Hey Boston, Embrace Your Civil War Memory

georges_island_fort_warrenIt should come as no surprise that one of my biggest concerns upon moving to Boston in 2011 was that I would be without a community of fellow Civil War enthusiasts and few places to visit related to the war. After all, I just assumed most Bostonians have always been more interested in that earlier squabble involving something about independence and the British.

There is a certain truth to this if you’ve ever spent time here. The Freedom Trail largely marks sites related to the American Revolution. You will find enthusiastic crowds at reenactments of the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party as well as the battles of Lexington and Concord. In short, tourists come looking to connect with the eighteenth century. Apart from the Shaw Memorial on Beacon Street, the Civil War and its memory is largely invisible. It doesn’t take much effort, however, to bring this world back into focus. Having spent two years exploring these sites I can safely say that Boston’s Civil War memory rivals anything you will find in the South and it offers a strong counter-narrative to the Lost Cause and the belief that Americans north and south were largely reconciled by the turn of the twentieth century.

On Sunday I encourage you to join me for a casual discussion about sites related to Boston’s Civil War memory on Georges Island at Boston Harbor Islands (includes Fort Warren). The heat wave will have passed and it promises to be a beautiful day. My wife and I have never visited this site so we are very much looking forward to it. Thanks to the National Park Service for the invitation to speak.

Click here for event information.

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13 comments… add one
  • Matt McKeon Jul 20, 2013 @ 10:54

    The fort in the picture is Fort Independence, not Fort Warren. My school as a field trip to Warren each June, devoted to a cookout, soccer, scaring each other in the fort, and illicit, unnameably activity.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2013 @ 11:00

      I knew that. 🙂 Thanks, Matt.

  • London John Jul 20, 2013 @ 2:06

    Many years ago I heard an interesting talk by a uniformed guide in Faneuil Hall, and he didn’t mention its use as a recruiting station at the beginning of the Civil War, when I’ve read would-be volunteers were climbing in through the windows.

  • Ron Jul 19, 2013 @ 8:27

    I agree with you, Kevin, that the Civil War is all around the Boston area and alive and well behind all the colonial and Revolutionary War history. I visit my in-laws in the area every summer, and I push for a Civil War-themed tour every time. We went to Ft. Warren at the start of July (I just missed you), and next week I plan to post some pics on my trip there. I even checked out the local Civil War memorial in Westford, MA and did some research on the town’s veterans and war dead. Last summer it was Civil War-related themes in Lexington and Concord, those cradles of the Revolution! If one drives around small towns in the Boston suburbs, there are Civil War monuments to rival those on the courthouse lawns across the South. You really get a feel that the war for freedom and Union meant something in this part of the country, true Yankeedom!

    • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2013 @ 11:17

      You are absolutely right, Ron. I am also impressed with some of the GAR buildings, especially in Lynn and Milford.

      • Ron Baumgarten Jul 20, 2013 @ 3:09

        I will have to check out the GAR buildings too. (Add that to the list for next summer.) Thanks for the tip.

  • Keith Muchowski Jul 19, 2013 @ 5:34

    We have the same situation in New York City. Because there was not fighting here, with the obvious exception of the draft riots, people think there is no Civil War history. The Empire and Bay States, though, played outsized roles in the prosecution and memory of the war. There are many opportunities to study the war from angles people have not looked at previously. I hope you talk about Vice President Stephens’s tenure there as a prisoner.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2013 @ 5:49

      One of the problems that Carrie Janney points out in her new book is that the Northern cause of Union became overshadowed by the continued push west and beyond by the beginning of the twentieth century in contrast with the Lost Cause which always remained caught in a specific time and place. It’s an obvious, but important point.

      • Keith Muchowski Jul 19, 2013 @ 6:04

        I am halfway through Remembering the Civil War right now.

        The Northern states were indeed focused on getting on with the business of Westward expansion after 1865. It’s something I talk about in my interp at Governors Island. You can’t miss it when you’re there. In the postwar years, Northern societies were more dynamic due to changing patterns in immigration as well. There was actually a steady flow of immigrants into the port cities (Charleston, Savannah, Galveston, etc) of the South in the antebellum period. That pretty much dried up after the war.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2013 @ 6:11

          There is a nostalgic element to the Lost Cause that many Northerners bought into throughout the postwar period that was absent from the Union (or Won) cause for some of the reasons you mentioned. [see Nina Silber’s The Romance of Reunion]

          • Keith Harris Jul 19, 2013 @ 8:29

            Keith’s point about immigration is a valid one. The millions who arrived in the northern states long after the war had little reason to feel connected to it – or bother to buy into it’s collective memory.

  • Barb Gannon Jul 19, 2013 @ 3:02

    The Norths blindness to the Won Cause is one reason it gets it butt kicked in Civil War memory fights.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2013 @ 3:08

      No worries, Barbara. I am on it. 🙂

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