One of the most memorable (and oft-cited) observations contained in David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion is that the notion of historical memory is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. The recent discussion about the fate of the Sesquicentennial post-Gettysburg (see an interesting view from Robert Moore) as well as what we remember and forget about Gettysburg itself (see this fine and typically thoughtful post by John Hennessy) serve to remind us of something that has struck me in the past months about Sesquicentennial memory.
I have heard it declared by several people (including some good friends) that this is not your grandfather’s Civil War Centennial. I would hope not, for all sorts of reasons. Yet by now that observations has become trite and not a little self-congratulatory … and we might want to subject it to some critical thought. For if, as some people have suggested recently, our memory of the war remains pinned largely to the path of Abraham Lincoln toward emancipation and the fortunes of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, then perhaps things have not changed as much as we might like to believe. The notion that the Sesquicentennial’s high water mark was this month at Gettysburg speaks to a failure of historical imagination in reminding us of how the war can speak to us in different ways given our own experiences over the fifty years since the Centennial. I’ve already suggested that much unfinished work remains before us, and notions that funding shortfalls doom us seem to me restricted largely to on-site commemorations. No, there won’t be another Gettysburg (as Robert Moore points out, that should come as no surprise), but perhaps that’s because to move into the new one must also nod at the traditional as a way to attract public awareness (much as flawed movie renderings of historical events are said to serve as a gateway to further discussion).
We’re at that moment now. I’d say that the reflections in July 2013 about Fort Wagner and the New York draft riots are evidence that this is 2013 and not 1963. Coming at a time when Americans again debated the politics of race in the aftermath of a high-profile trial, these discussions seemed particularly relevant to Americans today. There’s plenty over the next two years that should engage us, and it is up to historians of various stripes and circumstances to press home those themes. Not to do so makes them complicit in retaining the very Centennial perspective they claim to deplore: it suggests that they would have done little to help remember what was once forgotten, and to ignore what should be examined and discussed. There are plenty of ways to engage in a public discussion of these themes that were not available back in 1963, and the door is wide open to take advantage of the opportunities and challenges before us.