Civil War Memory Syllabus

This coming trimester I will be teaching two sections of a course I am calling Civil War Memory. This is the first time that I’ve taught an elective course on the subject, and, as you can imagine, I am very much looking forward to it. Most of the students who are taking the course just completed a trimester elective on the Civil War while the others took either my survey or AP course in American history last year. Although the syllabus is not finalized I have enough that I can share it with you. You will notice that I have not included any assignments or a description of the final project as I am still working on it. Please keep in mind that this is a high school elective course.

Course Description:

“The Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the national imagination” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1961. Indeed the Civil War occupies a prominent place in our national memory and has served to both unite and divide Americans. This course will explore the various ways in which Americans have chosen to remember their civil war through literature, monuments and memorials, histories, film, art, as well as other forms of popular culture. We will examine how memory of the war changed over time as well as the political implications for Civil War memory. Specific subjects to be addressed include the role of reunion and reconciliation in shaping memory of the war, the place of slavery in our national narratives of the war, public disputes over the display of the Confederate flag, changing perceptions of such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as other controversies surrounding the way in which the war has been remembered in public spaces. We will pay particular attention to the way in which the war has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville in such places as the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia, Lee and Jackson Park, and Courthouse Square. Additional field trips may include the Museum of the Confederacy, American Civil War Center at Tredegar, and Hollywood Cemetery – all in Richmond, Virginia. Students are encouraged to take the Civil War course, which will be offered in the first trimester.


David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’ Press, 2004). [Please note that much of the course is structured around this book.]

Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Vintage, 1999).

Week 1: Introduction to the Course

Questions: What is memory? Why do we find a need to remember and what is the difference between individual and collective memory? Why are Americans interested in their civil war and where can we find examples of civil war remembrance?

Readings: In Brown, read pp. 1-15; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Woodrow Wilson’s Gettysburg Address (1913); In Blight, read pp. 6-15.

Week 2: Monuments and Soldiers – analysis of the evolution of civic monuments, including their designs, and inscriptions. Why were they built, where, by whom and for what purposes?

Readings: David Blight article on soldiers and memory from North and South Magazine; William Henry Trescott, Inscription on South Carolina Soldiers Monument, 1879, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Soldier’s Faith, May 30, 1895

[We will take our first field trip to observe and analyze Civil War monuments in the Charlottesville area.]

Week 3: Contemporary Commemorations – Analysis of recent debates surrounding the legacy of Civil War soldiers and battlefield interpretation. Students will search the news for examples of controversies surrounding the Confederate flag.

Readings: NAACP resolution on Confederate flag (2000); Charley Reese editorial (1997); Fredericksburg commemoration talk by Kevin Levin; John Coski article on the history of the Confederate flag from North and South Magazine.

Week 4: Women of the War – Analysis of the roles that women played throughout the postwar period from grave dedications to textbook oversight.

Readings: In Brown, pp. 57-74; Primary sources by Clara Barton, Howard M. Hamill, and Laura Martin Rose; in Fahs and Waugh, read James McPherson’s “Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Southern Textbook Crusade”.

Week 5 and 6: Confederate heroes and the Lost Cause – Analysis of the evolution of the memory of Lee and other notable Confederate figures. We will pay particular attention to monuments, including the Lee equestrian statue in Richmond.

Readings: Primary sources by John W. Daniel, Abram J. Ryan, Charles Francis Adams Jr., as well as commentary from both white and black newspapers. In Brown, pp. 79-105 and Blight selections from Race and Reunion.

[We will take our second field trip to Richmond to tour Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery.]

Week 7: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment – Analysis of the most famous black regiment from the Civil War, including the monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Readings: Primary sources by Anna Quincy Waterston, Frances E.W. Harper, William James, Booker T. Washington, Paul L. Dunbar, Robert Lowell; read chapter 9, “Black Memory and Progress of the Race” in Blight’s Race and Reunion.

Week 8: Lincoln Legacies – Analysis of the evolution of Lincoln’s place in American memory and culture with particular focus on recent comparisons with Barack Obama and Lincoln.

Readings: Recent newspaper articles and editorials; primary sources by Henry M. Turner, Frederick Douglass, F. Wellington Ruckstull, George B. Shaw; In Brown, pp. 139-65 and article by Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt, “Lincoln in ‘Modern’ Art” in Gabor Boritt, ed., The Lincoln Enigma.

Week 9: The Civil War in Contemporary Culture – Analysis of reenactments and other forms of popular Civil War memory.

Readings: Selections from Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and Gary Gallagher’s Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War. We will also watch scenes from Gods and Generals, Cold Mountain, Shenandoah, and C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

Week 10: Final Projects (TBA)

I’ll Take It

Looks like Brag Bowling and the SCV are going to look elsewhere for a home for their statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber.  I reported on this story a few days ago.  He is rightfully concerned that, given the lack of preconditions attached to the donation of the statue to the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar, they may decide never to display it.  I would suggest, however, that his bigger concern is that they will display it.

As a steward of SCV money, I’m not going to take that risk, where it might not be displayed or it might be made in a way that denigrates the intent of the statue,” he said. “Theoretically, they could take the thing and melt it down. I think Richmond has missed an opportunity to open up the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

How might the museum display it in a way that “denigrates the intent of the statue”?  Well, they might do what museums do and include an interpretive panel that would give the visitor information about Davis and his view of blacks and slavery or his broader racial outlook.  It might even include information about the antebellum-postwar myth that slavery was a benign institution.  If I were Bowling I would cease to give interviews about this issue and move on.  The problem he is dealing with is the lack of an easy target to use to shape the image of a people/organization whose heritage and history are being attacked.  In this case it’s impossible since the mission of the museum is to tell the story of the Civil War from the perspectives of Union, Confederate, and slave.

Just in case the statue fails to find a home I would like to make a pitch for my classroom.  Next semester I will be teaching a class on memory and the Civil War, which will include an entire section on statues and other public historic sites.  I am planning two field trips, the first through Charlottesville and later to Richmond.   What better way to remember Davis than to use him as a teaching tool in a classroom full of young Virginians.

Give it some thought.

Postscript: Richard Williams has a thoughtful response to my post (even if he fails to provide a link) which you can read here.  His suggestion that Tredegar might place the statue in a “circus setting” is unpersuasive unless he can provide examples where this has happened in the past.  I’ve said this before and it bears repeating that Tredegar was not responsible for the placement of the Lincoln-Tad statue back in 2003.  The reason there is no historical marker explaining Lincoln’s racial outlook is because the statue was placed to commemorate his visit to Richmond in April 1865. It has nothing directly to do with race unless you want to explore how the black community received Lincoln.  This, of course, is quite different from Lincoln’s own evolving views on race.   As for how the Davis-Limber statue ought to be interepreted, Williams has this to say:

There was no reason for the statue to be purposely misinterpreted as representative of the institution of slavey as a whole, (that notion is utterly ridiculous) nor should the statue be used to make the false claim that most Southerners want to cover up or dismiss the evils of slavery. That too is utterly ridiculous.

Williams would have us believe that this statue is best interpreted as a reflection of the benign side of race relations and slavery.  First, I agree with Williams that the statue ought not to be interpreted as “representative of the institutiton of slavery as a whole” – a narrow focus on Davis would be sufficient.  Visitors would need to know that Davis was a wealthy slaveowner who believed in white supremacy and served as president of a nation whose expressed goal was the preservation of slavery and the maintenance of white supremacy.  I also agree with Williams that the statue should not be interpreted as a conscious attempt on the part of Southerners to “dismiss the evils of slavery.”  That would be to mistakenly reduce all Southerners to one narrow position, which would dismiss the diversity of opinion over how the past is identified and embraced.  What I would say, however, is that it is reflective of how the SCV has chosen to remember the history of the antebellum South as well as the Confederacy.  Much has been written on the history and agenda of the SCV by such historians as Gaines Foster, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Thomas Brown, Robert J. Cook, and Charles R. Wilson – most of whom were born and teach in the South.  To suggest that the commission of the Davis-Limber statue is not to be understood as an extension of that broader narrative/agenda is ludicrous.

Louisville’s Changing Public Landscape

Plans for a new “Freedom Park” were unveiled yesterday in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, which will include a number of new exhibits and statues related to the civil rights movement.  The site is home to a Confederate monument erected in 1895 by the Women’s Confederate Monument Association.  The project is being led by local city officers as well as University of Louisville officials.  The new exhibits will be placed alongside the Confederate monument in the hopes of creating a more historically diverse public space that reflects a more inclusive citizenry.

City spokesman Chris Poynter said it is important to leave the monument “where it is. It is part of our history. But it tells only one side of the story, and we feel it is important to tell the other side.”

Dr. Blaine Hudson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and an African-American historian who helped develop the concept for Freedom Park, acknowledged that it would be difficult to move the Confederate Monument. He said it “reflects Southern sentimentalism.”  Hudson said he hopes that Freedom Park will be an “outdoor museum that will tell the complete story of the Civil War period, the antebellum period here in Louisville and the civil-rights period.”

According to sculptor Ed Hamilton: “You can’t rewrite history. You’ve got to deal with it head on. But we need to have something to offset that one-sided portion of history.”

I agree that it would be a mistake to remove Confederate statues like the one in Louisville.  They have become part of our cultural landscape and most of them can rightfully be considered works of art.  It’s a mistake on the part of Professor Hudson to even hint at the possibility of removal.  Such a suggestion only works to alienate segments of the public.  Like all public historical displays these monuments need to be properly interpreted and as an educator it is his job to do so.   Adding to the park’s landscape can only enrich the visitor’s experience and provoke questions and dialog about our rich and sometimes divisive history.

Why Do You Go To The Gettysburg Visitor Center?

I’ve been keeping track of recent reviews of the new Gettysburg Visitor Center in both newspapers and on websites.  At some point soon I am going to write up an essay that situates the current debate over battlefield interpretation within a broader analysis of how Gettysburg has been interpreted over the past fifty years.  It seems to me that to fully understand these interpretive fault lines one needs to do a bit of history.  Katherine Calos offers her own take on the VC for  Overall, it’s a positive review, but I want to focus briefly on a few of the remarks from visitors that are included in her piece:

“I found it very moving,” said Tim Ruohoniemi, who was there with his wife, Lisa, and children Emma, 10, and Ian, 8. Their visit was one stop
on a 6-month sabbatical from their work with the World Mission Prayer League in Nepal.  “As a child I was here,” he said. “I thought I knew something about the Civil War. You come to a place like this and, wow, there’s a lot. The conflict before the war was something I never fully grasped. It never really sunk in that both sides were fighting for freedom — what they thought of as freedom.”

People who have complaints about the new museum tend to echo Bob and Denise Lawther of Johnstown, Pa.  “I was a little disappointed with it,” he said. “I thought they needed more artifacts. I remember as a kid, coming down here from school, they had the surgeon’s table, the tools. I expected more displays.  “It was a little drab, too dark,” he added. “They need to brighten it up a little.”

All of the assessments that I’ve read from individuals who have actually visited the VC can be divided into one of these two camps.  In many ways they reflect two very different approaches to museums as well as the study and remembrance of the Civil War.

In the former camp we can see an emphasis on meaning and significance.  This visitor wants to know why the battlefield ought to matter.  Artifacts and information matter only to the extent that they assist the visitor in acquiring an understanding of a bigger picture.  That bigger picture not only works to connect what appear to be disparate events into a coherent narrative, but forces the visitor to reflect on his/her relation to other Americans in both the past and present.

Much of the criticism of the new VC can easily be included in the latter camp.  This visitor is interested primarily in artifacts as a means to reflection.  The artifacts are a tangible link to a past that this visitor hopes to experience through one of the senses.  In most cases its about the experiences of the common soldier.  Broader narratives are seen as tangential and as a distraction since they are abstract and not directly related to any individual artifact. Here is your antipathy toward museum interpretation; the further the interpretation is removed from the object of the individual’s experience the louder the objection.  The anger over the removal of the Electric Map is an extension of this emphasis on the individual: “What about my experience of the battlefield?”  Notice that most of the complaints about the new VC are about an individual’s experience of Gettysburg and not about how that object/artifact fits into the overall goal of understanding the battle broadly construed.  In the world of heritage tourism the consumption of the past begins and ends with the individual.

It comes down to a question of what kind of visitor the National Park Service ought to cater to.

Episode 2: The “Confederate Taliban” Strikes Back

Hi kids.  Every once in a while we here at Civil War Memory like to take the time to share the myriad ways in which this site is impacting the broader Civil War community.  Today’s good cheer comes from the fine people at Southern Heritage News and Views [you must subscribe to get their newsletter].  It seems that one of their contributors is unhappy with a recent story about the Museum of the Confederacy and its decision to disperse items from its collection around the state in time for the Sesquicentennial.  The story was picked up by a number of newspapers, including The San Francisco Chronicle.  Yours truly was interviewed, which apparently did not help to minimize this particular writer’s wrath:

Well! It seems everyone’s been properly housebroken. The San Francisco Chronicle, appointing itself moral bellwether for the universe, somehow brings itself to do a general article on the MOC. But why? It Obviously hates everything about the subject.  “Critics have called the museum a shrine, a relic of the Old South.” Can’t have that! Of course, you go to a shrine — excuse me, a museum — on Indian history and see exhibits on how the tribes fought and sometimes decimated each other, but you’re supposed to come out of it with your abject worship of Indians undisturbed. You go to a “Holocaust” museum and, if you’re a white Christian, you’d better come out hating yourself or you’re not politically correct. But it seems that in order to be truly hip today, you must regard THE SOUTH’S “holocaust” — OUR “holocaust” in which politicians and newspapers recreationally nuked a large portion of the country — as merely a righteous working out of the socialist imperative.

Museum officials are only too happy to affirm this. “Oh, we’re not CELEBRATING THE CONFEDERACY,” mind you. It would be wrong for anyone or anything in RICHMOND VIRGINIA to CELEBRATE THE CONFEDERACY — basic logic! That’s because every worthwhile city today busts a gut trying to be New York City Junior, no matter how small, how far from the Big Apple, no matter how iconic of healthy regional culture.  And if the Chronicle and the protestations of the Museum aren’t enough to convince you, why, even KEVIN LEVIN agrees. Who’s KEVIN LEVIN, you say? Why, haven’t you heard? Kevin Levin teaches history in a Charlottesville private school and runs a “civil war” blog!

What, you don’t think that qualifies him to cancel out 148 years of Southern/Confederate valor? What are you, a bigoted redneck throwback or something? You should fall on your knees and thank God for placing so many Kevin Levins in Dixie — thousands and thousands of them, forming young Southern minds for a truly PROGRESSIVE future for all mankind.  Nawww, says the “museum” (as the Chronicle sassily writes it). We don’t celebrate anything — except maybe how the yankees saved us?  It wasn’t about freedom, it’s about spurs, saddles, tack, belts, medals and buttons. We just “tell the Confederacy’s story in depth”, may it rot in h***!

I’ll take this as a clear indication that this blog is doing exactly what it was meant to do.  And by the way, this is not just a “Civil War blog”…it’s the CIVIL WAR MEMORY BLOG, SUCKA