This morning I was reminded that today is the first day of the sesquicentennial of the War in 1864. As I alluded to this past spring, it is going to be very interesting to see how the final sixteen months of the war will be commemorated and remembered. There are practical issues of funding, but there is also the turn that the war itself took in 1864. Those of us on the education/public history side of things will have to think long and hard about how we engage the public about some of the more important and challenging issues of the war.
Whether there is a strong desire to engage these issues has yet to be seen. Over the past few months Ta-Nahesi Coates has been blogging about Tony Judt’s recent book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, which I started, but have not had a chance to finish. This reference from the book, which appeared in his most recent post beautifully captures what I take to be the challenge of Civil War memory in 1864.
Evil, above all evil on the scale practiced by Nazi Germany, can never be satisfactorily remembered. The very enormity of the crime renders all memorialisation incomplete. Its inherent implausibility—the sheer difficulty of conceiving of it in calm retrospect—opens the door to diminution and even denial. Impossible to remember as it truly was, it is inherently vulnerable to being remembered as it wasn’t. Against this challenge memory itself is helpless.
The Shoah has been very much on my mind having just finished teaching it for the first time. That said, my intention is not to equate our Civil War with Nazi Germany. What I do want to draw your attention to is Judt’s emphasis on the difficulty that often accompanies having to remember a traumatic event. He nails it. Commemorating and remembering charismatic generals and flanking maneuvers that capture the imagination are easy to draw attention to, but what happens when those things are not within easy reach?
Do we have it in us as a nation 150 years later to honestly deal with race and battlefield massacres at such places as Fort Pillow and the Crater? How about the ugly side of the unraveling of slavery? Will we push aside the beginning of Reconstruction and steer clear of Jim Crow and jump directly to the Civil Rights Movement? How will we frame the “Hard War” campaigns in Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas? These are just a few.
Here we go.