Is There An Official Civil War Memory?

In response to one of my posts last week on the Civil War Sesquicentennial one of my readers expressed a feeling of frustration (not on the blog) that David Blight’s interpretation of Civil War memory has become the standard or official narrative.  The individual is a professional historian, who has written on the subject.  On the one hand, I can certainly understand the concern.  How can what is essentially a meta-narrative (a narrative about multiple narratives of the past) become something akin to an official explanation?  Since the publication of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory back in 2001 historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s thesis, which emphasizes the triumph of sectional reconciliation at the turn of the twentieth century.  My own forthcoming book on the Crater and historical memory bumps up against it.

On the one hand the cottage industry of Civil War memory studies that Race and Reunion spawned is a testament to the quality of the book.  Race and Reunion unfolds much of the terrain that subsequent historians have attempted to stake their claim to and challenge.   And yet the argument has held up quite well.  That, however, does not explain the book’s popularity.

To the extent that Race and Reunion has been embraced by the general public has everything to do with the visibility of its author.  The guy gets around.  Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Prof. Blight in a number of settings from academic conferences to National Park Service tours to small bookstore signings.  Of course, he is not the only academic historian who has achieved public notoriety, but there is something special about achieving it in an area that many might think of as much too theoretical.  Most Civil War enthusiasts want to talk about the Civil War and not about how it has been remembered and what this tells us about ourselves as a nation.

The visibility of Blight’s narrative in our popular discourse reminds us that it is the personality and sense of mission behind the book that matters most.  And that is something that we should always encourage and celebrate in our public intellectuals.

Has Edward Sebesta Ever Visited The Museum of the Confederacy?

This morning neo-Confederate crusader Edward Sebesta posted the third of his four-part series on the Museum of the Confederacy.  Sebesta is convinced that the museum stands at the center of the neo-Confederate cause: “The 3rd installment covers how the MOC creates Confederate identification amongst its supporters, visitors, and others by being a shrine and reliquary.”  This most recent entry displays the same shoddy analysis and research that can be found in the other parts.  According to Sebesta, this is clearly reflected in the museum’s flag conservation program:

National flags are by definition national identifiers. Confederate flags are those flags adopted by the Confederacy in its quest to be a nation and were intended to serve as a symbol of the Confederate nation. The conservation of flags, like the conservation of any historical artifact, is a legitimate activity for a museum. However, flags are powerful instruments of national identity and act as such – it is the purpose for which they designed.  The MOC uses Confederate flags as symbols that both assert and reinforce Confederate national identity.

Sebesta seems to think that the financial support for this project by the Sons of Confederate Veterans implies that the flag’s restoration is for their benefit only and that its purpose is to keep alive the Confederate cause.  This is absurd.  First, there is nothing necessarily wrong with the SCV offering financial support to the museum nor is there any conflict of interest for the MOC in accepting and publicizing it.  The flags belong to all of us.

Click to continue

A Sesquicentennial From the Bottom-Up

The following video was uploaded to YouTube a couple of days ago.  I know nothing about the woman who produced it, but I think it is a wonderful example of how the Web2.0 world has shaped the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  As opposed to the centennial years, when relatively few historical institutions exercised control over how the nation remembered the war, the sesquicentennial’s narrative is being written one blog post, one video, and one tweet at a time. Much of what is being produced, including this video, defies easy categorization. Watch this through to the end.

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 03/02

Glenn David Brasher, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Thomas J. Brown, ed., Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

David Glassberg, Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).

Guy Gugliotta, Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War (Hill and Wang, 2012).

Harold Holzer, Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Brian Matthew Jordan, UNHOLY SABBATH: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 (Savas Beatie, 2012).

Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Doubleday, 2011).  Loved it!

Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).