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.