Posted by: Mysteries&Conundrums | September 11, 2012

The Civil War, 9/11, and remembering

From John Hennessy:
We re-post this from last year…
It seems to me that in the aftermath of national trauma, we as a nation (consciously or unconsciously) have accorded the rights of memory to a certain group or groups. We have seen that most vividly in our lifetime with 9/11. Virtually every collective commemorative or interpretive expression made toward 9/11 is subject to the explicit or tacit approval of survivors, rescue workers, or the family members of victims. I think we understand that, and if past be prelude, it will be that way for quite some time. The focus on public interpretation of 9/11 is squarely on the experience and suffering of victims and survivors.
Much the same thing happened after the Civil War.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, we accorded the rights to the memory of the conflict to the veterans on both sides.  They in turn fostered a swift but incomplete reconciliation—one that pasted over but did not extinguish lingering bitterness, one that was based on selective history and the desire to celebrate common virtues and suffering.  The focus of reconciliation—and the focus of America as it viewed its Civil War—became the shared courage and sacrifice of soldiers blue and gray on the battlefields.
A unique aspect of this as it relates to the Civil War is that the ownership of the war’s memory was bequeathed to subsequent generations, and in many instances the descendants have battled to protect and advocate for the memory of their ancestors every bit as vigorously as their ancestors did.  (I think the Civil War is unique in this respect: no other historic event beyond our memory has specific constituent groups devoted to sustaining a specific national view of that event and resisting when that view is challenged).  For more than a century after the war, almost everything related to the public interpretation of the Civil War in this nation was subject to tacit approval by these descendant constituents. In most instances the “approval” was hardly necessary, because the nation (and the National Park Service, which for practical purposes inherited the battlefields directly from the veterans who fought upon them) hewed to a view of history that would further reconciliation and de-emphasize divisive themes. At most major commemorative or interpretive events at eastern battlefields in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, for example, Douglas Southall Freeman was a dominant figure–at the 1935 Chancellorsville re-enactment, at the unveiling of the Stonewall Jackson statue at Manassas in 1940, the opening of the McLean house at Appomattox in 1949, and others.  Even into the 1980s, when I was working at Manassas, the dominant commemorative event each year was put on by the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was a lovely event, well attended, with hardly a stitch of discomfort evident (I even got the UDC’s Jefferson Davis medal at one of them).
The rights to the memory of the Civil War remained largely unchallenged until the 1980s, when voices rose that dared to challenge America’s traditional view of the war. This challenge is ongoing. It has questioned not just the accepted narrative of the Civil War, but symbols too.  As we all know well, that challenge in turn has provoked a vigorous defense by traditionalists.  We see it in the form of debate over the Confederate Battle Flag, immense scholarship on memory and the Lost Cause, and even a shift away from traditional battle narratives to narratives more broadly focused–to look at, for example, the impact of battles on civilians and slaves.  By any measure, it’s a fascinating thing to watch, and even more interesting to work in the midst of.
Back to 9/11.  Like the Civil War, 9/11 was a national trauma with individual victims.  At some point–maybe soon, maybe in generations–America will rise to claim 9/11 as a national experience, with presumably (time will tell) immense implications for the nation at large. At that point, the nation will embrace a narrative that sees the events of 9/11 in a different, broader context, full of political and diplomatic implications. And the nation’s gaze will move away from its singular focus on the personal experiences of victims and survivors. If that happens in our generation, it by itself will surely be a painful transition for victims and their families–even absent the inflammatory issues that characterize Civil War history. If it happens down the road a generation or two, the difficulty of the transition will be dependent on whether or not descendant groups remain to battle for the memory of those who fell. What most interests me about this comparison is that the practice of public history and the state of public understanding as it relates to the Civil War was, after 120 years, about in the same evolutionary place as interpretation and public history of 9/11 is after ten. 


  1. […] experience of soldiers on both sides, a favorite reconciliationist theme.  Coming on the heels of a thoughtful post by John Hennessy on remembering the conflict (and his recent discussion of his future publication […]

  2. John,
    I do not believe it is quite accurate to state that participants are the only ones who define an event. There is considerable evidence that CW veterans did not foist reconciliation on the nation, but rather that those who had not been on the battlefields eventually foisted that nonsense on them. The Ladies Memorial Associations fostered a certain kind of memory and the UDC later developed another agenda entirely. Certain veterans were influencial in that transition, but I would not say they spoke for veterans as a group. They were busy creating memory for their own purposes. Certainly the nation has embraced a memory (and response) to 9/11 that is quite different from many who actually experienced that day (rather than on TV). This is always an intriguing discussion. Thanks for initiating it.

  3. Erik,
    I have always believed that it was Abraham Lincoln himself who first suggested the need of reconciliation when he offered: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

    To imply that there was a one sided “foisting” of the reconciliation concept by strictly southern memorial associations composed of those individuals who did not experience the battlefiled itself is bit of a stretch. I think one of the most vivid examples of a willingness toward reconciliation among veterans is the prevalent ribbon topper featuring a color graphic of clasped hands, dressed in blue and gray sleeves, along with the line, “We have drunk from the same canteen.” I think that certainly implys a willingness to get on with life rather than a desire to attack and punish one another in perpetuity.
    Lincon’s wish to “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves” is of course from his March 4, 1865, 2nd innaugural address.
    Continuing to present so called evidence of hidden agendas of people who came nearly four generations before us, is an unfair politicizing of history via presentism. This continuing trend by many during the Sesquicentennial is a divisive tactic that does nothing to advance the understanding of history but purely inflames a discord among ourselves. Is the implication that we are not and should not be reconciled?

    • John,
      I do not see my ruminations as suggesting that only southern memorialists defined the war. There is a good amount of literature, though, that explores how civil society defined and remembered the war in a way that was quite different from those who fought it. This sort of thing is also not confined to the CW. WW Two is sometimes referred to as the “good war,” but you would be hard pressed to find a combat infantryman who agreed. There is no question that the old veterans had more in common with one another (drank from the same canteen), but the sheer volume of their writings makes clear that they had not lost the passion with which they took up arms. The South’s inability to maintain a viable economy without some form of coerced labor also precluded reconciliation for additional decades. The desire for reconciliation was powerful among a population moving on to other things, but the reality was/is more messy. Where some claim hidden agendas, others desire an honest discussion. History is, by definition, a discussion, which is why we love it so. Your contributions to this discourse has always been exceptional. My own particular bugaboo is to avoid sentimentality, which comes across as rather blunt sometimes.

    • John: Few serious Americans today lament the national reconciliation that took place after the Civil War, and I know of no historians who proclaim the astounding reconciliation in this nation a bad thing in the end. Nor are there many European Americans who would contend that the nation should not have expanded into the west. What people recognize is that both those things–reconciliation and expansion–came with tradeoffs, indeed a price. For a century the nation ignored or overlooked the price paid for both, but in the last 40 years has begun to take notice. And rightly so. We cannot pretend these things took place without collateral damage, and pointing out that they did is not divisive, but honest. As I have said before, more pain is often inflicted by denying and forgetting than suffered by remembering.

      • Your conclusion is my point exactly, thus my reference toward the post Civil War treatment of the Native Americans… the notion of all men created equal was only applied where it benefited an agenda and not as a universal axiom. But I certainly would hate to think the killing of “Indians” by the Federal government is to be written off as “collateral damage”, a price to be paid for a greater good?
        Justify one war to free people and destroy an economy in the process, then justify another war waged concurrently and beyond by destroying people to advance another economy?
        I have to watch out, I am starting to sound like Howard Zinn…

        Someone needs to settle on a logic.

  4. Erik,
    Your desire to avoid sentimentality is admirable and is a course I wish would be the direction more often taken in discussions and examinations during this Sesquicentennial era. My eye caught your line: “The Ladies Memorial Associations fostered a certain kind of memory and the UDC later developed another agenda entirely.” This is where I detected what I thought was a focus of blame, as it were, or suspicion on the southern faction. I also visualized the “Lost Causers” when you further stated: “Certain veterans were influential in that transition, but I would not say they spoke for veterans as a group. They were busy creating memory for their own purposes.”
    I personally tend toward the reality of southern economic devastation as an embittering pill, rather than solely the lack of some form of “coerced labor” standing in the way of total reconciliation. The entire strength of this nation’s growth derived from the peculiar institution and regrettably the people who adhered to the vile institution the longest ended up paying the greatest price for that wrong, and reflexively, many others profited hugely from their decline. The post Civil War years to my mind demonstrate no real lesson learned that should justify a moral superiority as the door was then opened for the transcontinental railroad via the subjugation and annihilation of the native American population.
    If the Civil War was fought to guarantee that all men were created equal it is obvious that the indigenous people of this continent were not included in the definition of “men”. It sort of cheapens the whole experience does it not? We (humans) like to claim the moral high ground only when it fits our purposes.

  5. The Virginia Assembly took up the issue of nullification during its last session and some presiding governors have recently raised the specter of secession. When should we conclude that reconciliation actually occurred? Hmmm

    • If we are strident that the Civil War was fought over slavery alone, and that the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were all ratified as a result of that war, and that now 150 years down the road every former slave and former master has left this earth, I would suggest reconciliation is a forgone conclusion.

      Now, if you are suggesting there were issues beyond slavery that factored into the cause of the Civil War…

      Somehow I don’t think the people advocating the Second Vermont Republic are interested in bringing back chattel labor.

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