Today I had the pleasure of skyping with a Civil War class at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. Chris Lese and his class have made good use of my blog over the past few weeks so I offered to spend some time with his students to field questions. In addition to utilizing the blog the class has read a chapter from David Blight’s book, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War and they are making their way through a critical evaluation of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. It’s always nice to see high school kids engaged in serious study of American history and it made for an entertaining and informative 45 minutes. I am planning on visiting with this class in person during my trip to Milwaukee in April for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.
A number of the questions focused on the place of the Civil War in our collective memory today and the extent to which it still resonates. I don’t find these types of questions to be particularly easy to answer, especially when anything normative is implied. Though I have devoted much of my time to reading, researching, and teaching the subject I still hesitate to ascribe it the same importance for others. My response to these questions was to throw it back to the students since I don’t believe that my opinion ought to carry much more weight. It comes down to the fact that how we approach the past is a very personal decision. American both past and present have rarely struck me as particularly interested in history relative to other cultures. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be the case. We are much more of a future-oriented culture.
The students at Marquette offered some interesting observations in response to my question of what would be lost if we pushed the Civil War even further away from our collective memory. At the same time I wonder what is more important right now as we look back on the past ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. How do you even begin to shape a memory of a war when it appeared as no more than a blip on the radar screens of most Americans. I seem to remember being told to go shopping by my president and that photographs of flag draped coffins was somehow inappropriate. We can speculate on what it might mean to minimize and even forget the sacrifice of so many Americans in the 1860s and the nation-shaping events that took place, but how does that compare with the ease with which we’ve moved beyond our most recent military endeavor? We risk losing sight of the great lessons of the 1860s, but can someone tell me what great lessons were learned as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan? What great meaning are we going to attach to the sacrifice of thousands of men and women who “gave the last full measure” and the tens of thousands who continue to suffer from debilitating physical and psychological injuries? Perhaps we’ve already moved on from these uncomfortable questions.
Right now I am worried much more about the consequences of ignoring what happened yesterday as opposed to what happened 150 years ago.