The Battle Over Civil War Memory Continues

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin asks: “Are we coming to the end of Civil War memory?” At first one might have thought he was reflecting on the lifespan of his blog, because, if his answer was “yes,” then one would have to wonder how he could continue to justify maintaining it. Reading the post, however, suggests a different set of questions. A growing number of Americans might no longer feel passionately about the American Civil War, or indeed pay much attention to it. At the same time, a growing number of Americans might be willing at last to see the central role that slavery and race played in the coming of war, the conflict itself, and the results of the struggle.

I suspect, however that any discussion about how Americans remember and understand the American Civil War might make too much of too little. There remain a vocal minority of Americans who offer an interpretation of the conflict largely to satisfy their present-day political beliefs (while ironically denouncing people who disagree with them as purveyors of “political correctness”). One might ask instead whether there is an increasing willingness to accept the past and understand it on its own terms, setting aside the ways that one’s version of the past is framed to support one’s current beliefs. This commentary questions that assumption. If a majority of Americans believe that the Civil War is indeed relevant to understanding current political problems, one wonders how and why (as well as what people believe in the first place). As to what people believe, surveys such as this one reveal that Civil War memory remains contested terrain.

Here and there, we see signs that approaches that feature the centrality of slavery continue to gain traction, as this video suggests:

Apparently reading actual documents will not persuade some people, but then for them it’s always been a matter of heritage, not history.

It will be even more interesting to see whether the sesquicentennial really changes many minds, or whether it helps to provide a foundation for more gradual yet durable change.


14 thoughts on “The Battle Over Civil War Memory Continues

  1. Kevin Levin February 2, 2014 / 2:35 pm

    Just to reiterate that my post was focused specifically on what I perceive to be a lack of emotional investment in battles over Civil War Memory among young Americans.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 2, 2014 / 2:58 pm

      The assumption you might want to explore is whether interest in history increases as people get older, so that the level of interest you see among younger people may not be a sound indicator of their interest down the road.

      • Kevin Levin February 2, 2014 / 3:04 pm

        That’s a good point. It probably is the case that interest in history increases with age, but that is different from the kind of emotional investment that we find among certain groups. Seems to me that the generation most invested in questions of heritage was reared on the Centennial.

        • Jimmy Dick February 2, 2014 / 9:04 pm

          I think this point can be made quite well at every reenactment. It is quite visible. The graying of that group is beyond contestation. While I was speaking to a reenactor who was recruiting so to speak he told me the biggest problem they have in getting new participants is the time factor. The younger generations do not have the time to put into the hobby. That issue is not just a reenactor issue, but one that is impacting all kinds of social organizations and activities across the country.
          Things are changing in multiple areas and it really has more to do with the interests and wants of people more than anything it seems.

  2. Carter February 2, 2014 / 3:07 pm

    I think it is inevitable that at some point the Emancipation Mythology interpretation will be jettisoned and supplanted with less romantic, but realistic explanation. The simple truth is that two white-supremacist slave societies were at war with each other over the right of political independence.

    • Mark February 2, 2014 / 3:29 pm

      Well even if it were accurate to state them as two “white-supremacist slave societies”, the fact is that one wished to move away from it formally and the other did not. That’s a huge difference, and there is no occasion in history where bigotry was shed all at once. Welcome to reality.

      Also, political independence has to rest on something. Waving the question of whether it is a right, it has to be attached to a social group with something unifying the group. Geography isn’t enough, and the whole enterprise fell apart at bottom because Southerners never were able to claim anything as unifying themselves in distinction from Northerners except for belief in the subjection of blacks. They just had competing versions of the ideal of the Founders vision. That’s the dirty secret that Southern Romantics won’t admit. That is why they are always spouting grievances. There is nothing positive they have to offer that would unify a social group into a cohesive whole. The arguments about the role of the federal government play out in every state and county, so that doesn’t count.

      I’m about as libertarian as you can get without capitalizing the word, so I know what I’m talking about. It shames the libertarian and conservative cause to associate it with Confederate Romantics and Lost Causers and that is why it troubles me so much. They are a separate group no matter what they say. And just like before the war, it isn’t at all clear how much they believe their rhetoric. They seem overly eager to ditch their political principles when it seems it will benefit their romantic cultural desires.

  3. Carter February 2, 2014 / 4:41 pm

    “Waiving the question of whether it was a right”.

    Lol. Apart from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play”

    The fact is that both belligerents accepted slavery as lawful. The war was fought because one of the belligerents believed it had a birthright to claim political independce and the other denied that that right existed. At some point, that will become how the conflict is taught and understood.

    • Mark February 2, 2014 / 8:26 pm

      “Waiving the question of whether it was a right”.
      >> Lol. Apart from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play”

      Actually, I didn’t wave it. I meant to say waving what type of right it is. As I said, whatever type of right it is, it has to attach to something. What would that be? Is it a personal right as with the others? No. What group does the right of independence attach to? Does it attach based on geography? No. Ethnicity? No. Then how? Do tell.

      >> The fact is that both belligerents accepted slavery as lawful.

      You’re obfuscating. The fact is that Unionists accepted it as lawful according the the standard rules of legitimacy for any law. As such, the law could be changed at any time, as with any law. The Confederates believed that it was a natural law, and any attempt to change the law was illegitimate since it was against the natural and moral law.

      And there is the Fugitive Slave Act, of great importance to Southern partisans of secession if you’d read their words. Here’s a question for you. If independence was what they were so concerned about, why did they bitterly denounce any effort by Northern cities or populace to renounce it? If their motivation was as you say, wouldn’t you think they’d respect the independence of the other side? Well, why didn’t they? Ditto with congressional gag acts, and suppression of anti-slavery mail. Personal rights were trampled on a regular basis by those you claim were motivated by independence. Makes no sense. You think you’ve got a more clever substitute than the old “states rights” nonsense, but you don’t in fact.

      • Carter February 3, 2014 / 12:20 pm

        A personal right? A geographical right? A group right? Mr. Jefferson has answered those questions.

  4. Talmadge Walker February 2, 2014 / 8:58 pm

    “The fact is that both belligerents accepted slavery as lawful.”
    That’s true only if you limit it’s legality to the states where it still existed. But in the late 1850s the newly formed Republican Party insisted that the national government had the right to ban slavery in areas not controlled by those states (such as the territories & DC). Southern Democrats left their party, and tried to leave the country, because northerners were no longer sympathetic to the slave-holding cause. This was nothing new in 1860. Many of the protestant denominations had split apart over slavery years earlier.

  5. Carter February 3, 2014 / 12:46 pm

    Right. Slavery, was perfectly legal in both the USA and the CSA.

    • eshonk February 3, 2014 / 5:38 pm

      With slavery legal in both the North and the South, then the War for Southern Independence was between two slaveholding countries. And racism was more prevalent in the North, since Northerners didn’t want any Africans to remain in the Union, since they believed the U.S. was a country for whites, only. In fact, abolitionist groups planned to deport Africans to Africa, or to the Carribean area, to secure the U.S. for white settlement only. Southerners had no problem with Africans living in the South, whether slaves or free. They were welcome there. Funny how Northern racism is usually overlooked, while Southerners are accused of being racist, but not Northerners. Go figure.

      • Nancy Winkler February 4, 2014 / 11:04 am

        Every slave state had PLENTY of problems with free blacks living within their boundaries. They were afraid that slaves would get the idea that freedom is possible. Slavery was NOT legal in free states, that’s why they’re called FREE. You have to stand logic on its head to think as you do. Colonization of blacks outside the US was considered, but only as voluntary, not deportation. Racism is one thing (which did not infect every single northern individual) but slavery is another. To say that blacks were “welcome” in southern states is ridiculous. They were “welcome” as slaves!

      • pam February 5, 2014 / 10:49 am

        southerners had PLENTY of problems with free blacks in their midst. Many free blacks had to flee, especially during the secession crisis. It also became extremely difficult for masters to free their slaves.
        The Confederate Constitution implied that there would be no freedom for slaves.

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