This morning I was reminded that today is the first day of the sesquicentennial of the War in 1864. As I alluded to this past spring, it is going to be very interesting to see how the final sixteen months of the war will be commemorated and remembered. There are practical issues of funding, but there is also the turn that the war itself took in 1864. Those of us on the education/public history side of things will have to think long and hard about how we engage the public about some of the more important and challenging issues of the war.
Whether there is a strong desire to engage these issues has yet to be seen. Over the past few months Ta-Nahesi Coates has been blogging about Tony Judt’s recent book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, which I started, but have not had a chance to finish. This reference from the book, which appeared in his most recent post beautifully captures what I take to be the challenge of Civil War memory in 1864.
Evil, above all evil on the scale practiced by Nazi Germany, can never be satisfactorily remembered. The very enormity of the crime renders all memorialisation incomplete. Its inherent implausibility—the sheer difficulty of conceiving of it in calm retrospect—opens the door to diminution and even denial. Impossible to remember as it truly was, it is inherently vulnerable to being remembered as it wasn’t. Against this challenge memory itself is helpless.
The Shoah has been very much on my mind having just finished teaching it for the first time. That said, my intention is not to equate our Civil War with Nazi Germany. What I do want to draw your attention to is Judt’s emphasis on the difficulty that often accompanies having to remember a traumatic event. He nails it. Commemorating and remembering charismatic generals and flanking maneuvers that capture the imagination are easy to draw attention to, but what happens when those things are not within easy reach?
Do we have it in us as a nation 150 years later to honestly deal with race and battlefield massacres at such places as Fort Pillow and the Crater? How about the ugly side of the unraveling of slavery? Will we push aside the beginning of Reconstruction and steer clear of Jim Crow and jump directly to the Civil Rights Movement? How will we frame the “Hard War” campaigns in Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas? These are just a few.
Here we go.
“Do we have it in us as a nation 150 years later to honestly deal with race and battlefield massacres at such places as Fort Pillow and the Crater?”
To answer that question, I don’t think so, especially since much of this sesquicentennial has been ignored or glossed over. But since you mention the murders of Black troops at Fort Pillow (April) and Petersburg (July), you forgot to mention this also occurred at the battle of Olustee in Florida in February, before the other incidents. However, Olustee (also known as the battle of Ocean Pond) is somewhat unique in that several Black Union soldiers were taken as POWs and sent to Andersonville prison. Most of the Black POWs there were from the battle of Olustee. As occurred at Petersburg, they were stripped of their uniforms. And another interesting fact is that the captured White officers of these units were also sent to Andersonville, which was a prison only for enlisted men and not officers. This was because they did not respect them as officers because they didn’t respect the Black troops as soldiers.
It was a quick post so I wasn’t attempting to be comprehensive. Thanks for the follow up.
The period from 1864 to 1868 was decisive in creating a definition of citizenship for native born and immigrants alike. Perhaps a move of focus away from the battlefields and towards legislatures would be in order. The film “Lincoln” showed that this could find a mass popular audience if done right.
A great sentiment and one I hope is reflected across the blogosphere.
I look forward to your always thoughtful and thought provoking commentary
Happy New Year