Much of our inquiry into history can be described as a metaphorical reaching back into the past. We are not just looking for more facts, but a deeper meaning that somehow renders our own lives more intelligible. Seeing our own lives as intertwined in the lives of those who came before us is at its root an act of the imagination. We often forget, however, that the people we study engaged in a similar act of the imagination by reaching out to those who would follow, including us. I was reminded of this as I made my way through William G. Thomas’s excellent new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011).
As we all know, often our own need to reach back into the past is shaped by what we want or need to find rather than what the available evidence reveals. Consider one of the most popular beliefs among Civil War buffs surrounding the future of slavery in 1860. It comes in many forms, but at its center is the assumption that slavery was on a path to eventual extinction. It’s pure speculation that is often wrapped in a desire to remove it from any discussion related to the Civil War or from an underlying belief in the gradual progress of the nation as a whole. In short, we need to believe that slavery’s days were numbered.
Regardless of whether the first Thanksgiving began in Massachusetts or Virginia you can at least rest easy in knowing that this first generation of Americans is responsible for the Civil War. Enter Dick Morris’s whacky world of American history at your own risk and have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.
I am really sorry to have missed last weekend’s “Years of Anguish” event in Fredericksburg organized by John Hennessy and including Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, and Jeff McClurken. Apparently, at some point during his presentation Gallagher commented on Lee’s views on slavery and emancipation with a reference to his January 10, 1863 message to James Seddon:
One of the projects that I am currently working on is a historiographical piece for the Blackwell Companion to the U.S. Civil War edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean and published by Wiley-Blackwell. This is going to be released in two volumes, the first includes 34 chapters on “Battles and “Campaigns” with the remaining 30 divided between “Leaders”, “Politics and Society”, and “The Civil War in History”. It looks like a great line-up of contributors, a few of whom stop by Civil War Memory on occasion. This is my second project with Aaron. Some of you may remember that I published a piece in The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers, which examined the competing memories of Confederate veterans surrounding their experience at the Crater.