The Future of Civil War Memory Only Recently Arrived

No one has done more to remind me of the importance of the experiences of immigrants during the Civil War era than Patrick Young. More importantly, Pat has convinced me that future efforts to keep the Civil War front and center in our collective memory must take seriously the changing ethnic dynamic of our nation. More specifically, educators and public historians will have to think carefully about how to make the Civil War relevant to new Americans who desire to build new roots in this country?

Here is a fascinating example of how one young immigrant from Afghanistan has chosen to interpret the history and meaning of the Civil War. His name is Mohammad Sayed and this video was produced for Cambridge Community Television here in Boston.

[Uploaded to Vimeo on April 19, 2014]
10 comments… add one
  • Craig L. Apr 21, 2014 @ 11:43

    There have been conjectures in discussing the role of the 48ers in the Civil War that Lincoln was somehow a Marxist. I would submit that a much stronger case can be made that Marx was a Lincolnist. Marx was definitely a 48er, one who took refuge in England rather than the United States, and he was acquainted through the 1848 Revolution with many of the 48ers who came to America and made a substantial difference in the Civil War. The Marx who wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 was in many ways transformed by his exile and not entirely, by any means, the same man who wrote Das Kapital twenty years later with both the 1848 Revolution and the American Civil War squarely in the rear view mirror of twenty twenty hindsight. His master-slave dialectic benefitted from knowledge of the Civil War’s outcome. And the reception of his ideas in Russia relied heavily on that knowledge as well.

    • Pat Young Apr 21, 2014 @ 15:18

      Very interesting analysis.

    • London John Apr 22, 2014 @ 1:18

      Not sure about Marx and the ACW. In Marx and Engels’s correspondence for the 1860s they discuss the war up to mid-1863 almost entirely from a military and strategic point of view – quite perceptively except when Engels’s comic German chauvinism comes in. But then just before the battle of Gettysburg a rebellion broke out in eastern Europe, of no significance compared with the ACW, and M&E transferred their entire attention to that and lost interest in America.

  • Brad Apr 21, 2014 @ 10:27

    A young man like that gives you hope for humanity, not just this country.

    However, I do have to quibble about the words “making the Civil War relevant.” Call me old fashioned but I think many immigrants want to find out about their adopted country. I’ll bet (but don’t know, of course) that is what motivated this young man. This is not the same but when I was growing up I lived overseas and spent my teen age years in Spain. I wanted to find out all I could about Spain, it’s culture and its history, particularly the Spanish Civil War. I wanted to know, just for the sole reason that I was interested in all things Spain. To this day, I have an interest in the SCW. No one had to make it relevant; it was just interesting and fascinating and you could see it all around you. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Sayed felt the same way.

    • London John Apr 22, 2014 @ 2:49

      Could one go further and suggest that the American Civil war is of “World-historical significance”, and educated people in every country need to know about it? This assumes that there is some sort of progress in world history, where some events matter and some, for example the rise and fall of feudal dynasties, don’t. I read once that a group of Soviet historians visiting the US were asked what they’d like to see, and were unanimous in nominating Gettysburg “the American Stalingrad”. As the battles are not comparable, the must have meant they had similar historical importance.
      In case anyone’s interested, here’s an example I found on You Tube of non-Americans finding the ACW and its origins relevant:
      The language is Bengali.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 22, 2014 @ 2:53

        Thanks for the link.

      • Pat Young Apr 22, 2014 @ 4:32

        We have a hard time convincing US born folks that there is a reason to study the Civil War and I have seen many laments here about the absence of African Americans at CW sites and events. Simply assuming automatic “relevance” is a good formula for insuring that this area remains the province of aging white men.

  • Meg Apr 20, 2014 @ 8:55

    What a wonderful Easter gift! New ideas, new images–a new birth of freedom. I am humbled.

  • Pat Young Apr 20, 2014 @ 3:41

    What a wonderful post. Thanks Kevin.

    I particularly enjoyed the last two minutes of the video. Integration of the post-Civil War Constitutional Amendments into the story of the Civil War make the whole experience much more meaningful for new immigrants. They want to know where our freedoms come from and the standard pointing back to 1787 by many Americans does not make sense to them since they know that the Constitution protected slavery. The story they very rarely get is the roots of their own freedom in the hell of the Civil War. Mr. Sayed’s decision to include amendments passed after Lincoln’s murder was interesting. For immigrants, the climax of the Civil War Era is not the Emancipation Proclamation or Appomattox, it is the 14th Amendment, whether they know it or not.

    Thanks for the acknowledgement of my own work. It is appreciated coming from someone as thoughtful as you.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 20, 2014 @ 4:55

      My pleasure, Pat.

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