Remembering Pvt. Louis Martin in the Land of Lincoln

On Thursday I am heading to Springfield, Illinois for the Conference on Illinois History. I was invited to give a luncheon talk on Private Louis Martin, who was severely wounded at the Crater, and who is buried in an unmarked grave in Oak Ridge Cemetery near Lincoln’s final resting place. A gravestone was recently dedicated in the cemetery. I am super excited as this will my first visit to Lincoln’s home town. I am well on my way to finishing the talk, but I thought I would share a bit from the opening. Feel free to comment.

It’s an image that we were never meant to see. Private Louis Martin of Co. E of the 29th Regiment, United States Colored Troops poses for the cameraman, not as part of some grand narrative of sacrifice in a war that resulted in the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery, but as one of a countless number of wounded men discharged from service over the course of the war. For Martin that discharge came 17 months after a severe wounding at the battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864 that cost him both his right arm and left leg. We look for clues in Martin’s countenance, but he offers very little beyond the obvious: “What next?”

One hundred and fifty years later and the rediscovery of this image, coinciding with the Civil War sesquicentennial, speaks volumes. In contrast with earlier commemorations of the Civil War the image of Private Martin sits at the center of a narrative that celebrates the service of black soldiers and their crucial role in saving the Union and ending slavery. We can see this play out in gravestone and monument dedications, Hollywood movies, at historic sites related to the Civil War and in the wave of popular and scholarly books now available. It may not be much of a stretch to suggest that the story of the black Union soldier has become the dominant narrative of the sesquicentennial.

The zeal with which we have embraced this narrative is, in part, a response to the perceived failure on the part of previous generations to properly acknowledge these men and the cause for which they fought. Overshadowed by the Lost Cause narrative and the success of sectional reconciliation between white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, we want to right the moral wrong of forgetting with remembrance and commemoration. We would do well, however, to acknowledge that with every act of remembering there is an element of forgetting and distortion in the service of our own values and understanding of the past.

2 comments add yours

  1. Kevin,

    Your topic sounds interesting. I’m always struck by the irony that Lincoln’s hometown in 1909 suffered through some of the worst racial violence seen in the country. Sorry I will miss your presentation. I had hoped to present a paper on Ida Tarbell this year but circumstances conspired to keep me from it. I’ve presented twice at the conference and it’s an interesting event. Not only is there a great deal of knowledge shared on Lincoln, but other aspects of the state’s history as well. You’ll enjoy yourself and I’m sure your talk will be well-received.

    Not sure about your schedule, but in addition to the Lincoln sites (try to get to New Salem if possible), try to work in time to visit Prairie Archives, one of the best used bookstores in the state. Much of my Lincoln collection came from Prairie Archives. It’s located across from the Old State Capitol and is two doors down from my favorite Springfield restaurant, the Feed Store. Two other good places to eat near the convention center are Saputo’s (a great mom and pop Italian joint) and Maldaner’s, which is a bit pricy but well worth the cost.

    Enjoy and welcome to the Land of Lincoln!

    Best
    Rob

    • Hi Rob,

      Sorry to hear that you won’t be in town. I was planning to stay until Sunday, but decided to leave Saturday night. This should still give me enough time to explore the important sites. Thanks for the suggestions.

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