Where Do We Go From Here?

In my comments at the AHA I made some brief remarks in my talk and during the Q&A about possible avenues for future research in connection with Civil War veterans and memory.  I thought I might take a minute and extend those thoughts to this sub-field as a whole.  Others have commented that the topic of Civil War memory is a passing fad, but a quick glance at the range of topics and types of questions that have been explored in recent years suggests that the field will continue to expand, especially with the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011.

Surprisingly, given the number of recent studies there are big gaps in the literature that are just waiting to be explored.  One of the most popular subjects for historians, including yours truly, has been the exploration of how battles and the ground on which they were fought were remembered and commemorated. We have excellent studies of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Appomattox; however, we still need interpretations of “Sherman’s March,” Andersonville and even the engagement between the Monitor and the Merrimac.  Military figures such as Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson have proven to be popular subjects for study, but that short list could easily be expanded. First, the list tends to be dominated by white southerners which I suspect has much to do with the popularity of the Lost Cause. Donald Collins recently released a very short study of Jefferson Davis and memory; unfortunately that book is really a missed opportunity as the author failed to fully explore the subject.  Benjamin Butler would make for an ideal subject as well as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman’s postwar military career contribute to the way we remember him?  Joan Waugh is currently working on a book that explores how Grant was remembered and his place in late nineteenth- early twentieth-century civic culture.  The book is slated for publication with UNC Press.

Very little has been done on the Copperheads apart from Jennifer Weber’s fine study.  We need to know much more about northern dissidents and how their wartime political stance was handled locally following the war.  How did their memories of the war conflict with and evolve as the nation mourned Lincoln’s assassination, expanded economically, and became even more centralized? On the other side of the Potomac John Sarris’s study of northwest Georgia suggests that much more needs to be done on southern dissidents.  I mentioned in my AHA comments that community or local studies provide an ideal focus for the examination of memory.  Historians have begun to examine counties and regions, but little has been done on cities such as Charleston, New

York City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.  My guess is that the urbanization of many cities and the influx of new ethnic groups presented some interesting challenges that became intertwined with Civil War remembrance and civic memory.  I suspect that these local perspectives are going to shed light on a great deal of disagreement over how the war was to be remembered.  The National Park Service would also make for an ideal study, which is absolutely essential given the recent controversy about how the park service should interpret our Civil War battlefields.  My work on the Crater clearly demonstrates that the park service inherited a specific interpretation of the battle that was tightly controlled by white southerners and the veterans themselves.  The park service gained control of the battlefield in 1936 and accepted without question an interpretation that ignored the participation of USCT’s and their treatment following the battle by Confederates.  I cite this as one example, but I suspect that much more could be done as battlefields at Chickamauga  and Antietam were turned into National Military Parks.  One of the most common rebuttals against the expansion of the NPS’s interpretive focus is that it should not be in the business of interpretation.  An examination of the Crater battlefield demonstrates that the NPS was involved in interpretation from the beginning – and a rather narrow interpretation at that.

Feel free to offer additional suggestions.

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