The Ethics of Civil War Memory

My talk on Friday at the Civil War Memory conference focused specifically on memory and USCTs at the Crater.  I examined both how and why black soldiers were left out of public commemorations and written accounts of the battle by the turn of the twentieth century.  Towards the end I briefly touched on what I believe to be the moral significance of memory studies.  In the past I’ve shied away from being too explicit about what ultimately drives me in my historical pursuits.  Here are the final few paragraphs for your consideration:

As a case study of American Civil War memory the story of the Crater allows us to see more clearly the ways in which history is often used for purposes that have little to do with a desire to tell an accurate and balanced story of the past. More importantly, an analysis of how the battle has been remembered highlights those interpretive strands that were acknowledged and ultimately reinforced as well as those that were intentionally ignored.

Part of the process of writing about Civil War memory is to suggest what was possible. The collective memory of the Civil War and the Crater in particular could have evolved in any number of ways. That it did evolve in a certain way serves to remind us of how important it is to step back on occasion and ask how that narrative evolved and why. Only then is it possible to acknowledge shortcomings in the interpretation and make necessary corrections that more accurately reflect the historical record.

Disagreements surrounding how to interpret and remember the racial component of the battle of the Crater points to the extent to which Americans continue to perceive the Civil War as a chivalrous contest between white Northerners and Southerners. While the tendency to suppress uncomfortable facts about race may help render the story palatable it can only do so by sacrificing salient aspects of the history. More importantly, it suggests that until we are prepared to confront important issues of race in our Civil War and elsewhere we will continue to struggle to engage in honest dialogue about race in our society today.

I don’t see how anyone can study the evolution of our memories of the Civil War without acknowledging the moral/political implications for our own time.  Now I don’t think there is anything in these brief comments that is prescriptive for a specific set of changes.  In other words, nothing stated above suggests or implies a social policy or other public act.  I think it is enough to create the mental space which makes it possible to think critically about the implications surrounding the way in which our historical narratives serve to bring about and reinforce various political and social ends.

While some may be concerned that such a statement on my part betrays a lack of objectivity or a commitment to a certain set of political principles, I don’t believe there is a necessary conflict.  First, I don’t hold to a traditional belief that interprets objectivity as some kind of metaphysical space in which the individual comes in touch with an independent reality.  There is no historical “in and of itself.”  A more realistic understanding of historical objectivity involves a continuous commitment to remaining open to revision or willingness to be surprised by the available evidence.  There doesn’t seem to me to be anything necessarily wrong with claiming a moral purpose behind one’s historical scholarship and maintaining the integrity of a serious researcher.

[photograph, from left to right: me, historian Mark Snell, Councilman Frank Smith Jr. and historian Roger Davidson – Smith was one of the leaders behind the commission and placement of the monument to African-American soldiers and the Civil War (Washington, D.C.]

Southern Fried Rabbit

On Saturday evening historian Michael Birdwell of Tennessee Tech discussed the history of Civil War films.  Michael was kind enough to put together a filmography of roughly 1,300 Civil War related titles.  In addition to his analysis we watched a few clips from a selection of films which served to inform the discussion. The final clip was a light-hearted and classic Bugs Bunny episode which I am sure many of you are familiar with.  The cartoon is a window into our biases about the South, slavery, and the Civil War.  At one point Bugs refers to the war as the War Between the States.  Notice when Yosemite Sam, who plays a Confederate officer, confronts a black-faced and banjo playing Bugs Bunny with the words: "It’s one of our boys…Hey there boy…."  When the slave plays Yankee Doodle and is threatened by Yosemite Sam Bugs pleads: "Don’t beat me massa."   


Civil War Memory Conference: A Few Thoughts

My drive home from Shepherdstown today gave me some time to think about the weekend.  First and foremost, I had an incredible time.  Mark Snell and the rest of his staff put on a first-rate conference.  Yesterday we traveled to Washington, D.C. for a tour of Civil War monuments and Arlington National Cemetery.  It was a long day, but the weather was gorgeous and both Mark and historian Roger Davidson did an excellent job of interpreting the various sites.  [I will comment more specifically in the coming weeks about the various talks and tours.]Today we ended the conference with a roundtable discussion involving all of the speakers.  We went for about an hour, but I suspect we could have talked much longer.

I mentioned at one point during this final session that I was originally skeptical that a conference geared towards Civil War enthusiasts would work around the theme of memory.  How many times have I said that most people want nothing more than battles and leaders?  Thankfully I was wrong and that I was wrong has given me a great deal to think about.  The discussions were enlightening and the participants seemed to appreciate having the opportunity to think about a subject that many had not spent much or any time with.  One gentleman admitted today during the final session that he believes the study of memory can be applied to many other areas of his life.  Plenty of other people voiced their appreciation for having their understanding of the war broadened in a meaningful way.  There were a few tense moments during the tours and sessions, but what was so nice was that we were  able to talk through all of the issues that came up.  No one tried to convince the other that he/she was wrong.  It was about sharing ideas and perspective; unfortunately, such openness and curiosity is so rare in certain circles.

For instance, yesterday we spent some time at the Confederate memorial at Arlington, which was dedicated in 1914.  As our guides were laying out the relevant background one of the participants suggested that its placement was a reflection of the overdue honor that was owed to Confederate veterans.  It was an emotional appeal that needed to be dealt with carefully.  We suggested that the time and place of dedication was absolutely essential to understanding the monument.  This was during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Washington, D.C. was a southern town, Jim Crow was well established and the federal office buildings had also been segregated under the president’s order.  We wanted the participants to think beyond an emotional response to a point where they could think about  commemorative markers as historical objects that needed to be explained.    Why were they constructed in various places, at different times, and what meanings were they designed to reflect?  We honed in on the image of the slave, which was part of the monument’s relief and discussed why slaves were portrayed as loyal and obedient as late as 1914.

It was very interesting to watch people become more comfortable discussing certain issues such as race as the conference progressed.  My experience this weekend has convinced me that it is possible to introduce this material to general audiences.  My skepticism about the ability of such an audience to handle and think critically about issues of memory I now realize has been entirely misplaced.  It was a breadth of fresh air to be able to talk about memory with people who were able to offer a fresh perspective.  I thank all of the participants for showing me that.

* Additional photos have been uploaded to flickr.

Update from Shepherdstown

Well, I really thought I would have more time to blog about the ongoing Civil War Memory conference here at Shepherd University.  I should have been more realistic given the schedule.  All of the talks have been first-rate and I enjoyed a very nice reception yesterday morning.  More importantly, the participants have been thoroughly engaged from the outset.  They are genuinely interested in the topics and they ask excellent questions.   When Mark Snell first asked me to join the group I was just a bit skeptical.  Discussions of Civil War memory typically find a place within the confines of the academic world.  I should have known better given the overwhelmingly positive response to my blog.  It is clear that when done right these issues can find a natural home with well-informed Civil War enthusiasts.  I’ve had a chance to talk with many of the participants who have participated in the conference multiple times and they enjoyed the fact that the tours and talks really made them think critically about how we understand the Civil War.

Following my talk yesterday we headed down to Antietam for a tour with Tom Clemens.  Ken Noe was right when he commented some time ago that a tour with Tom is worth the cost of the conference alone.  Tom focused us specifically on commemoration and the analysis of monuments.  We started at the Antietam cemetery and proceeded to walk bits from each stage of the battle.  I’ve never toured a battlefield with such an emphasis on postwar activities.  We also had a chance to walk a brand new trail that has yet to be advertised through the West Woods and behind the Dunker Church.  It was a long day and following dinner we still had one more presentation on Civil War movies.

Since I have been pressed for time I will probably wait until later to summarize some of the talks.  The highlight of my day was meeting Antietam Park Ranger Mannie Gentile.  I walked into the Visitors Center and Mannie knew immediately who I was.  Above is a picture I took with Mannie.  He seems like the kind of guy you might want to spend a few hours to get to know.  Maybe next time Mannie.  I also met fellow blogger John HoptakI’ve uploaded a bunch of photographs over at flickr.  Today it’s off to Washington D.C. for a full day of touring.

“Mystic Chords of Memory”: Conference on Civil War Memory at Shepherd University

I am putting the finishing touches on my talk for the conference on Civil War memory which begins tomorrow at Shepherd University.  My presentation will focus specifically on the battle of the Crater and how Confederates and other commentators remembered the role of USCTs.  I will be in attendance throughout the conference and I hope to be able to provide regular updates on the blog.  It’s going to be a busy four days, but I am really looking forward to hearing the other presenters along with the day trips to Antietam and Washington, D.C.  What follows is the tentative itinerary:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

1:00–3:00 pm Registration, Conrad Shindler House

4:30 pm "An Overview of Memory and Commemoration” – G. Kurt Piehler, University of Tennessee – Byrd Center Auditorium (all lectures to be held in Byrd Center

6:00 pm Dinner – The Train Station at Shepherdstown

8:00 pm Welcome – Mark Snell

8:10 pm Keynote Lecture – “Confederate Battle Flag as a Case Study” – Scholar in Residence – John Coski, Museum of the Confederacy

9:30 pm Beer/wine reception, Shindler House garden

Friday, June 22, 2007

8:30 am "The Politicalization of Memorial Days” – William Blair, Penn State University

10:00 am "The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory” – Kevin Levin, St. Anne’s – Belfield School

11:30 am Leave for tour of Antietam Battlefield – Thomas Clemens, Hagerstown Community College

6:30 pm Dinner – The Train Station at Shepherdstown

8:00 pm “The Civil War in Film” – Michael Birdwell, Tennessee Tech

Saturday, June 23, 2007

7:30 am Leave for tour of Washington DC – bus to load in front of Byrd Center

10:00 am -Tour Washington Civil War monuments, memorials, and Arlington Cemetery, Roger Davidson, Coppin State University, and Mark Snell, Shepherd University

6:00 pm Dinner at Red Horse Restaurant, Frederick Maryland. Special musical entertainment this evening by Greg Adams and Chuck Krepley.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

9:30 am "Civil War Reenacting and Living History Portrayals: An Overview” – Mark Snell

11:00 am Panel Discussion – Coski, Piehler, Levin, Clemens, Birdwell, Snell

1:00 pm Lunch – The Train Station at Shepherdstown

1:30 pm Wrap-up/concluding remarks – John Coski