The Ghosts of Civil War Memory

Tales From the Haunted SouthI am just about finished reading Tiya Miles’s new book, Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era, published by UNC Press. Miles explores the current craze and popularity of ghost stories at historic sites, specifically those involving slaves in places like Savannah and New Orleans. Here is a short passage that beautifully captures the central theme of the book:

In crafting and hearing stories of haunting, we conjure up and simultaneously contain the collective memories that threaten us. Ghost stories index disturbing historical happenings that have often been excluded from conscious social memory, but they also limit the full recognition of those very happenings. Because modern culture dismisses the possibility of ghosts (even while many people hold personal faith in the reality of haunting), ghost stories are taken lightly, in jest, and are viewed as primitive or playful. Revelations of historical import embedded in ghost stories are therefore dismissed as unreal. Ghost stories as a form of historical narrative therefore do double work: they call to mind disturbing historical knowledge that we feel compelled to face, but they also contain the threat of that knowledge by marking it as unbelievable. This process of pushing back and calling forth a memory might be described as “unsuccessful repression” in psychoanalytical literary and cultural studies. Literature scholar Renee Bergland explains the understanding of hauntings as repression in this way: “The entire dynamic of ghosts and hauntings, as we understand it today, is a dynamic of unsuccessful repression.  Ghosts are things that we try to bury, but that refuse to stay buried. They are our fears and our horrors, disembodied, but made inescapable by their very bodilessness.” Just as hauntings are about the return of the past, or time “out of joint,” ghost stories are a controlled cultural medium for recognizing trouble in that past, for acknowledging the complexities and injustices of history that haunt the periphery of public life and leave a lingering imprint on social relations. (pp. 15-16)

At first I had trouble understanding why Miles is interested in ghosts, but having recently read her previous book, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, it occurred to me that there is a great deal of overlap between ghost stories about slavery at historical sites and the challenges that public historians face in interpreting this history for the general public. The book is well worth your time and is a quick read.

2 comments… add one
  • thank you for the recommendation. My Public History class has a section on ghost stories and how they allow a community to remember a dark episode safely at a distance (as well as how they can act as a warning about violating a community’s norms). We go on a ghost tour in Old Town Alexandria (I tell the guide beforehand which stories to tell, they have multiples) and then the class discusses the stories. Many of the same stories appear in print, so the class discusses the differences between the stories. What elements they have in common can indicate which parts of the story are most crucial to preserving memory, and which are just added color. For example, one story features a young man who preyed on unaccompanied young women (he was hung and his ghost still appears to young women in the square alone at night). Sometimes the guide says he was a wealthy young man of privilege, sometimes he’s a Union soldier, sometimes he’s a stranger from the north come down during Reconstruction to get rich. there are interesting variations.

    I have some class readings on the subject, but maybe I can add this book to their readings as well.

    • Sounds like a great class.

      I would say more, but I am collecting my thoughts for a review for The Daily Beast. I definitely think your students will find the book well worth reading and entertaining.


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