Americans often turn to the past to explain current social conditions, to comfort themselves, to build self-esteem, and to create cultural pride. What aspects of the past are remembered and how they are remembered and interpreted are important issues that allow us to see how public memory develops. Memories can serve individual or collective needs and can validate the holders’ version of the past. In the public arena they can be embedded in power to serve the dominant culture by supporting existing social inequalities. It is common for subordinate groups explicitly or implicitly to challenge the dominant meanings of public memories and create new ones that suit their needs. Often, the success of these challenges is situational, depending upon context and social and political power.
Paul A. Shackel, “Public Memory and the Search for Power in American Historical Archaeology,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 103, No. 3 (Sept., 2001), p. 655.
Finally, and apropos of this volume, something happened late in the twentieth century that suddenly made “historical memory” visible as an object of study. It was not a term in common scholarly use until about fifteen years ago. Coinages such as “popular history” and “public history” referred to works by professional historians (or journalists) who were trying to reach a broader audience. The “myth and reality” school of American studies in the 1950s acknowledged in a backhanded way the power of popular misinformation. But the idea that the audiences might have their own valid models of the past was not something historians cared to ponder until events drove them to it. The great wave of democratization unleashed by the 1960s started historians on the path of studying “ordinary people,” writing narrative “from the bottom up,” and taking seriously the histories of previously neglected groups. When these new actors told a rash of stories that did not fit existing master narratives of U.S. history particularly well, what followed was an attack on those master narratives, which led in turn (through the instrumentality of literary postmodernism) to an attack on the whole idea of master narratives. By the 1980s it was a commonplace of scholarly discourse that there are many versions of the past, all potentially true from somebody’s point of view, and that the imposition of a master narrative is little more than an arrogation of power on the part of the historian.
Meanwhile, the commercial culture of the twentieth century rolled on, churning out imagined pasts that entertained the multitudes but struck many professional historians as spurious. An ersatz “Tara” appeared as a tourist attraction; in the film Mississippi Burning the FBI was on the side of the civil rights marchers. Still, if every history was just a text—just a “version,” just a different story told about the past—what basis did professionals have for imposing their own narratives? One could no longer dismiss the myths dear to ordinary people as “misinformation.” However, one could not let them inside the professional tent, since what would be the use of a historical profession if Everyman (or Everywoman) really was his/her own historian? Popular memories had to be treated with respect, but they also had to become the objects of study, not the study itself. And thus, was born the nascent field off “historical memory” in a landscape marked by consumerism, multicultural democracy, and professional self-doubt. A thousand versions would bloom, but only under the watchful eye of the historical profession.
This brings us back to the question of why studies of historical memory so often avoid the analytical forest to tend to the monographic trees. To map the geography of memory is to reimpose narrative on a sprawling democracy of versions. It is also to grapple with the memorial geography of one’s own time, the ways in which even the designation of somebody else’s past as “historical memory” represents a kind of gesture in a professional project. Those will never be popular tasks in a culture so enamored of the Civil War is concerned, tied up as that conflict is with ongoing problems of race, state power, and nationality. But we will enjoy the journey more if we start to take in the whole landscape.
Stuart McConnell, “Epilogue: The Geography of Memory,” in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, Alice Fahs, Joan Waugh, Eds., (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), pp. 264-265.
“We have learned that you cannot live from history,” a Kosovo Serb told a New York Times reporter in 1999. “Americans have no history and they live wonderfully well.” Without question, a combination of luck and wise contrivance has spared the United States the worst kinds of internecine conflict, with the major exception of the Civil War. Inherited identities rarely command us to kill our tribe’s hereditary enemies. But anyone who thinks historical memory has no serious impact on our lives, that either ordinary Americans or policymakers come to decisions about great issues solely on the basis of current interests and circumstances, is ignoring powerful evidence to the contrary. When the civil rights movement was in full flower, a period coinciding almost exactly with the centennial of the Civil War, the ideology and imagery of its segregationist opponents were heavily influenced by the memory of the Confederacy. It was in the 1950s and early ’60s that Georgia incorporated the Confederate battle flag into its state flag and South Carolina began flying the conquered banner above the state capitol, thereby making its display or removal a political issue that resonates to this day.
The steam went out of Southern resistance to integration—went out, in fact, of the South’s whole self-image as a conquered but defiant province—about the same time the last generation who had grown up with Confederate veterans in the family left the political scene (with a few spectacularly antique exceptions such as Strom Thurmond). This beneficent regional transformation had a variety of causes, some of them economic, but the fact that certain memories had run their chronological course should not be underestimated. While teaching at a state university in Virginia during the late 1970s, I once pointed out to an undergraduate class that when their parents were their age, the university had been racially segregated by law. Not only did many of the students not know this fact, they refused to believe it and thought I was making it up. (All of them were white.) Sometimes progress takes the form of historical amnesia.
Christopher Clausen, “Living Memory,” Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Autumn 2004), p. 29.
The battle between history and memory continues today, but part of the reason why Americans still care about the Civil War has little to do with either force. Its heroics, its heroes, and its symbols increasingly have been ripped from their historical contexts to serve the needs of partisans of a wide variety of modern social and political causes, doing violence to both the history and the memory of the Civil War. In 2000, Virginia’s annual celebration of April as Confederate History Month became a prime example of how competing sets of values and memories demand primacy over others, using the Civil War as a backdrop for modern discourse on race and civil rights. When a leader of the Virginia Department of the Sons of Confederate Veterans explained why they sought the governor’s declaration for Confederate History Month, he appealed to emotion and memory than to a commitment to the integrity of the truth of history when he asserted, “The issue boils down to whether people of Southern heritage and Confederate heritage will be allowed to honor their ancestors, or will this be something that’s censored from the history books?” He added that “All cultures have a right to their heritage, just like blacks have a right to Black History Month.” Governor Gilmore signed the declaration. But on April 2, 2000, to counter Confederate History Month ceremonies saluting Southern military heroes, protesters organized a special Richmond Liberation Day to honor the lives of Elizabeth Van Lew, a white woman with Union sympathies who provided intelligence to the U.S. Army through much of the war, and Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a freed slave who did the same sort of work. Those who supported alternative celebrations such as this included prominent Virginia African-Americans, one of whom commented, “We cannot pay respect and honor to the Confederate States of American, because many of our ancestors died at the hands of these same rebels and Confederates. How are you going to ask a citizen of African ancestry to reflect on the history of people who raped, lynched, castrated and brutalized people who looked just like him?” Some African-American ministers asked their congregants to wear red and black ribbons as a sign of mourning and remembrance in support of the Richmond Liberation Day ceremonies. In the midst of the controversy, a Washington Post reporter publicized as “an opportunity for gaining insight and meaning” a gathering of people of all races gathered at the First African Baptist Church in Richmond to honor the U.S. Colored Troops and their role in the liberation of the city 135 years previously. But underneath it all, none of the planned ceremonies or even this one glimmer of racial reconciliation celebrated the objective truth of history; each merely used a specific element of the past to focus public and media attention on one or another current political or social concern. In short, against a backdrop of history, they used selected memories of the past to conduct modern-day political business-as-usual.
But whose memory matters most? That, in the end, became the key question. After the controversial events of April 2000, Virginia’s governor admitted that he could not decide whether or not he would sign a similar proclamation for the following year, especially since the NCAAP threatened a boycott. “This is a difficult challenge,” the governor said, since “Virginia’s past is as diverse as her people are today.” True enough, but political observers suggested that Gilmore’s concerns went far deeper than his desire to preserve the past of all his constituents. In more practical and self-serving terms, the controversy also complicated the governor’s efforts to recruit more African American voters for the Republican party.
Carol Reardon, “Why We Still Care: The Civil War and Memory,” Eisenhower Lecture Series, Lecture 9 (2000).
Long have theorists and historians argued that myth as history often best serves the ends of social stability and conservatism. That is certainly the case with the development of Civil War mythology in America. But we also know that mythic conceptions or presentations of the past can be innovative as well as conservative, liberating instead of destructive, or the result of sheer romance. Whether we like it or not, history is used this way generation after generation. As professional historians, we would do well to keep in mind C. Vann Woodward’s warning that “the twilight zone that lies between living memory and written history is one of the favorite breeding places of mythology.” But great myths have their “resilience, not completely controllable,” as Michael Kammen reminds us. This reality is precisely the one W.E.B. Du Bois recognized and critiqued in the final chapter of his monumental Black Reconstruction in America (1935), published just two years before Buck’s Road to Reunion. Du Bois insisted that history should be an “art using the results of science,” and not merely a means of “inflating our national ego.” But by focusing on the subject of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the 1930s, he offered a tragic awareness, as well as a trenchant argument, that written history cannot be completely disengaged from social memory. Du Bois echoed the Atlanta Constitution editor, admitting that there had been a “searing of the memory” in America, but one of a very different kind. The “searing” Du Bois had in mind was not that of the Civil War itself, but that of a white supremacist historiography and a popular memory of the period that had “obliterated” the black experience and the meaning of emancipation by “libel, innuendo, and silence.” The stakes in the development of America’s historical memory of the Civil War have never been benign. The answers to Douglass’ question have never been benign either. Peace among the whites brought segregation and the necessity of later reckonings. The Civil War has not yet been disengaged from a mythological social memory; but likewise, the American reunion cannot be disengaged from the black experience and the question of race in American memory.
David W. Blight, “What will Peace among the Whites Bring?”; Reunion and Race in the Struggle over the Memory of the Civil War in American Culture,” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn 1993), pp. 406-407.
Two recent developments suggest a gradual change in this perception. First, as already noted, historians are becoming sensitive to an overdue examination of “historical memory” and particularly the influence of the “Lost Cause” thesis on Civil War historiography, and the recognition that what many have accepted as historical fact is rather historical argument. To evaluate Robert E. Lee as military commander requires first an appreciation of the revered place he has been accorded in American culture. That military historians now understand this perspective can be seen in Carol Reardon’s excellent case study of Pickett’s Charge and Gary Gallagher’s essays on Confederate leadership under the influence of Lost Cause “memory. ” It is also reflected in several recent studies of Lee’s troop strengths in 1864-65 that challenge long-established scales of Confederate numerical inferiority.
Second, military literature has at last begun to address institutional and organizational issues of the Civil War that place the actions of commanders and armies in a more complete context. For the Rebels in particular we now have studies of their principal supply bureau, provost guard, and the administration of military justice. Of more direct operational value are two studies, by J. Boone Bartholemees, Jr., and R. Steven Jones, that analyze the importance of staff work as part of exercise of Confederate and Union command, respectively, and thereby identify a chronic problem for the Army of Northern Virginia far more significant than Longstreet’s alleged “slows. ”
Timothy Mulligan, “Overflowing and Half-Full: Achievements and Gaps in Recent Civil War Military History,” in “Civil War Scholarship in the 21st Century:” Selected Conference Proceedings, J. Kelly Robison, Ed., American Studies Journal, No. 48 (Winter 2001), pp. 7-8.