as no surprise that I care very deeply about how my cousin and the history are remembered by the nation as a whole and, more specifically, by the 9-11 Memorial Museum.

Though my interest is very personal, in no way do I believe that I occupy a privileged position when it comes to discussing/debating how 9-11 ought to be remembered. Every American has something at stake regarding this question. It is our history. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to argue that I enjoy anything close to a monopoly on this question of remembrance and commemoration.

With that in mind I have to wonder what kind of distorted and arrogant view of the past would warrant someone to suggest that an ancestral connection to a Civil War soldier is necessary to engage in questions of commemoration and memory. Somebody is going to have to explain to me what that argument looks like. What exactly is the source of this privileged access?

My memories of 9-11 are still fresh. I experienced that day and its aftermath in a way that very few people will ever understand and I will carry that personal connection with me for the rest of my life.

What do you carry 150 years later that trumps such a connection and that places you in a position that you feel comfortable dismissing the myriad ways in which the past matters to each of us? The Civil War is everyone’s history and heritage.

11 comments… add one

  • Joe Bailey Sep 22, 2013

    Kevin, I couldn’t agree more. The Civil War is “our” history. That being said, the commemorations and memory of that event are “ours” as well. I’m not sure what jack ass made such a foolish assertion but they sure don’t understand memory. If they did, they would understand that the event still shapes the world in which we live, ancestor or not. I guess I’m not really an American and have no business discussing American traditions or commemorations because my ancestor didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence! On another note, have you seen the article “At Museum on 9/11, Talking Through an Identity Crisis?” It’s a June 2, 2012 article from the New York Times. In short, this article is about the attempt to organize a memory in the aftermath of traumatic events and the politics that shape the memory. I think it’s very closely related to the point you make.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2013

      Hi Joe,

      That being said, the commemorations and memory of that event are “ours” as well.

      That is exactly my point. I have seen the NYTs article that you cite. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Patrick Young Sep 22, 2013

    A lot of people my age are the children of World War II veterans. Our fathers had their way of remembering, interpreting, and commemorating the war. As we were growing up, we instinctively embraced that memory. As the Vietnam War ground on and it was defended through the memory of Munich, you saw the post-war generation question the use our parents’ memory of the war. That memory was substantially revised by the very descendents of the warriors in just one generation.

    I find the confusion of genealogy with history that I encounter at Civil War gatherings troubling. I understand why people today might research an ancestor and I can see why they might identify with that person. However, since few of us have spoken to a Civil War veteran, or even to the child of a veteran, those men are the stuff of history. We cannot embody them or speak for them.

    The stupidity of insisting that only descendents can understand the experiences of the Civil War soldiers shows an unhealthy conceitedness. I have heard some heritage folks insist that they are specially placed to interpret the war because they have the “blood of a Confederate soldier running” in their veins. They may have the blood of a blacksmith running in their veins, but that doesn’t mean they can shoe a horse.

    Such claims also mean that the tens of millions of immigrants, and their children, should not care about any aspect of American history that occurred before their family arrived here.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2013

      I suspect that most people who can trace their family’s history back to a Civil War ancestor don’t know the first thing about that individual.

      • Patrick Young Sep 22, 2013

        Kevin, I followed your link. Let me give you an example from my own experience that echoes your link. I have worked with thousands of war refugees. My job requires me to know both the most intimate details of their lives and the changes in their immigration statuses. When I give public speeches, it is common for the US-born children of my clients to come up and thank me and then to talk about their parents. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they seem to have no idea of what their parents experienced.

  • Craig L. Sep 25, 2013

    I nearly had a chance to attend my 30th high school reunion. I graduated from a high school in Galveston County in Texas in 1971. I live overseas, but by chance I happened to be visiting Atlanta about a week before the class reunion was scheduled and I was giving some serious thought to organizing my return trip to Manila via Houston so that I could attend the reunion. The planes that crashed into the World Trade Center that fall foreclosed on that possibility, as the classmate organizing the reunion lived in New York and her husband worked in the World Trade Center. They weren’t killed or even physically harmed on September 11, but their change in circumstances resulted in a six month postponement and scaling down of the planned reunion. By the time I traveled to Atlanta that October the reunion was no longer a possibility on my calendar.

    When I visited Atlanta in 2001 I had no inkling that I had a Civil War ancestor. When I visited Germany a year later I still hadn’t begun to suspect I might have a Civil War ancestor, but in 2004 when I started my family history blog I was beginning to wonder if the name on the roster for the 27th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment was related to someone with the same name buried in a cemetery near Chippewa Falls who I knew for a certainty was my great grandfather.

    My big break came about a year after I started my blog. I found an emigration record posted on a German genealogy website by a German chemical engineer who had taken up researching the Neumark, a portion of what is now called Poland that had been home to more than five million Germans before WWII. When I compared the emigration record to census records in the Wisconsin towns from which the 27th Wisconsin was recruited it became clear that the family in the 1856 emigration record in Germany was the same family that settled in the southwestern corner of Sheboygan County later that year.

    The German researcher who posted my ancestors’ emigration record online has American cousins who still live in the tiny Wisconsin farming village where my grandfather was a pastor the year my dad was born. His cousins emigrated after 1900 and still spoke mostly German the year my grandfather was born. I suspect they were the source of the information for my great great grandparents’ emigration record. I think they may have been pleased to have had a pastor who preached in both German and English and whose grandfather had been an immigrant.

    When I got to Atlanta in October of 2001 I wasn’t looking for Civil War battle sites, but I did go to Stone Mountain for an afternoon. I learned enough about the Battle of Atlanta that day so that six years later, when I received military service and pension records from the National Archives for my great great grandfather and his two brothers-in-law, who were also Civil War soldiers, I was able to appreciate what it meant when I learned that my great great grandmother’s younger brother, a nineteen year old kid, was wounded at Leggett’s Hill a few months after he enlisted in the 12th Wisconsin on George Washington’s birthday in 1864.

  • Craig L. Sep 25, 2013

    Pat,

    My niece attended your school a few years ago on a softball scholarship. She was the team’s west coast ringer and started every game behind the plate all four years. I’m guessing she would have needed to apply to law school for a chance to take one of your courses.

    She played in the Canada Cup during the summer before her senior year on a corporate sponsored team that entered the tournament to round out the field and help tune-up Team USA a month before the Beijing Games. Her team played the Dominican Republic in the first round, a game in which the Dominican catcher was decommissioned with an injury, so my niece was loaned to the Dominican team for the remainder of the tournament. She minored in Spanish. I’m told the coach of the Dominican team was hoping she’d defect.

  • Pat Young Sep 25, 2013

    Cool Craig. And yes, I only teach law students.

  • Craig L. Sep 26, 2013

    I’ve learned a few things about my immigrant Civil War ancestor’s decade in Wisconsin before he went off to war for six months and died of pneumonia in a military hospital at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis on July 27, 1865. I know where he lived with his wife and children, next door to his wife’s parents and near his wife’s sister’s husband, who enlisted the same day he did in October, 1864. Both men had signed a letter in 1858 requesting a visit from a pastor near a town called Hartford at the foot of Holy Hill less than fifteen miles away by foot or on horseback, but closer to thirty miles by train. They signed their enlistment papers in Hartford along with four younger men from their village who by 1864 were finally old enough to enlist.

    My great great grandfather lived close to a county line he could cross by walking west less than a hundred feet. He could cross another county line by walking two miles to the south. They lived in one county, went to church in another and did their shopping in the third. I’ve driven to the rural intersection that borders the section they homesteaded. I’ve purchased cheese and sausage from a cheese factory that’s still in business about two miles to the east. It’s owned by someone with the same surname as the husband of my great great grandmother’s sister. I’ve visited the church where my great great grandmother remarried in 1867 so her second husband could collect the pension benefits earned through the death of her first husband and the cemetery where she and her second husband were buried three decades later. Her second husband’s birthdate on his tombstone is the date of my great great grandfather’s death at Jefferson Barracks.

    My mother-in-law is now 92 years old, but before she lost her memory about five years ago she loved to go for drives in the country, so it was easy to persuade her to take me to visit the haunts of my ancestors, though on most of those excursions I didn’t know it was my ancestors I was visiting. Living in Asia one comes to appreciate that much of Buddhism consists of ancestor worship.

    My wife and I live overseas, but every two years for the past two decades we’ve gotten a month of paid home leave and have used it to spend a few weeks with our surviving parents. I’m convinced my wife and I have a marriage arranged by our great great grandparents. When we met in Seattle my wife had just spent four years with the U.S. Public Health Service Corps, providing federally funded health services at a clinic for low income patients in the Mississippi Delta. We’d been married nearly twenty years before I discovered the role of my Civil War ancestor’s regiment in the Siege of Vicksburg.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 26, 2013

      Hi Craig,

      Thanks for taking the time to share a bit of your family’s history

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