There doesn’t seem to be any let up in the number and range of Civil War memory studies published or soon to be published this year. As someone who has contributed to this body of scholarship you might expect that this brings a smile to my face and you would be correct. That said, I do think we need to be wary of a tendency that is at the center of this particular genre.
Implicit in the act or performance of historical memory is the assumption that the event or individual in question ought to be remembered. Historians of Civil War memory don’t simply focus their readers on a dead past they dig down to show why something was forgotten and why it ought to be remembered and perhaps even celebrated. We cast a moral lens on the generation that supposedly ignored or intentionally dismissed some aspect of the past and we make a moral claim on our own generation as to its importance.
I am reminded of this having just finished a brand new book on the subject that I need to review for one of the Civil War magazines. It’s a solid book and one that I will recommend, but it did raise for me the question of whether historians can go too far in making claims on our own sense of justice regarding the contentious ground between forgetting and remembering. I was certainly guilty of this in my early research on William Mahone. Not everything needs to be remembered or given a prominent place in our collective memory.
More importantly, not everything that is forgotten is a moral injustice. That’s tough for a historian of Civil War memory to appreciate especially if we assume a role as something akin to a moral crusader who sets out to bring moral balance to the historical universe. A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but I don’t mind admitting that I need to be much more attentive to this tendency in myself.
Anyway, that’s my thought for the day.
On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville and we are already being subjected to a steady stream of interpretive flights of fancy surrounding the significance of Stonewall Jackson’s death.
Although it was not evident at the time, some historians believe Jackson’s death began the ruin of the Confederacy. The Southern disaster at Gettysburg two months later only confirmed the start of the eclipse. “The road to Appomattox [where the war ended] began on [that] Saturday night” at Chancellorsville, James I. Robertson Jr., Jackson’s best biographer, has said. “With his death, the southern confederacy began to die as well.”
“It was just a tragedy for the South,” Robertson said in an interview, “the greatest personal loss that the South suffered in that war . . . a horrible blow.” Civil War scholar Robert K. Krick said: “It’s hard to imagine the war going the way it did with Jackson present.”
I guess it should come as no surprise that Robertson and Krick are leading the way. Upcoming editorials will likely wax poetic about Jackson’s flank attack on May 2 and his final hours at Guinea Station and ignore or run rough shod over the fighting that took place the following day, which was significantly more important. We do love our stories.
I finally had a chance to watch the panel on USCTs that I moderated at Gettysburg College last month. C-SPAN aired it this weekend. I think the discussion went better than what I remembered, though I still get the sense of a subtle or perhaps no so subtle divide among the panelists between a detached scholarly interest in the subject and one that reflects a strong emotional streak. The latter comes through loud and clear in Hari Jones’s comments. I guess when it comes to black Union soldiers we still need both. It is an emotional topic for some and that is certainly understandable at this stage in the game.
One final thought: I definitely should have gotten a haircut before the conference.
First things first. Thanks to all of you who emailed yesterday to share your concerns about our safety in light of the attacks that took place here in Boston. My wife and I have lived in Boston for close to two years. After watching the response of our community to yesterday’s tragic events, I can honestly say that there is no other place I would rather live. I love this city.
Last month I traveled to Charlottesville to take part in the Virginia Festival of the Book. My panel included my good friend, Rick Britton, and new friend, Ronald Coddington. We talked about our respective books and fielded a number of excellent questions from the audience.
This coming Saturday C-SPAN will air a panel discussion about United States Colored Troops that I recently moderated at Gettysburg College. Let’s just say it was an unusual and entertaining discussion. I’ve actually thought about it a bit and will share some thoughts over the weekend.
There is a danger when we remember or imagine the past or treat historical actors as static or stuck in a particular moment as opposed to dynamic and forward looking. We make an implicit assumption that since we are preoccupied with a particular historical moment that the individuals were as well. The recent history and memory of 9-11 ought to be sufficient to reveal the mistake that is involved in this imaginative act. Roughly ten years later and a visit to the city suggests that New Yorkers have moved on with their lives. Think of the language we used in the immediate aftermath that nothing would ever be the same. Perhaps we build monuments and memorials because deep down we acknowledge the fickleness of memory. Continue reading “Remembering that Historical Actors Looked Forward”