Earlier today I spent some time with an Associated Press writer discussing connections between Civil War remembrance and the upcoming anniversary of 9-11. I tried to outline some of the shifts that have taken place in our collective memory of the Civil War and suggested that our national memory of 9-11 will likely follow these patterns. We are still early on in that initial stage of historical memory where narratives emphasize heroism and tend to be shaped by those who have a personal connection to the event itself. In this case I’ve suggested that it is the families of 9-11 victims that will continue to exercise a great deal of influence on how the rest of us remember and commemorate that day. As we move further from the tragedy of that day, however, we will become more removed and more likely to assume a more “objective” perspective – one that carefully considers both causes and consequences. That will take some time and probably will not blossom for another generation. It is inevitable
That heroic/moral narrative continues to linger 150 years after the Civil War among folks who imagine themselves as caretakers of a distant past, but I would suggest that in a few short years its most visual incarnations will be even more of a rare occurrence. This last generation that continues to preserve its ceremonial symbols were reared on the Civil War Centennial, but there is no indication that the sesquicentennial will leave us with the same level of enthusiasm. This generation is the last one to have any direct connection with the veterans themselves. You can also see this impending shift in the profile of Civil War Roundtables. I suspect that most of them will be a distant memory in the not too distant future unless there is a major influx of younger blood into leadership positions. This shift is taking place in both the North and South.
There is no need to pronounce judgment on this or dwell on what will be lost or gained by such a change. What will continue to dissipate is the tendency among some to see the war as lacking closure. I suspect that the Civil War will continue to exercise a strong hold on our imaginations.
Negro Digest (November 1961)
This is a question that Howard N. Meyer posed in the November 1961 issue of Negro Digest. It’s a thought-provoking essay that anticipates a burgeoning black counter-memory that emerged in the pages of popular magazines by 1965. It also provides a helpful reference point to gauge the evolution of Civil War memory over the past few decades. Here are a few choice quotes:
- One is first tempted to say that the commission’s plans have been marked by a kind of equal treatment: reverence as much for the Stars and Bars as for the Stars and Stripes, honor as much for Jefferson Davis as for Abraham Lincoln; tributes for the Boys in Gray as for the Boys in Blue; equality, that is, for all except the Negro.
- Chairman Grant is eighty years old, and apparently still accepts the ideology that prevailed during his turn-of-the-century youth: that North-South reconciliation is more important than human rights for the Negro.
- What will the Civil War Centennial be like? It will last four years. Battles will be re-enacted, many on a huge scale. Colorful ceremonies will be held, exhibitions of war trophies and mementos organized. There will be memorials, parades, new historical markers and a great many special ceremonies…
- The success of Southern apologists meant not merely that the Confederate side of the war was hygenized and glamorized. The cause of the North was correspondingly demeaned.
- One does not have to deny the tragedy of blasted homes and lives to say that the Old South depended on an iniquitous social system that could not be tolerated in America. It does not serve America well, in the world of 1961, to ignore the evil and iniquity of slavery in marking the Centennial of the conflict.
- When the firing on Fort Sumter was re-enacted, in a setting of live oaks and magnolias, who was there to remind the play-actors, in ever so small a voice, that the original shot was, after all, treason?
My have the times changed.
Another image that I am hoping to use in my forthcoming book about the Crater and historical memory is the August 1968 cover of Ebony. I went through the entire run of Ebony and Jet magazines during the course of my research in an effort to better understand how African Americans remembered black Union soldiers through the Civil War Centennial. I was not disappointed. The coverage was extensive and included a number of well written essays by academic historians, including John Hope Franklin and the popular historian, Lerone Bennett, who is best known for is book on Lincoln and emancipation. I found a few essays that referenced the Crater, but the battle clearly did not stand out for African Americans in the 1960s. That’s not surprising given that more extensive coverage would have forced writers to deal with the additional problem of how to handle the massacre of large numbers of black soldiers following the battle. Such a narrative would have run counter to the strong desire among authors to tell a heroic battlefield story.
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Adam Arenson, The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2011).
Karen Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture, (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Anthony J. Gaughan, The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States Versus Lee, 1861-1883 (Louisiana State University Press, 2011).
Mark Neely, Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006).