A Taste of Civil War Memory Studies

Fellow blogger and historian, Keith Harris, recently asked me to put together a list of books for someone who might be interested in exploring the field of Civil War memory studies for his new online journal, The Americanist Independent.  The project is Keith’s attempt to utilize digital tools to bring quality history essays and other features to a mass audience. It also offers a venue for a wide range of history enthusiasts to showcase their work. This week Keith is offering potential subscribers a sneak preview. Check it out. Below is my book list.

It goes without saying that this is not meant as a top 5 list, but as a suggestion on where one might go to begin to explore the subject.

David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

The book is beautifully written and has come to define for many today how memory of the war evolved during the postwar years. Blight emphasizes the influence of sectional reconciliation and reunion over memory of emancipation and slavery by the turn of the twentieth century. A number of historians have recently challenged this framing of the relevant issues, but his central thesis still commands attention.

Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

The central event of this book take places west of the war’s western theater. Most Americans don’t identify the 1864 slaughter of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians as a Civil War battle, but interestingly enough the incident is listed on a monument dedicated in 1909 to Coloradans who fought in the war. Kelman skillfully traces the competing memories of Sand Creek along with the heated public debates between Native American tribes, local landowners, the National Park Service, and Civil War buffs that ultimately resulted in the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2007.

Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Random House, 1998).

This is a fun book. Horwitz explores the ways in which the Civil War continues to impact popular culture and the lives of some of the most devoted Civil War enthusiasts. Readers meet reenactors whose crash-diets are meant to achieve the look of starved Confederates and members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who continue to salute Confederate flags and even yearn for the return of the Confederacy. One of the things that I appreciate about this book is that Horwitz treats his subjects seriously and offers a sympathetic portrayal for readers who may be surprised by what goes on in some of these communities.

Carol Reardon, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

A number of historians over the past few years, including this one, have trained their focus on the memory of specific battles. Reardon was one of the first to do so and it should come as no surprise that her preferred subject was Pickett’s Charge, which is still one of the most iconic moments of the war. Reardon explores the the battle’s central myths and shows how many of them evolved beginning with the disputes between Confederate veterans from different states, who worked tirelessly to place themselves at the center of the unfolding drama. One of the lessons that Reardon reinforces is the importance of understanding the context in which many postwar accounts were written.

Gary W. Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

This is another fun book written by a serious scholar. It’s also a great place to start given Gallagher’s accessible breakdown of various narratives that evolved in the first few decades of the postwar period. Gallagher explores how the Lost Cause, Union, and Emancipation narratives continue to be reflected through Hollywood movies such as Gone With the Wind, Shenandoah, and Glory as well as the work of popular Civil War artists. It is a very helpful book to understand our own ongoing Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration.

10 comments… add one
  • Rob Baker Sep 16, 2014 @ 2:42

    Confederates in the Attic

    Love that book. However, after I got the chance to meet Robert Lee Hodge personally, I wondered how much of his characterization in the book is embellished.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2014 @ 2:44

      And it’s a wonderful text for the classroom.

    • Pat Young Sep 16, 2014 @ 8:21

      How is it embellished, in your opinion?

      • Rob Baker Sep 16, 2014 @ 10:02

        Well, I’ll let Rob Hodge speak for himself.


        From my perspective, when I first read the book, I thought Hodge might be a bit unbalanced. I certainly wasn’t the only one. I’ve been to many re-enactments where a re-enactor yelled out “Hey…do the bloat,” “Super-Hardcore,” etc. After meeting him however, I known he is a lot more level headed. If you watch some of his interviews or read about the preservation work he is involved in, it’s becomes clear there is more purpose that drives him beyond simple the “period rush.”

    • Andy Hall Sep 16, 2014 @ 8:27

      I’ve heard people say that Hodge was putting one over on Horwitz, and I can believe it. Exaggerated or not, it was something of a boon for him, too.

      • Rob Baker Sep 16, 2014 @ 9:50

        I’ve heard that too Andy and I will agree it was definitely a boon for him. Hodge is very involved in battlefield preservation, his fame from the book undoubtedly helped his cause.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2014 @ 10:01

          The reenacting community has functioned as an important access point for media covering Civil War events over the past two decades. I read not too long ago that many reenactors are going to retire from the hobby after the 150th of Appomattox next April. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact it has on the broader Civil War community.

          • Rob Baker Sep 16, 2014 @ 10:04

            From my perspective, many of the re-enactors need to retire already. I can’t tell you the number of events I’ve participated in where someone called a timeout to help some poor-old-fella who went down with the heat.

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