Posted by: The staff | December 9, 2012

Letting history be complicated

From John Hennessy:

Chancellor house ruins smaller fileLast night I spoke on the experience of Fredericksburg’s civilians at St. George’s Episcopal Church, a historic and beautiful setting largely filled.  I ended  with a bit of a commentary on public history and the war.

At Fredericksburg, sacrifice, sadness, hurt, destruction, and death came in a fashion and in forms not seen before, affecting soldier and civilian alike, challenging the will of all. 

Many of you, perhaps, see the Civil War in a singular way.  A war for Union.  Or a War for Freedom.  A war for independence.  Resistance against aggression.  An effort to end oppression.  An effort to sustain oppression. 

Take your pick.  You are all right. 

Some of you see historical Yankees as vandals…invaders…   

You’d all be right again…. They sometimes were. 

But they were also ultimately agents of freedom….saviors of the Union of the United States. 

Southern soldiers and civilians were noble defenders of homes—courageous, devoted, beset by hardships. 

Many also owned slaves, and they waged war for a government committed to sustaining slavery.  They waged war in an attempt to dismantle the American Union. 

Some of you–with good reason–see the arrival of the Union army opposite Fredericksburg in 1862 as the darkest day in Fredericksburg’s history. 

The slave John Washington saw it as the greatest day of his life. 

Fact is, our history, our story tonight is all these things.  And that’s okay.  We needn’t succumb to our mania for defining people and events in a singular way, as good, bad, evil, or noble.  To do that requires us to assert the primacy of one story, one perspective over another.  To do that requires us to pretend history isn’t complicated. 

History is seen and understood differently by different people.

That fact doesn’t diminish our history—it enriches it.

Instead, I ask you to step back and look at these events, this place, as part of a great tide of history—a tide of many swirls and eddies, crosscurrents, and a good deal of flotsam—broken, discarded, ugly things we might wish were not there. 

But ultimately it is a tide that leads to our very doors. 

It teaches us and inspires us—the price paid, errors made, devotion demonstrated, and triumphs gained on our path to this place at this time as we continue to strive to shape this great nation. 

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Responses

  1. Very well expressed, John. This is my viewpoint as well.

  2. Hat tip to a truly great text.

  3. Thank you.

  4. Hearing the bells tolled this afternoon, moved me much more than I had expected. These very bells in these very churches . . .!
    How much more were those participants affected when their very lives were involved! I just can’t begin to imagine.

  5. Very well expressed. Especially meaningful to someone like me who had ancestors who lived near Fredericksburg in 1862 indeed a shell went right through his wife’s dressing room window while she was in the dressing room fortunately she was not hurt. But I also have Yankee ancestors none of whom to my knowledge fought for the North there-

  6. Eloquently said.

  7. [...] For some fine commentary on Fredericksburg as fought and as remembered, see this and this at Mysteries and Conundrums as well as these other contributions by John Hennessy here and here. [...]

  8. I really enjoyed this post. It’s true that during Civil War studies we’re tempted to think of “our side” as shining beacons of perfection, but the truth is that both armies had their share of misdeeds. We shouldn’t go out of our way to heap abuses on the “other side” any more than we should ignore the sometimes-less-than-rosy actions of whichever army we identify with.


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