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.]
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