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.