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.
It’s an unusual form of Civil War remembrance, but the idea of a sculpture in the shape of a “Sherman’s necktie” opens up a number of avenues of interpretation. It raises issues related to the physical destruction and displacement of civilians that Sherman’s men wrought. The twisted rail also functions as a metaphor for change and the coming of emancipation in the heart of Georgia. Of course, any discussion of emancipation also needs to deal with some of the hardships that freed slaves faced as they followed the army to the coast. I think it’s an incredibly simple and yet creative piece. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any of the addresses that marked the sculpture’s unveiling.
What do you think?
It looks like H.K. will not be performing as part of the Guyandotte Civil War Days, scheduled for Nov. 1-6 near Huntington, West Virginia. Apparently, Edgerton spoke last year at the event, but this year organizers were denied matching funds by the state’s Civil War sesquicentennial committee. That was sufficient to cancel his appearance.
Of course, one wonders why he was invited in the first place. He certainly is entertaining. His speeches have been fine tuned to garner a strong emotional response from those who have a strong need to see an African American man dressed in Confederate uniform, who fervently believes that large numbers of blacks fought in the army and that that the black population as a whole maintained the strongest ties to the Confederate cause and their masters through to the end of the war. In the trailer that I posted yesterday, H.K. calls for Lincoln to be disinterred so he can be placed on trial for war crimes.
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Gary Casteel’s latest creation was recently unveiled in the new extension of the Virginia Capitol. The sculpture is titled, “Brothers”, and depicts a reunion of two brothers following the heat of battle. My problem with this piece is not that it fails to capture documented meetings between brothers and family members on the battlefield, but that it plays on our need to see the war and all of its bloodshed and violence as somehow washed away through reconciliation and reunion. Simply put, it doesn’t push me to reflect about our past and that is what an important piece of public art ought to do.
What do you think?