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.