"Why We Still Care: The Civil War and Memory"

by Carol Reardon

Copyright 1991 by
Department of History
Kansas State University
Eisenhower Hall
Manhattan, KS
66506‑7186, USA

In 1887, regular readers of the National Tribune, a newspaper for Union veterans, discovered a delightfully witty article with a dramatically different tone from the usual recitations of old war stories and the texts of congressional debates over military pensions. The author, a self-proclaimed veteran of the entirely fictional 107th Oshkosh Volunteers, expressed his determination to tout the “grand achievements of the ‘smoothbore brigade’” in that most pivotal clash of the war, the decisive Battle of Podunksburg.   He asserted from the start that what he had to say might not quite agree with what appeared in the history books, but, he noted, he just could not help that. “My views may not exactly dove-tail with history,” he wrote, “but that’s history’s fault, not mine. I was there, and history did not show up until after the trouble was over.”

The warrior from Oshkosh then launched into an elaborate critique of Union generalship at Podunksburg. First, he reminded his readers of the solid contributions of the commander of the entire Union army in that battle---one General George Gordon READE.   Then he made a case for accepting the claim for battle laurels advanced by III Corps Commander Daniel PICKLES, even though he had not been able to stretch his line to protect the Union left flank on Oval Top Mountain, Jr. In contrast, he did not admire II Corps Commander Winfield Scott PEACOCK or accept his soldiers’ assertion that repulsing the last great Southern charge of the battle had secured the victory. Most II Corps men, he wrote, “claim that the advance of the enemy on the 3d was an inspiring sight” and to stop it, they were willing to die. Appalled by what he perceived to be their unwarranted braggadocio, he added—as an “eyewitness,” of course--- “As for myself, I do not remember that I ever experienced a more severe attack of nostalgia in the same period of time. Of course, if victory didn’t perch on our side of the fence we wanted to die [too], but we were in no great rush about it---we preferred to die of extreme old age.” After he had poked fun at Pickles and Peacock, however, he put aside his sense of humor to remind readers of his main point: “While we are flinging our opinions over towards history’s altar, expecting them to catch on some unoccupied corner, we should remember that truth is the foundation of every virtue.”[1]

Most readers understood that they should not take “The Battle of Podunksburg” as serious history but as a very clever parody of real historical events at the Battle of Gettysburg and subsequent controversies that followed.   Beginning in the early 1880s and lasting at least through the celebrations that marked the golden anniversary of the Civil War, General Winfield Scott Hancock’s men of the II Corps told bloodcurdling tales about their repulse of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863. General Daniel Sickles’s men from the III Corps countered that their own hard fighting on July 2 had so entirely worn down General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia that Hancock’s men only had to turn back a weak Confederate last gasp.   What high stakes drove the veterans of Hancock’s II Corps and. Sickles’s III Corps to take one each other?   The prize each sought was exclusive recognition as “the real heroes of Gettysburg.” And naturally, each side in this great war of words claimed that it---and it alone---told the truth.

Our brave volunteer’s frustration had finally boiled over. Too many “old soldier stories” from veterans such as Hancock’s and Sickles’s men who invariably swore to the veracity of their tales in reality made only wild claims, strained credibility, or ignored substantiated facts altogether. He now demanded they stop it. The stakes were too high. If they did not commit immediately to preserving an accurate record of their contributions during the conflict, then he feared that future generations would never understand the reality of war. Even worse, he feared that if they gave posterity a reason to question their veracity by spinning tall tales and making unwarranted claims, then he and his comrades would be remembered, not as honest patriots, but as shameless self-promoters, each bent on passing down as “truth” his own personal version of the causes, conduct, or results of the war.  

Unfortunately for our Oshkosh volunteer, truth had probably lost its war for “truth” even before he fired his first volley in its defense.   As Robert Penn Warren once explained it, “The Civil War is our only ‘felt’ history---history lived in the national imagination. This is not to say that the War is always, and by all men, felt in the same way. Quite the contrary. But this fact is an index to the very complexity, depth, and fundamental significance of the event. It is an overwhelming and vital image of human, and national, experience.”[2]

What did Warren mean by “felt” history? And why did our Oshkosh volunteer vent his displeasure at those who tried to rewrite Gettysburg’s history to their own liking?   Each man, in his own way, had suggested the presence of at least two different lenses that shape the way in which we view the past. Only one lens—our Oshkosh man’s preference---can be called “history,” an analytical, intellectual force based on reason that relentlessly seeks in past events an absolute---perhaps an unattainable one---that we accept as “truth.” The other lens—the one about which Warren writes as “felt” history---is actually that of “memory,” a far more personal way of looking at past events, and one that rests on a foundation of emotion or loyalty or belief.   Where history requires an honest, comprehensive, and objective evaluation of an event, memory tends to be selective, sanitizing, sensationalized, self-indulgent, and sentimentalized in its treatment of the past. History makes us think. Memory helps us feel. History informs. Memory often serves other, often ahistorical, purposes. Expressions of memory played out against a historical backdrop can be used to justify, to encourage, to instill pride, to foment hate, to celebrate, to mourn.   At times, the forces of history and memory can follow parallel courses to leave a single, indelible, and even substantiated record of past events. But memory and history can also work against each other, invariably to history’s disadvantage.

Our man from Oshkosh lived a century too early to understand all the forces that worked against the truth of history he so genuinely cherished. Only in recent years have scholars developed a field of inquiry called “memory studies,” an interdisciplinary approach that applies the work of psychologists, sociologists, and historians to the study of how we as individuals and groups remember, reconstruct, and use the past. The field has its detractors who object to its intellectual fuzziness, but the field of memory studies, in all its forms, nonetheless offers valuable ways to consider what we remember, what we forget, and why.[3]   It helps us to appreciate the Civil War in a different way. It should make us less confident about what we think we “know” about that great conflict. It should also help us understand why we still care so much about that long-ago war and its legacy.

“Memory” helps us explain our continuing fascination with our Civil War in a variety of ways. Three specific avenues show particular promise. First, increased understanding about the processes of individual memory, especially under the stress of such traumatic and highly emotionally charged experiences as combat, teach us a great deal about what actually survives in soldiers’ memories after the adrenalin rush ebbs;   its implications for the raw materials of history they leave us---their letters, diaries, reports, newspaper accounts---is striking. Second, as we learn more about the construction of collective memory by the war generation—during the war, and especially several decades after the conflict’s end---we learn more about a second civil war: the war for national imagination. Third, and very much a part of current events, we are learning much about what can happen to both history and memory when they are ripped from their unique contexts in time and place and made to serve purposes far removed from those events that inspired them in the first place.

The Civil War’s military affairs provide outstanding starting points for this re-examination of the conflict of history and memory. When the clash of arms between Union and Confederate armies became the high-stakes method for determining the two sections’ futures, Northerners and Southerners early on began to measure the relative progress of their respective causes by success or failure on the battlefield.   But the movement of mass armies, the complexities of campaign planning and execution, and the confusion of combat confounded the most articulate soldiers, journalists, and other eyewitnesses to the great conflict. Soldiers very much wanted folks at home, and maybe even the annals of history, to understand and care about their contributions to the war effort. So, they kept diaries. They wrote letters. They submitted official and unofficial reports of all kinds. They talked to war correspondents who incorporated soldier gossip into their stories for anxious countrymen at home. For nearly 140 years now, chroniclers and historians have analyzed and evaluated the contents of such sources and generally grant them the credibility accorded eyewitness accounts. Even today, scholars still draw upon them freely to write histories of campaigns, battles, camp life, and more.

Memory studies suggest that perhaps those who study the past should not continue to consider the traditional primary source material of Civil War history to belong quite so solidly to the objective record of history. We should consider letters, diaries, and reports less as “truth” and, instead, more as memories that merely were, as historian David Thelen has suggested, “authentic for the person at the moment of construction.”[4]   Instead of the objective documentary record they probably believed they created and preserved, the Civil War generation actually set for their descendants a trap, something that C. Vann Woodward once described as “a twilight zone between living memory and written history” that easily can become the “breeding ground for mythology.”[5]

How did Civil War soldiers deliver to future generations that tainted historical record? The study of the processes of individual memory in traumatic or chaotic situations offers a number of intriguing ideas worthy of consideration. Despite their linear tactics that packed them close together in the ranks, from a sociological and psychological perspective, the Civil War soldier went into combat alone. The highly charged experience of close combat took the combatants off what one scholar has tabbed each man’s “great gray level plane” of everyday existence. In that chaos, he could not comprehend all that happened around him. Instead of seeing and recording all that occurred about him, a soldier’s memory “record[s] clips of experience [only], often in erratic sequences,” and, equally important, after the adrenalin rush ebbs, only those most intense moments that spike above or below that great gray level plane remain in clear focus in that soldier’s mind.[6]

A Michigan soldier may have explained best how an individual soldier’s memory reacted to the hyperstimulation of the battlefield. At the dedication of the 24th Michigan’s monument at Gettysburg, where nearly one hundred of his comrades were killed or mortally wounded on July 1, Major William Wight asked his fellow veterans to think about that day’s battle. “Who can depict all the happenings of this day?” he asked. “Who can venture to say that his description will prove satisfying to his comrades or even to himself?” He challenged his audience to “Recall, if you can, any engagement of the war and positively state, of your own knowledge, that you passed through some particular field (a wheat field, for instance) when you were ordered forward to charge the enemy’s position. You did pass through the open; so much you remember, but the nature of the field you never once considered. You took possession of a strip of woodland, a bit of shelter from the scurrying shot, but the character of the fruit or forest trees did not impress itself upon your memory. Some hill or ridge was near; you occupied it as a natural vantage-ground for present or later conflict---but how it sloped or what were its surroundings, you had no time to note. You charged the enemy or were charged by them; but just how you advanced or how you met the onset, you were too busy then to enter into your mental memorandum book.”[7]   And what kept him so busy? Staying alive. In short, Major Wight reminded his listeners that not even the most loquacious or articulate soldier could reproduce every detail of the most intense and---one would think---most memorable moments of his military experience.

But what could that individual warrior recall? At best, he recounted only what Samuel Hynes has described as each soldier’s own unique “recoverable past.”[8]   Civil War soldiers seem to have understood how the solitary nature of close combat could limit what they remembered about it later. An officer who helped to defend Little Round Top at Gettysburg told friends that “None but the actors on the field can tell the story” of a battle but “each one can tell of his own knowledge but an infinitesimal part.”[9] Two-thirds of the way through a regimental history that ran nearly one thousand pages, a survivor of the 148th Pennsylvania paused to acknowledge that although every student of history knew the general plans for all the great battles, these grand designs represented only part of the story. Each man in his regiment, he wrote, had his “own experiences, not known to the world at large. A history within a history, but a history of the actions of men that largely determines the result of the general engagement---acts of bravery, skill, and endurance, of pure heroism and patriotism that individually pass, ‘unhonored and unsung,’ swallowed up in the collected mass” but remained alive in individual diaries and letters.[10]  

Interestingly enough, they even understood that the same limitations that shaped private soldiers’ memories of battles extended to others on or near the battlefield as well. The after-action reports that fill the pages of The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, even though prepared by officers who far more likely possessed a greater appreciation of the command decisions that guided an engagement, could be tainted by the personal pull the author’s memory. As a result, many such reports explained not so much “what happened” but merely “what happened to me”—and maybe those immediately around that leader. As a staff officer himself, Lieutenant Frank Haskell explained forthrightly the official reports on which Civil War historians rely upon so heavily “may give result as to losses, with statements of attacks and repulses; they may also note the means by which results were attained, which is a statement of the number and kind of forces employed, but the connection between means and results, the mode, the battle proper, these reports touch lightly.”[11] He understood that even staff officers could not separate individual experience from corporate experience or comprehend that what the colonel or general accepted as “truth” might not be the “truth” of the trigger-puller in the ranks.  

The same limitations extended to newspapermen and even those veteran soldiers who could watch a battle from a safe distance. “It is hard to convey an idea of the feelings of an interested spectator,” wrote a New York volunteer after Fredericksburg. “Your whole being is, as it were, a part of the side in which your sympathies are enlisted. The heart throbs with alternative fears and hopes; your side drives and shouts, and then the heart flies to the mouth in a wild rush of joyous exultation, silently shouting within itself. Your side is forced back, when the very blood becomes a participator—retreating from the advanced posts and curdling in a freezing mass around its shrinking home…. swayed by alternate hopes and fears, equally anxious and overpowering.” Overcome by emotion, they did not try to dissect or analyze the action they watched. As some of their comrades fell back, he noted, “We were at a loss to comprehend the meaning of this, and still more so when we saw them again advance.” Add in the obscuring clouds of gunpowder smoke and wooded or rolling terrain and buildings, and even the wartime generation recognized that the testimony of eyewitnesses who observed from a position of relative safety could not be accorded the credibility of historical “truth.”[12]

About the same time our man from Oshkosh made his plea to respect the truth of history, a former captain from a real Pennsylvania regiment expressed his sympathies for those who might draw upon wartime letters, diaries, newspaper accounts or battle reports in an effort to determine just what that “truth” might be. He believed that it would be extremely difficult to “weave a symmetrical whole from these disconnected threads” of individual memories born in combat and turn them into a coherent and accurate history of complex grand events. He knew that even the most conscientious scholar likely would drown in a cacophony of individual voices telling wildly varying stories about what had seemed, on first reflection, to be a single, easily comprehensible, event.[13] Other soldiers provided yet another warning: many of them did not possess the literary talent to put into words what they witnessed and endured. During and well after the war, soldiers attempted to do so, frequently gave up, and then explained, as did the historian of the 93rd Pennsylvania, that “A battlefield after a fight is a saddening and sickening sight---one that is indescribable and no idea can be formed of it unless it is seen, and then no pen, from a mind ever so gifted can faithfully delineate its frightful details.”[14]

Perhaps this explains why soldiers’ most vivid memories of battle could take root well away from the heat of combat itself. Indeed, soldiers who survived combat often
felt a deep psychological need to make sense of the chaotic events they had just endured. They needed to know how their imperfectly and incompletely recalled snippets of experiences contributed to the battle’s outcome, or how their actions reflected duty faithfully performed, or how they avenged the sacrifice of the lives of dead comrades, or showed strength of character in wounds suffered, or served a cause bigger than survival.   So, they talked to each other. They compared stories. They incorporated elements of friends’ tales to fill in the gaps in their own personal recollections of the fight. They sought out war correspondents for information and shared their own stories with them. They read newspaper accounts voraciously. All these simple actions tainted individual soldiers’ personal memories of the battlefield by blending them with those of others to create a new memory, a collective memory, that might or might not reflect the truth of the historical event it was meant to represent.  

The process of forging a collective memory away from the heat of battle could be a deceptively simple one, done without premeditation. As our Michigan veteran explained it, after a battle, “some military or civilian report mentioned a wheat field, a peach orchard, an Oak Hill or a Seminary Ridge and thenceforth you adopted the names in your attempted description of the battle.” [15] But in so doing, they and their brothers-in-arms forged something even more powerful than personal memories: a corporate or collective memory so strong that it could replace individual recollection when the time came to preserve the perceived truth of history.  

But, sometimes, collective memories could be forged quite purposefully and so successfully that they easily overwhelmed the reality of the historical event they represented.   On Christmas Day 1861, at the end of the daily parade in the camp of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, a delegation from home stepped forward to present the unit a special gift: a brand new flag.   Usually, such an event inspired florid oratory about glories to be won, but no such sentiments inspired the speaker this day. After all, he knew he looked out on the survivors of the great battle of Ball’s Bluff. Most of the Union army barely heard of that October skirmish, but the 20th Massachusetts could not forget it. That brief, sharp fight had introduced them to the realities of combat, a first taste of war that killed at least forty of their comrades, left at least forty-seven more of them wounded, and sent at least 108 others to Southern prison camps. Significantly, this new banner was not a battleflag, but a specially made silk memorial flag, ordered by two young ladies to honor their brothers who were numbered among the casualties.  

During the presentation ceremony, the Honorable John G. Palfrey, father of the regiment’s lieutenant colonel, explained to the stalwart survivors why they must fight on under this new banner. The colors, he told them, “revive the memory of your valor, they revive also the memory of your loss,---of those brave dead who gave their lives for the cause for which Massachusetts had sent them out to do battle. Their memory is dear and sacred in our hearts forever. They died in the noblest of causes,--- the cause of Government, Liberty, and Peace.”   Palfrey did not revisit the specific tactical evolutions that set in motion the slaughter that had made the flag presentation necessary. He simply hoped to instill in them a shared memory of their comrades’ fidelity to their cause, a purpose that required no detailed and analytical narration of the command decisions that had resulted in the sacrifice of forty dead young men from Massachusetts. So he turned the words “Ball’s Bluff” into a rhetorical shorthand that readily resonated within the ranks of the 20th Massachusetts as a symbol for commitment to cause and comrades. Long after the regiment fought through even bloodier days at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania, and other battles far more important to the outcome of the war, they continued to do as Palfrey asked: remember Ball’s Bluff.[16]  

Thus, at war’s end, each soldier--North and South--went home with wartime memories, some unique to himself and others shared with his regiment, his army, his cause. Each man looked back on those memories as “the truth” as he had come to understand it. But, clearly, there were many “truths,” one for each survivor who returned home. Given that, whose version of the past would be accepted as the “truth of history”? What would be discarded as falsehood or merely as unimportant? Who would decide? And what might happen to memories of the past that might not win acceptance as part of “the truth” of history, but still managed to hold widespread popular acceptance nonetheless? These questions are interesting to consider, for, as historian Michael Kammen has argued, societies often “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them,” and when they do so, they do it with “the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind.”[17]

At least for the fifteen years after the war, most Americans seemed content to leave those questions unanswered.   Historians have noted that in the aftermath of most American wars, a period of national amnesia oversweeps the nation as former warriors try to put conflict behind and get on with personal and civic lives. Despite one New York editor’s promise that “the returned soldier will be favorite of his neighborhood,” this proved especially true after the Civil War. During the 1860s and 1870s, after a brief spate of celebratory tomes from Northern presses and defiant volumes written by Southern authors to justify secession, relatively few writers or readers cared to revisit the events of the traumatic war years. Few looked to the old soldier “a living history and chronicle of the war, around whom old and young will cluster to hear from this own lips accounts of the ‘moving accidents by flood and field’ which befell himself and his comrades, and the hair-brea[d]th escapes of some from the miss[i]les of death which strewed others at his feet.”[18] In 1868, when Robert E. Lee decided against writing his memoirs, he explained, “The time is not come for impartial history. If the truth were told just now it would not be credited.”[19]   Even after a few more years had passed, when a few veterans from the Union Army’s IX Corps tried to organize a reunion in East Tennessee in 1874 with some of their former foes from General James Longstreet’s old First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, the plans fell apart when the ex-Confederates could not bring themselves to meet with old enemies.[20] The wounds ran too deep, the emotions remained raw, the scars had not begun to heal.

During this period, two publishing projects kept alive a spark of interest in the recent war. One, the War Department’s plan to publish the war’s documentary record—all Union materials and captured Confederate records as they held---attempted to preserve as nearly comprehensive an archive of the conflict’s many military operations as could be reconstructed.   The second project, sponsored by the Southern Historical Society that formed in 1869, rested on the premise that the very title of the War Department’s project --to be published as The Official Record of the War of the Rebellion--suggested that the Confederate cause would not get fair treatment from the victors. Both played key roles when the war generation began to “reconstruct” their pasts.    

While each of these projects is familiar to students of the Civil War era, the contrasting intentions and execution of these two efforts still offers useful lessons about the interplay of history and memory in the immediate postwar era. While the War Department’s project never reached the level of comprehensiveness it hoped for, ran over budget, and sometimes fell victim to overzealous editors who silently inserted dates and other information on their own authority, the Official Records became and remain today the starting point for serious research into the raw material of operational history.   The Southern Historical Society preserved source materials, too, but its members went one step further and wrote (and sometimes rewrote) Confederate history in ways that suited their own views of the Old South and Robert E. Lee. Even today, much of the Southern story of Gettysburg—especially the shifting of blame for the defeat from Lee’s shoulders to those of his second-in-command James Longstreet—can be traced to their machinations. Their efforts remain a remarkable example of how a small group of people, driven by political and personal agendas that clashed with objective preservation of objective truth, could write and publish versions of past events that lacked intellectual credibility, call it “history,” and then assure its popular acceptance on terms of their own making, not only in the former Confederacy but well beyond.

Consider the impact of all such efforts when the survivors of the war generation collectively decided that the time had come to cement into the national memory the heroics and sacrifices of their youth. Only when the silver anniversary of the war approached in the mid-1880s, about the time our Oshkosh veteran had his say, did Civil War veterans reclaim their vested interest in preserving what they considered to be the “history” of the thrilling events of their younger days. Inspired by both the planned commemorations and the encroachment of middle age, they began to think more about how they wanted posterity to remember them. They started to revisit their old battlefields and to cooperate with historians’ efforts to mark old battle lines. They became active in their regimental associations and contributed to the writing of unit histories. They dedicated monuments on the sites of some of their toughest battles. They joined sectional veterans groups such as the Grand Army of the Republic, or in the 1890s, the United Confederate Veterans. They subscribed to the National Tribune in which our Oshkosh volunteer published or to The Southern Historical Society Papers.

Whatever course they took, the veterans invariably found themselves embroiled in some skirmish of a new war, a cultural war, the legacy of which touches us today nearly as much as did the Civil War itself. The new battleground centered at first on the silver anniversary ceremonies themselves, as Northerners and Southerners alike began to consider ways to mark this milestone. Quickly, it became clear that no single vision of the past could provide the foundation for a truly national celebration.   From the start, at least four rival interpretations emerged from the renewed interest in the war’s causes, conduct, meaning, and legacy. Advocates for each one advanced visions of the past that best suited them, and each faction insisted that its version---and only that single version-- could stand up to history’s scrutiny as “truth.” Interestingly enough, the old sectional lines of 1861-1865 held up no longer. Although fought against a backdrop of historical events, the real prize at stake in this new civil war was winning public acceptance for a specific version of the past and for a vision for the future that should follow from it.  

Of the four major interpretations of the war and its meaning to emerge in the 1880s, visitors to the National Battlefield Parks today still can sense the legacy of the victorious memory, that of national reconciliation.   Its most vivid image often takes the form of a grainy black-and white photograph featuring an old man in a gray suit shaking hands across a stone wall with a former foe in blue. This simple gesture represented the reconciliators’ fondest hopes. They offered up a view of the past that began with two sections of well-meaning people who went to war only when they had exhausted all other means for reaching compromise on competing visions for the future of the republic. It ended with the notion that both sections now followed a single shared course into the future, a bond sealed in a handshake in the true spirit of Union and reunion.

Interestingly enough, reconciliators could be found in the North and South alike.   Moreover, the signs of successful reunionism appeared in a wide variety of forms.

When the 23rd New Jersey dedicated its monument at Salem Church to commemorate its fight near Fredericksburg on 3 May 1863, the orator reminded his audience to remember that not all the soldiers on that bloody field marched under Federal banners. The Confederate soldiers they faced had been “no less determined, no less courageous, no less ready for sacrifice” than the Jerseymen themselves.” As lasting proof, he pointed to the base of the monument itself. Carved there for all posterity to see, the stonemasons had cut an enduring tribute “to the memory of the brave Alabama boys” who fought there on soil that was sacred to “all of us, whether from the north or the south.” Virginia’s representative to the ceremonies thanked the Jerseymen for their tribute and reminded all listeners that “New Jersey and Virginia are old acquaintances and old friends” with “sentiments and traditions in common---Colonial and Revolutionary---which are not shared by the younger States of the West.” [21]

In 1887 at Gettysburg, George Pickett’s veterans returned to the field of their great charge on 3 July 1863 to meet in friendship with the survivors of the Philadelphia Brigade who had repulsed them. Virginia Colonel William R. Aylett announced that they returned now to Pennsylvania not as invaders but merely “as survivors of a great battle, which illustrated the greatness and glory of the American people.” They had come forth “from the baptism of blood and fire in which we were consumed, as the representatives of a New South, and we have long years ago ceased to bear in our hearts and residuum of the feelings born of the conflict.” He was proud that “over the tomb of secession and African slavery we have created a new empire, and have built a temple to American liberty.”[22] The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the reunion under the headline “NOW AND FOREVER! Reunited on the battleground at Gettysburg!”[23]

In the regimental history of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, the author published one soldier’s especially poignant comment on the regiment’s new monument at Aldie, Virginia: “I lift my eyes to heaven and thank God that we are permitted to live in a country enjoying the blessings of liberty and peace, where sectional feeling is unknown and where the glorious flag we fought to save floats protectingly and lovingly alike over those who wore the blue and the gray. Who will to-day speak of ‘Yank’ or ‘Johnny’ except in the pleasantry of comrades and old soldiers? Who will doubt the friendship of the blue and the gray?” As further evidence of the spirit of true reunion, he pointed out that the owner of that piece of Virginia ground where the 1st Massachusetts monument now rested had once worn the gray as one of partisan John Mosby’s men.[24]

But not all Northerners or Southerners bought into the notion of national reunion or accepted what they believed to be its mawkish sentimentality. They expressed two other section-specific and emotionally powerful sentiments to challenge it, and even if the most clearly drawn perceptions of the Civil War’s legacy in national memory will not admit them, a genuine understanding of history demands that they be considered nonetheless.

Among those who did not support the cause of reunion numbered thousands of Union veterans who had long considered it a mistake to push for a quick reconciliation with the former Confederacy during Reconstruction.   A Michigan veteran, at the start of his chapter on Confederate prisons in his regimental history, stated bluntly that “we can never forget and will never forgive those in the South guilty of he barbarisms practiced upon our unfortunately comrades whom the chances of war placed under their control. As martyr fires emblazon the deeds of fanaticism and bigotry, and burning at the stake lighten up the forest darkness among savages, so the record of southern prison pens disclose the enormities of slavery’s influence, which read like pages from the history of hell!”[25] A Wisconsin veteran who stopped in 1881 to visit the graves of a number of his comrades in the national cemetery at Arlington wrote his wife that “I have to-day worshipped at the shrine of the dead,” and from their sacrifices he still received “inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest.”[26] When it seemed that Gettysburg reunions had become nothing more than blue-gray love-fests, some disgruntled Union veterans began to dismiss as utter nonsense what one man described in the National Tribune as all this “God-knows-who-was-right bosh.”[27]

Nor did all Southerners embrace what they perceived to be the demand by the New South’s reconciliation advocates to reject their Confederate past in favor of the renewal of close ties with their former Northern enemies. Dr. B.F. Ward, of Winona, Mississippi, who had served as a surgeon in Lee’s army in Virginia, slammed Professor Wilbur Fisk Tillett of Vanderbilt University for publishing articles about the Old South that would “pervert the education of Southern children into the conviction that their ancestors, if not criminal, were little more than a race of ‘idlers,’ blunderers, blockheads and failures.” He reminded Southern parents instead that “the culture and intelligence in the ranks of the Confederate Army were unsurpassed by that of any of the great armies of the world, hence the exalted esprit de corps which so often rendered the Confederate soldiers more than equal to an odds of three to one in the splendid columns of he Federal Army.”[28]   Individual chapters of Virginia veterans associations, including the politically influential Pegram’s Battalion Association and Richmond Howitzers Association refused adamantly to take part in any commemorations in Richmond or anywhere else in the former Confederacy if the ceremonies included either formal acknowledgement of Union veterans or the flying of the Stars and Stripes.[29] Lost Cause advocates found the pages of the Southern Historical Society Papers and, later, Confederate Veteran magazine to be welcoming venues for their ideas.

Finally, ardent emancipationists and African-Americans saw little to like in any of these three other perspectives that spoke to their perceptions on the war’s cause, course, or legacy.   All three other approaches accepted almost to the exclusion of all else the primacy of the Northern war aim to preserve the Union; the cause of emancipation had largely disappeared in much of the rhetoric of reunion. Indeed, African-Americans and their contribution to the North’s military victory seemed to be absent entirely from most of the silver anniversary ceremonies. What could the cause of national reunion with joyful meetings between white Northerners and Southerners mean to African-Americans?   In an increasingly Jim Crow South, African-Americans not only had begun to lose the vote and other civil rights, but also appeared to be losing their important place in the history of the conflict that had emancipated many of them and guaranteed all of them equal protection under federal laws. No doubt, veterans of the many regiments of United States Colored Troops felt betrayed to learn that some of their own white comrades-in-arms may have believed that the assignment of African-American regiments to previously all-white divisions or corps explained their invisibility in most history books about the war. The author of the 51st Pennsylvania’s regimental history may have been indulging in sarcasm when he complained that the IX Corps---in which his unit had served creditably---never received the credit it deserved because African-American soldiers made up one of its three divisions. Since the African-Americans’ real “sphere was in the field with a hoe, not the battlefield with a musket,” he wrote, then the “poor do-nothing 9th Corps must not expect to be admitted among high circles who are akin the to F.F.V’s.” But his remarks also could be interpreted as genuine sentiments.[30] How did African Americans choose to commemorate their own memories of the Civil War? Special ceremonies, such as the Jubilee of Emancipation that visited New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles in 1913 and featured an Egyptian Temple along with “the March of the Black Soldiers” told the African-American story of the great conflict.[31]

Ironically enough, while combat veterans in each of these four camps possessed very different collective memories about the war and its legacy, soldiers in all four also discovered a renewed faith in what they called the “truth” about the conflict’s individual battles. Or so they said. Their actions clearly suggest otherwise.   In the years between the silver and golden anniversaries of the war, to a far greater degree than they had done so ever before, they now staked claims to battle laurels based on fragile, reconstituted, or totally fabricated memories that they now believed wholeheartedly to be “the truth.” Invariably, they demanded redress for real or perceived errors in the written historical record, certain somehow that they had fallen victim to grievous wrongs.   But, it was not the objectivity of history that spurred them on in these efforts; their desire to be remembered, on terms they themselves dictated, had become their primary goal.

As our Oshkosh volunteer illustrated with his diatribe against the veterans of the II and III Corps at Podunksburg, Civil War veterans supported their arguments by pulling out their wartime letters, diaries, and after-action reports---already tainted by the processes of memory---and using them as the flimsy foundation on which to reconstruct 25-year-old military actions in ways that told the story they wanted to be remembered. They relied heavily on the historical authority accorded to The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion ---when it suited their needs---and they ignored or rejected it out of hand when it did not support their story.   They stridently challenged the credibility of all challengers and doubters, not always from a foundation of historical evidence but more often from a base of emotion and their unyielding conviction that only they had “been there,” and, thus, only they knew what had happened.

Which Union regiment most closely approached the Confederate line behind the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg in December 1862? In their after-action reports of early 1863, several Northern regimental commanders claimed to do have done so, but it had not become a controversial matter then and generated little debate or contentiousness at the time. But by the 1880s, often calling upon the authority of those same reports, now published as part of the Official Records, survivors of the 14th Indiana, 5th New Hampshire, 53rd, 126th, 131st, 133rd and 134th Pennsylvania, and the entire Irish Brigade all launched campaigns to claim that specific battle laurel for their own command alone. Each found seemingly irrefutable fragments of memory from official reports on which to base their assertions, and each considered only its own version of events to be the “truth.”[32]

Who shot Stonewall Jackson on that dark May night at Chancellorsville? Despite a certainty even in 1863 that Jackson had been felled accidentally by the bullets of his own men, in the 1880s and 1890s the regimental historians of the 124th New York, 1st and 20th Massachusetts, and even the 46th Pennsylvania—a XII Corps regiment deployed well away from the site of the general’s wounding---each claimed the credit for his own command alone.[33]   And the list of claimants grew longer as years passed.

Was Ulysses S. Grant surprised by General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederate troops at Shiloh? Conflicting testimony from veterans on both sides of this issue accumulated over the years to the point at which the mass of conflicting arguments had became completely impenetrable. When the War Department decided to prepare tablets to mark the new battlefield park in 1905, the Secretary of War finally decided to designate a committee of officers attending the recently-established Army War College to investigate the issue and reach a final conclusion. After doing all they could to make sense of the muddle, and to the astonishment of some Northerners and Southerners alike, the officers concluded that, indeed, General Johnston really had surprised Grant in the early dawn of April 6, 1862.[34]  

North Carolinians, still smarting at repeated perceived slanders of their state by the wartime Richmond press, began in the 1870s to make a nearly fifty-year-long concerted effort to establish for itself an especially honored place in Confederate history. The Tar Heel State even went so far as to adopt a new state motto at the dawn of the new century: “First at Bethel, farthest to the front at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, last at Appomattox.” Easily the most contentious of these claims centered on the assertion that Tar Heel troops had advanced farthest forward on July 3 at Gettysburg in an attack they simply refused to call by its popular name: Pickett’s Charge. General Pickett had commanded Virginians, they pointed out, and thus, he had been the pet of the same Richmond press that had so poorly treated North Carolina troops. As evidence for their Gettysburg claim, they offered up the location of the “exact spot” where Captain E. Fletcher Satterfield of the 55th North Carolina fell mortally wounded on July 3, a point that rested farther east and up the slope of the Union position on Cemetery Ridge than the deepest advance of Pickett’s men had reached. The fact that Pickett’s men had breached the Union line and scattered the Northern defenders to reach their apex while the North Carolinians had failed to crack through the blue-coated foes who rested behind a stone wall on a far more recessed part of the Union line fazed them not at all.[35]

The veterans’ efforts to refight old battles twenty-five years after the fact, especially for the prize of they sought---remembrance on their own terms---further distorted with their reconstructed memories the fragile historical record of the 1860s. Authors accorded the credibility of penning “eyewitness accounts” in 1863 and in 1890—even had their memories been equally accurate---likely did not write their narratives for the same reason. The stakes had risen in the postwar years, and many veterans did not allow the “truth” of history to get in the way of their desire to cement a place for themselves in national memory. So, they wrote. They wrote a great deal. And, even today, one need not dig deeply into the historical literature to appreciate the old soldiers’ impact on the national imagination. It is not difficult to find footnotes or endnotes in recently published “scholarly” works of major academic and popular presses that bunch together a diary entry from 1863, an article from The Southern Historical Society Papers of the 1870s, maybe a piece from the Confederate Veteran dated after 1900, and a excerpt from a speech at a monument dedication all supporting a single paragraph about a single historical event in an individual battle, using each source as equally valid and the author of each item as a disciple of historical accuracy.[36]

For as long as they stayed on the American scene—at least until the World War I years---Civil War veterans produced volumes of memoirs, recollections, bad poetry, and novels and called them “history.” The authors invariably denied any intention to misrepresent the past and downplayed any plan to challenge the historical record, but sooner or later their texts revealed personal or political agendas that undermined the writers’s historical accuracy. Civil War veterans, viewed collectively, won their battle for memory. Even if each old soldier did not win his the specific battle laurel he sought, the overall effect of the veterans’ grand campaign to tweak the past to their liking succeeded. That victory still marks our national imagination today.

Indeed, in the years since the war generation passed from scene, the already hazy line delineating the Civil War’s historical “truth” from reconstructed memories of the critical postwar years has become increasingly difficult to discern.   The passage of time has done little to dilute either popular or scholarly interest in and concern about the most divisive moments of our nation’s shared past.   But the battlefields on which the forces of history and memory now compete have changed. Those historians and their allies who uphold a commitment to preserving the intellectual integrity of the past seek to answer such fundamental conceptual questions as “Who Owns History?” Others, for their own purposes, manipulate the past and its symbols as swords or shields on battlefields in modern-day cultural, social, and political wars for reasons that actually may have little at all to do with the history and everything to do with memory.

So, why do Americans still care about the Civil War? The answer defies easy resolution.   On one hand, when the war generation still led the way in shaping how most Americans would remember the great conflict, the discipline of history with its own unique conceptual and methodological base had not yet emerged as an intellectual field of study.   As the Civil War veterans passed from the scene, university-trained historians stepped forward to assert intellectual authority over the study of that critical period of American history. Thus, professional historians believed that it had fallen to them to find new ways to uncover (or recover) the “truth” about the past.   But other claimants continued to challenge history’s ownership of the past.   As historian David Thelen has noted, “Memory begins when something in the present stimulates an association,” and events and sentiments that rightly belonged to the Civil War era have been called upon to play new roles in the national imagination in ways that have reintroduced both pride and painful memories into current discourse on such heated topics as race and civil rights.[37] Often ripped from their original historical contexts and from the events and values they initially represented, these new versions of an old past make clear that the Civil War veterans’ proclivity to rewrite the past to fit a version they preferred did not belong to them alone. In short, history and memory are still refighting, and fighting over, the Civil War every day.

For a while, that war simmered on low heat. During the years between the Civil War’s golden anniversary during the World War I era and the Civil War Centennial of the early 1960s, no great controversies emerged to suggest that rough waters might lie ahead, and the few occasional ripples that disturbed the calm seemed insignificant at the time. In 1937, for instance, just before President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Antietam, local residents spotted a large Confederate flag flying atop the battlefield observation tower. Appalled by the appearance of the banner, since their ancestors had supported the Union, they first ascertained that the flag had not been placed there on orders from Washington, then made sure the culprit--the new park superintendent, a nephew of a Confederate veteran---removed the flag. They they had him fired.[38]   During World War II, some white Southerners who fought in the Pacific raised the Confederate flag over an imaginary headquarters they called CONFORSOLS [Confederate Forces, Solomon Islands], an action that raised some protests from members of segregated African-American support units posted nearby; nonetheless, the banners remained flying.

The first genuine alarm bells about a growing disconnect between history and memory, however, began to ring in the late 1940s. The Dixiecrat faction of the Democratic Party began to fly the Confederate flag at campaign rallies in 1948. At the time, descendants of Confederate veterans expressed their dismay at the politicization of a Civil War symbol in a context that disconnected it from its historical roots, but the politicos continued to fly it despite their protests. The more well known alterations of state flags in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia to include the Confederate battleflag after the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision in 1954 followed after this and other efforts to enlist the historical relics of the 1860s to serve twentieth-century purposes.[39] Still, no one knew for sure that these actions portended greater controversies to come.

It took the approach of the Civil War Centennial to reignite a conflagration about the “truth” of history and its abuse by those who adopted it or its symbols for ahistorical purposes. As plans for centennial ceremonies moved forward, it became clear very quickly that the only vision of the past that seemed to blessed as “history”---the reconciliators’ version of the 1880s---could no longer stand on its own to guide the planning for a truly national celebration in the United States of the 1960s.

Even before the commemoration period began, African-American leader W.E.B. DuBois condemned the celebration of what he suspected might rightly be called “a War to Preserve Slavery.” Reflecting back on the reconciliators’ perspectives that provided the central focus for the interpretation of the Civil War since at least the silver anniversary, he was certain that most African-Americans would find the ceremonies irrelevant and even offensive. He argued that the thousands of books written about the causes and consequences of the war did nothing but “falsify the true story.” He resented that “in weighty tome, gaudy magazine and television,” the conflict seemed to have become “merely an unfortunate understanding. It seems nobody wanted slavery in the South, having had it forced upon her, was about to abolish it but for senseless, impatient agitation.” He asserted, “All our history from the Missouri Compromise through the Compromise of 1850 to the secession of South Carolina is being thus rewritten and the Negro painted as a contented slave, a lazy freeman, a thieving voter and today as happily integrated into American life.” He blamed alike Northern and Southern veterans, fiction writers, and even artists for perpetuating untrue and inaccurate memories of the war and its causes that the former Confederate states could use “to celebrate as a triumph of human effort, this despicable struggle to keep blacks in slavery.”   But he especially blamed historians for allowing this to happen, noting that many of them “conceive it as their duty to teach as truth what they or those who pay their salaries believe ought to have been true.” As a result, real lessons went unlearned and “Our history becomes ‘lies agreed upon’ and stark ignorance guides our future.”[40] Such a negative pronouncement, in the face of highly popular celebrations replete with commemorative stamps, florid oratory, bad poetry, and well attended battle reenactments made Robert Penn Warren’s trenchant observation that Civil War history is our only “felt” history seem truer than ever before. And as DuBois pointed out, clearly not all Americans felt quite the same way about it.

The entire Centennial experience helped to alert historians throughout the academic world to genuine problems associated with traditional interpretations of this element of the American past. With increased understanding that the reconciliators’ traditional view did not represent the “truth” for all segments of Civil War Americans or their descendants, the emergence of new threats to the integrity of that “truth” advanced by non-scholarly “heritage” groups who used specific and selected images of the past to support contemporary political and social agendas, and new interpretive frameworks that opened the door for new questions, historians began to fight back. But first they had to fight among themselves.

It did not come easily, but perhaps the historians won their most decisive victory in forcing modern Americans to confront once again a past that includes the institution of slavery.   Against the strong pull of popular memory—especially in the South—that state rights, not slavery, really led the nation to secession and war, the scholars’ reintroduction of slavery and race as a significant part of any discussion about the causes, conduct, and legacy of the conflict spawned controversy both in and out of academic circles. Most historians generally agree now that slavery cannot be ignored as a causal factor. Indeed, as historian Edward Ayres has noted, in recent years “there’s virtually no one who argues that the war was not based in slavery in some way.” The chief arguments now center on the matter of degree.[41] The real nature of the challenge facing historians today appears chiefly when this debate leaves the academic circles and enters the realm of public discourse where the powerful tug of selective memory can still hold sway. In the world of the Civil War buff and in popular imagination, slavery has not won nearly so secure a place as it has among historians who consider the important causal agents of the war. As a member of the Chicago Civil War Round Table recently asserted about this specific issue, “We’re still arguing.”[42]

Even as some elements of the public continue to argue the point, advocates of history nonetheless have begun to exert a greater effort to teach Americans about the importance of portraying all aspects of Civil War era history accurately, objectively, and comprehensively. Nowhere has this change occurred quite so significantly as it has in those sites most visible to the American public, the various sites administered by the National Park Service. Historians at major battlefield parks began as early as the 1960s to expand displays and lectures about Civil War era history to elaborate on static interpretations of military events. In October 1978, Fort Scott National Historical Site opened to portray not only garrison life in the U.S. Army from the 1840s through the Civil War years but to focus on the experiences of the members of the First Kansas Colored Regiment that mustered in for service there. At the Richmond Battlefield Park in the 1980s, historians made readings of the diaries and letters written by former slaves, free blacks, and civilian residents of the Confederate Capital, not just the musings of soldiers who fought there, accessible to visitors. And in the 1990s, with the active cooperation of academic Civil War historians, nearly all the major Civil War battlefield parks began to expand the story they tell to include information on the causes and consequences of the Civil War, slavery, civilian life, and other key elements far removed from combat itself.

All these historical efforts preceded Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s, highly publicized comments in the 2000 Department of the Interior appropriations bill that praised park interpretations of military history but requested historians at those sites to “recognize and include in all of their public displays…the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any, at the individual battle sites,” a move he pushed for not to antagonize “or take a scab off an old wound,” but “to begin the process of seeing.”[43]   Regardless of the source of inspiration, however, by the summer of 2000, at the Manassas Battlefield Park, for example, visitors could learn about slavery, secession, and how the fighting affected three local families, as well as the two major battles that took place on those bloodied acres. While some who admit to a fascination in the Civil War oppose these changes---“What we have here is political correctness running rampant,” commented one critic---at least one 12-year-old boy appreciated the new information, noting, “You get to really know what they’re fighting about.”[44]

Scholars of the new social and cultural history sparked in part by the civil rights movement of the post-World War II years and the social activism of the 1960s and 1970s also have opened new doors through which to invite more Americans to take an interest in their past.   The gates of inclusiveness have swung open to include in Civil War hstory the contributions of women, free and enslaved African-Americans, German and Irish immigrants on the homefront and on the battlefront. By considering the past “from the bottom up,” scholars made—and continue to make--the story of the Civil War relevant to many Americans who may not have believed that they or their ancestors had had a stake in the crucial events of the day.   A quick search on the Internet today reveals several sites that include archive-based research and information on Chinese participation in the Civil War, and at least one site considers the contributions of Australia to the conflict. The Valley of the Shadow project that began in 1991 and provides access to a wide variety of primary documents that give voice to civilians who lived through the war in the Shenandoah Valley and south central Pennsylvania.[45]   The summary comment in a collection in the research archives at the University of Zagreb concerning Croatians who served in the Confederate army cautions historians against foreclosing discussion of fundamental questions about who fought in the Civil War; after all, it concluded, who would have believed that some Johnny Rebs were actually Johnny Rebovichs.

But is all this new knowledge about the “truth” of Civil War history really changing the memories, the images and preconceptions so firmly planted in popular and national imagination? The debate that swirled around the issuance of the United States History Standards for instruction in our schools and generated strident commentary nationwide about what should---and what should not---be included in “our” history raises questions about the degree of historians’s success in replacing cherished memories with the truth of history. As scholars considered the query “Who Owns Our History?” philosophically, intellectually, and theoretically, thousands of parents and hundreds more guardians of selected slices of American heritage denied that this question deserved debate. Many held rather intractable views from the start about what they perceived to be historical “truth,” and from those notions, they took apart even the introductory statement sentence by sentence, and, at times, phrase by phrase.

“The Civil War was perhaps the most momentous event in American history,” began the introduction, noting that “The survival of the United States as one nation was at risk and on the outcome of the war depended the nation’s ability to bring to reality the ideals of liberty, equality, justice and human dignity.” That statement alone triggered alarm bells among those who still believed that slavery played no role in the coming of the war and feared that the standards would require the conflict to be portrayed falsely and inappropriately as an antislavery crusade. “The war can be studied in several ways,” the document continued. “As the final, violent phase in a conflict of two regional subcultures; as the breakdown of a democratic political system; as the climax of several decades of social reform; and as a pivotal chapter in American radical history. In studying the Civil War, students have many opportunities to study heroism and cowardice, triumph and tragedy, and hardship, pain, grief, and death wrought by conflict. Another important topic is how the war necessarily obliged both northern and southern women and children to adapt to new and unsettling situations.”[46] But what about the war and the battles and the generals, some critics asked? The specific goals of the standards included a requirement that students be able to compare human resources of North and South, assess the tactical advantages of each side, and identify the turning points of the war to evaluate the ways in which senior political, military, and diplomatic leadership affected the outcome of the war. But many critics described a vagueness in the language they found to be unsettling. Where does Robert E. Lee and even Jeb Stuart fit into all this? Were the requirement to evaluate and analyze the provisions of the Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation as important as understanding the battles that set the stage for these pronouncements? Was it really important that students understand the position of the major Indian nations during the Civil War? Historians could not provide American parents with convincing answers to many of these questions.  

One reason why historians could not answer the parents stemmed from their own concerns that the setting national history standards might also restrict intellectual freedom if an individual historian’s views clashed with them. In actual practice, however, the most contentious incidents concerning intellectual freedom in the teaching of the Civil War brought instructors into conflict with local communities, not with the standards themselves. In North Carolina, school administrators pulled one instructor out of the classroom for taking slavery out of his Civil War course.[47] In Arkansas, a college professor who had put a fair degree of emphasis on race into his own course felt so much pressure from administrators and the local community leaders to remove it that he gave up a tenured position and sought a new job.

Despite all such controversy over standards and cherished notions they challenge, maintaining scholarly standards has proved to be one way in which historians still can try to win battles over memory for authority over the past. In accepting the 1999 Lincoln Prize for Civil War history for his book Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, Douglas Wilson explained why he felt compelled write yet “another Lincoln book.” A treasure trove of unpublished materials in Williams H. Herndon’s papers relating to Lincoln’s formative years spurred his interest, he noted, but what genuinely intrigued him was what he called “the dubious standing of the material.” Nearly all the new sources were “reminiscences, and as such, subject to the notorious quirks and foibles of human memory. How reliable were these recollections, which were often in conflict, and what kind of historical reality could be reconstructed from them?…How reliable was material that had been solicited, selectively reported, and filtered through the imagination” of a biographer known to be a Lincoln friend and intimate? This proved to be difficult, but Wilson reached a fundamental conclusion that our volunteer from Oshkosh likely would have embraced: “To write history worthy of the name we must be willing to reexamine what we think we know and be open to signals and clues that point in other directions…. Regardless of a prevailing consensus, it is better to be stubborn in our insistence on basic facts before reaching a verdict.”[48]

But the national imagination and popular opinion rarely feels quite so compelled to adhere to scholarly standards. As historian James McPherson noted, academic Civil Warriors face the unenviable task of attempting to write for three different audiences: their fellow professional historians, the Civil War “buff” who may lack scholarly credentials but possesses a substantial knowledge base, and the average reader, who may not pick up a history book unless somehow it is “packaged” just right.[49] Satisfying the last two groups invariably presents the greater challenge. In dealing with each other, historians may rely on the strength of their footnotes, but advocates of selected slices of memory often rely on their fervor. And in the clash between footnotes and fervor, history hardly ever wins. Too many of those who avidly read history books, visit historical sites, or research family genealogies cannot always be convinced to think very deeply about what makes good history and what does not, what comes from the realm of myth and memory and what does not.   As Marc Bloch once observed about such folks, “by curious paradox, through the very fact of their respect for the past, people came to reconstruct it as they considered it ought to have been.”[50]   And in so doing, they bow to the altar of “memory,” and not history at all.

Can that gap between academic history and popular memory be bridged? If so, how? The Ken Burns series on PBS in 1990 has become a lightning rod for discussion about this point, as partisans of history continue to consider ways to sell history to those who have shown to inclination to buy. The eleven-part series became the most watched public-television production to date, and an estimated 40 million people watched at least one segment during its first airing. The academic community raised many questions about one element or another: too much military history? not enough military history? too much emphasis on emancipation? not enough emphasis on the retreat from emancipation in the Reconstruction years? not enough attention to politics, women, the homefront? too many gory battlefield photographs that did not portray accurately the topic under discussion? Burns’s most insightful comment in defense of his approach pointed out that most of us are brought to history, not from an intellectual curiosity, but “with story, memory, anecdotes, feeling. These emotional connections become a kind of glue which makes the most complex of past events stick in our minds and our hearts, permanently a part of who each of us is now.” [51] Burns played to memory, but at least some scholars conceded that he did so with a reasonable measure of the fairness and comprehensiveness that history demands. He did not win over all historians, but most held out one small olive branch: if even one person read a historical account about some Civil War topic because Ken Burns’s series had inspired them to do so, then he had done a worthwhile job.

Did watchers of the series pick up history books? According to the History Book Club, they certainly did. Civil War books remain their most steady sellers. But did Ken Burns’s fans limit their new-found interest in the Civil War to reading good history books? No, they did not.  

In the books they chose to read and the movies they chose to watch, Civil War enthusiasts made it clear that Burns had not entirely erased a fuzziness between history and memory. Books such as The Killer Angels and films such as “Gettysburg” and “Glory” told such compelling stories against a historical backdrop that readers and moviegoers sometimes remained entirely unaware that these representations of the past contained elements of drama and fiction far separated from the “truth” of history. A small example will suffice. At Gettysburg, the regimental monument commemorating Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Infantry on Little Round Top lists the names of the dead, carved in stone. Visitors look out on the wooded vista in silent awe, and many trace a name with a finger, as if making a tangible connection with one of the men who fell here. Close readers of The Killer Angels may remember some of those names: Willard Buxton of Company K, the prayerful Private Foss, the Merrill brothers who preferred to fight standing because they could not shoot straight lying down. All these men did, in fact, stand in the ranks of the 20th Maine on July 2 at Gettysburg, they all breathed their last on Little Round Top or in nearby hospitals, and their deaths are recorded on the monument’s cold granite. But many visitors leave disappointed, for they looked in vain for the one specific name they came to see: Private Buster Kilrain. Michael Shaara had invented this feisty Irishman, the only entirely fictional character in his novel. Visitors’ reactions to learning that Kilrain never existed vary. Some merely show embarrassment at their error. But others get angry with Shaara for playing with their emotions by making them care about a man who never lived. And in their inability to separate fact from fiction, they walk away without acknowledging the very real sacrifices of Privates Buxton, Foss, and James and William Merrill.

Many of those who watched the Ken Burns series found other outlets for their newfound interests in the Civil War as well. Battlefield preservation efforts provided frequent opportunities for public involvement, and in those circles the debate between history and memory flairs up frequently. When Disney Corporation threatened the integrity of the Bull Run battlefields, Civil War enthusiasts and historians alike spoke out against it. Ken Burns joined the fray, as well. Even while admitting that he was in the same business of popular history, he could not abide Disney’s decision to build in Northern Virginia. His reasoning commands attention: he recalled a previous encounter with development, one further south near Fredericksburg when, on an early May day, he realized that the crowds at a shopping center on the fringes of Chancellorsville and The Wilderness remained totally unaware of the historical significance of that date and that place. But it was not their ignorance of history that bothered him most: instead, he avowed that he would “never forget the emotions” that the realization that they did not know or did not care engendered in him, or the “chilling irony, the sickening dread that forgetfulness always engenders, and the powerful sense that the meaning of our freedom as Americans is the freedom of memory, which is also an obligation not to forget.”[52] In the end, Disney decided to look elsewhere, and the field of historic preservation has proved to be common ground from which the forces of history and memory—and historians and the American public--can work toward greater understanding about why “truth” matters and why we should care about its preservation.

In our fast-paced world, for many Americans the simple act of “not forgetting” the past has become a compelling goal in itself.   If it also serves the cause of historical “truth,” so much the better.   The successful blending of history and memory played out quite dramatically at Gettysburg on July 3, 1998, with the dedication of an equestrian monument to honor Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet.   In stark contrast to the majority of Gettysburg’s battlefield markers placed a century ago by the veterans themselves (or later, the park administrators), the new statue of Old Pete stands as modern testament both to the popular appeal of the Civil War and, even more interesting, to the commitment of the American people to set right a historical wrong that memory had distorted.

In 1991, a small group of members from Sons of the Confederate Veterans chapter in North Carolina discussed William Garrett Piston’s Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History. They considered the historical evidence and concurred with Professor Piston’s conclusion that the Virginia leadership of the Southern Historical Society had made Longstreet a scapegoat for Confederate defeat and purposely manipulated the historical record to place on his shoulders blame that rightly belonged to Robert E. Lee. Unlike Piston, who seemed certain that Longstreet never would win vindication from history, the North Carolinians decided to start righting old wrongs by honoring Old Pete with a monument at Gettysburg. With the rallying cry of “It’s About Time,” they launched a fundraising campaign to raise the estimated $250,000 required for sculptor, statue, and perpetual care fund. They worked their way through the National Park Service’s legal and administrative processes that control site selection, monument design, and textual review. Contributions came slowly at first, but they refused to quit. Ultimately, indeed, they succeeded in forcing a reconsideration of history because they found ways to reshape the memory of James Longstreet to make him meaningful to a national audience who provided the dollars and the services to transform a dream into reality. How? They compartmentalized Longstreet’s active life and packaged it to appeal to various segments of the American public. To Northern audiences, they pitched his Mexican War military service and his acceptance of postwar positions in the Grant administration. His superb performance as a combat commander won him still more friends, North and South alike. His embrace of the Republican party and support for black franchise may even have won him positive attention in other corners.   At the dedication ceremony, in the keynote address, Professor Piston applauded the restoration of a genuine historical appreciation of Old Pete---and the spate of (usually) well-researched and generally favorable assessments of the general to be published in the 1990s bore him out----but he found it difficult not to give in to the pull of memory and spoke mostly about one of its key touchstones---the old reconciliatory appeal for unity and respect.[53]

The battle between history and memory continues today, but part of the reason why Americans still care about the Civil War has little to do with either force.   Its heroics, its heroes, and its symbols increasingly have been ripped from their historical contexts to serve the needs of partisans of a wide variety of modern social and political causes, doing violence to both the history and the memory of the Civil War.   In 2000, Virginia’s annual celebration of April as Confederate History Month became a prime example of how competing sets of values and memories demand primacy over others, using the Civil War as a backdrop for modern discourse on race and civil rights. When a leader of the Virginia Department of the Sons of Confederate Veterans explained why they sought the governor’s declaration for Confederate History Month, he appealed to emotion and memory than to a commitment to the integrity of the truth of history when he asserted, “The issue boils down to whether people of Southern heritage and Confederate heritage will be allowed to honor their ancestors, or will this be something that’s censored from the history books?” He added that “All cultures have a right to their heritage, just like blacks have a right to Black History Month.” Governor Gilmore signed the declaration. But on April 2, 2000, to counter Confederate History Month ceremonies saluting Southern military heroes, protesters organized a special Richmond Liberation Day to honor the lives of Elizabeth Van Lew, a white woman with Union sympathies who provided intelligence to the U.S. Army through much of the war, and Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a freed slave who did the same sort of work. Those who supported alternative celebrations such as this included prominent Virginia African-Americans, one of whom commented, “We cannot pay respect and honor to the Confederate States of American, because many of our ancestors died at the hands of these same rebels and Confederates. How are you going to ask a citizen of African ancestry to reflect on the history of people who raped, lynched, castrated and brutalized people who looked just like him?” Some African-American ministers asked their congregants to wear red and black ribbons as a sign of mourning and remembrance in support of the Richmond Liberation Day ceremonies. In the midst of the controversy, a Washington Post reporter publicized as “an opportunity for gaining insight and meaning” a gathering of people of all races gathered at the First African Baptist Church in Richmond to honor the U.S. Colored Troops and their role in the liberation of the city 135 years previously. But underneath it all, none of the planned ceremonies or even this one glimmer of racial reconciliation celebrated the objective truth of history; each merely used a specific element of the past to focus public and media attention on one or another current political or social concern.[54] In short, against a backdrop of history, they used selected memories of the past to conduct modern-day political business-as-usual.

But whose memory matters most? That, in the end, became the key question. After the controversial events of April 2000, Virginia’s governor admitted that he could not decide whether or not he would sign a similar proclamation for the following year, especially since the NCAAP threatened a boycott. “This is a difficult challenge,” the governor said, since “Virginia’s past is as diverse as her people are today.” True enough, but political observers suggested that Gilmore’s concerns went far deeper than his desire to preserve the past of all his constituents. In more practical and self-serving terms, the controversy also complicated the governor’s efforts to recruit more African American voters for the Republican party.

The Virginia controversy over Confederate History Month demonstrates the degree to which we many Americans continue to care far more about very specific strands of memory of past events that appeal to them, while rejecting the full tapestry of history.   It is not the history of Confederate flag itself or the history of the Confederacy it represented that had made that symbol a modern-day lightning rod. It is the spectrum of memories the very sight of that flag inspires—as interpreted differently by various elements in American society---that deepens our emotions, raises our passions, and makes us care at least a little about the war that left so many unresolved issues that touch our lives today.  

Consider, for instance, the deeply felt partisan response in the 1990s to the flying of the Confederate flag over the capital of South Carolina. Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy chapters, and other heritage groups held public marches in support of the Confederate flag. Why did they care? “The issue at stake is the truth,” said a Baptist minister and member of the South Carolina Heritage Coalition, who added, “The flag is not a racist symbol. The flag symbolizes the rights of sovereign states.”   In opposition, a South Carolina state legislator told flag supporters, “Folks, it’s time to let it go. It’s time to let it go. You’re going to still have your reenactments. You’re going to still have the [Confederate Memorial Day] holiday.” The NAACP stepped into the fray as well, calling for an economic boycott of South Carolina, a potentially hard blow in a state in which tourism dollars matter.[55] None of this centered on the objective “truth” of history, although all bowed toward it; it had everything to do with memory, though.  

Contentious flag flaps recently have occurred in other places, too, underscoring the depths of the feelings this one symbol continues to generate. Several African-American member of Georgia’s congressional delegation have refused to fly in their Washington offices the flag of the state they represent because it includes in its design the Confederate battle flag; Representative Cynthia McKinney flies only the American flag, a 1996 Olympics flag, and the POW/MIA flag.[56] When the Confederate banner came down from the capital in Columbia, local entrepreneur and flag supporter Maurice Bessenger removed the Stars and Stripes from the front of the eight stores in his restaurant chain and flying state and Confederate flags instead. In response to this and his practice of distributing tracts that blended his strong religious beliefs with his support of the Confederacy, Sam’s Clubs and Wal-marts pulled his barbecue sauces from their shelves. Did they care about his views on history? No. According to their spokesman, “We’re the largest employer of Hispanics and African-Americans in the U.S.” Did Bessenger care defending the “truth” of history? He certainly believed in his own personal view of the past, when he retorted that the stores were“just yielding to outside pressure from people who want to destroy the Constitution and remake America to fit their globalism strategy.”[57] Very little of these squabbles that centers on Civil War symbols relates to the “truth” of history.    

Americans still care about their Civil War. But their reasons are many, and they are as individualistic as the combat memories of the soldiers who first put their lives on the line. To this extent, memory still wins. In the year 2000, a new book appeared among the offerings of the University Press of Florida. It bore the title Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South, and it made its initial appearance fairly quietly, without much fanfare by its publisher. In the book’s preface, the three editors---J. Michael Martinez, William D. Richardson, and Ron McNinch-Su---explained that when they considered publishing this book, they had been warned, “’In this era of political correctness, if you compile a book about Confederate symbols you will aggravate one side or the other. You can’t win; the emotions are too raw, the passions too strong. You will be labeled either as latent racists or as anti-Southern “Yankee” zealots. Don’t do this book. You are walking where angels fear to tread.’” Still, they stayed the course and tried to present a range of legal, historical, and cultural perspectives to explain the continuing divisiveness of Confederate symbols that lingers on today. But they also admit--tongue-in-cheek, one hopes--that “each of the editors has paid up his health insurance—just in case….”[58]

The ability of our Civil War past and its most evocative symbols to make us care and make us think remains truly impressive, even today. Its impact cannot be over overstated and shows no signs of abating. Yet, we must take care to understand how history and memory work to shape how we remember the past, and we must do what we can to protect the intellectual integrity of history from the assaults of those who would use, misuse, or abuse it for ahistorical purposes. Even now, Civil War reenactors from the Roanoke area who portray the 28th Virginia Infantry continue to mount verbal (and possibly legal) frontal assaults on the Minnesota Historical Society in an ongoing effort to reclaim the regiment’s historic battleflag captured by the 1st Minnesota on July 3, 1863, at the height of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Why? “We look at this as the only tangible way of honoring our dead who never came home,” asserted one Virginian. This is a memory-based argument, with the fate of a legitimate historical artifact at stake. Why do Minnesotans care so much about holding on to that banner? In a summary statement by Governor Jesse Ventura, who threw his support behind his state’s stand, “To the victors go the spoils!” [59]   This, too, speaks to memory, not to history, and this recent flag flap has become yet another battleground where history and memory clash. Should the 28th Virginia’s flag be returned to a modern-day group who portray the historic regiment at living history and reenactor events? A Richmond man, for one, opposed the banner’s return “to a bunch of crybabies who think that because they dress up in period costumes that entitles them to the same type respect that is given to those brave men who fought in the Civil War.”[60]   But that does not diminish one whit the commitment of the Virginians or the Minnesotans who have embraced this specific cause as part of their own personal emotional touchstone to that conflict. But touchstones belong to memory, not to history.      

On a daily basis, our Civil War past touches the lives of thousands of people who never visited a battlefield park, who never read a war novel, who never saw the Ken Burns series.   History tries hard to inform the debates that the memory of the Civil War still triggers. Just the same, many of those who find fascination or frustration in those memories may still turn a deaf ear to versions of the past that do not fit the story they want to believe. And so it has always been. Like the citizen-soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, Antietam, Mill Springs, or Pickett’s Mill---and maybe even Podunksburg---all Americans since 1861 had or still have reasons to care about the Civil War. We can even choose not to care. But we who are also historians have a special reason to care, and much of it can be summed up now by the same fundamental belief our Oshkosh volunteer first wrote back in 1887: “truth is the foundation of every virtue.”


[1]   “Podunksburg,” National Tribune, April 21, 1887.

[2]   Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War (New York: Random House, 1961). 4.

[3] Alon Confino, “Collective Memory and Cultural History: Problems of Method,” American Historical Review 102 (December 1997): 1386-87.

[4] David Thelen, “Memory and American History,” Journal of American History 75 (March 1989), 1123.

[5] Quoted in Michael Kamman, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Press, 1993), 31.

[6] See Richard Holmes, Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle (New York: Free Press, 1985), 79, for a discussion of this issue.

[7] Address of William B. Wight, June 12, 1889, in O.B. Curtis, History of the Twenty-Fourth Michigan of the Iron Brigade, Known as the Detroit and Wayne County Regiment (Detroit, Mich.: Winn and Hammond, 1891), 424.

[8] Samuel Hynes, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War New York: The Penguin Press, 1997), 25.

[9] Address of O.W. Norton, September 11, 1889, in John Page Nicholson, comp., Pennsylvania at Gettysburg. Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Monuments ‘’Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Mark the Positions of the Pennsylvania Commands Engaged in the Battle. 2 vols. (Harrisburg: E.K. Myers, 1893), 1:432.

[10] J.W. Muffly, ed., The History of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Vols. (Des Moines, IA: Kearny Printers, 1904), 600.

[11] Frank A. Haskell, The Battle of Gettysburg (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Commission, 1910), 82.

[12] “Twelfth Regiment N.Y.S.V., Camp near Stafford Court House, Dec. 22,” in William Styple, ed., Writing and Fighting the Civil War: Soldier Correspondence to the New York SundayMercury (Kearny, NJ: Belle Grove Publishing Company, 2000),146.

[13] Address of O. W. Norton, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, 1:432.

[14] Penrose D. Marks, Red, White, and Blue Badge: Pennsvlvania Veteran Volunteers, A History of the 93rd Regiment, Known as the “Lebanon Infantry,” and One of the 300 Fighting Regiments from September 12th, 1861, to June 27th, 1865. Reprint edition. (Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1994 [1911]), 130.

[15] Wight address, 424.

[16] George A. Bruce, The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-1865 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 74-75.

[17] Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, p. 3.

[18] “Return of the soldiers to their Homes,” in Styple, ed., Writing and Fighting the Civil War, 354.

[19] Gordon Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, American Quotations (New York: Wings, 1988), 274.

[20]Army and Navy Journal 11 (May 16, 1874), 632.

[21] Camille Baquet, History of the First Brigade, New Jersey Volunteers from 1861 to 1865…. (Trenton, NJ: MacCrellish and Quigley, 1910), 260-61, 266-67.

[22] “North and South at Gettysburg,” Army and Navy Journal 24 (July 9, 1887), 1001.

[23]Philadelphia Inquirer, July 4, 1887.

[24] Benjamin W. Crowninshield, A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1891), 478.

[25] O.B Curtis, History of the Twenty-Fourth Michigan of the Iron Brigade, 428.

[26] Quoted in Rufus R. Dawes, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers Reprint edition. (Dayton, OH: Morningside Bookshop, 1991), 316-17.

[27] Unsigned editorial comment, National Tribune, June 14, 1888.

[28] Survivors Association of the Lamar Rifles, Lamar Rifles: A History of Company G, Eleventh Mississippi Regiment, CSA. Reprint edition. (Topeka, KS: Bonnie Blue Press, 1992), 85-93.

[29] Richmond Howitzers [Veterans Association] to E.P. Reeve, September 25, 18888, [Pegram Battalion Association] to E.P. Reeve, September 26, 1888, and [Richmond Light Infantry Blues Association] to E. P. Reeve, September 27, 1888, all in the Edward Payson Reeve Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.   These units refused to march in the dedication parade for George E. Pickett’s monument in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery because a delegation from the Philadelphia Brigade would be marching in the procession under the U.S. flag.

[30] Thomas H. Parker, History of the 51st Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers and Veteran Volunteers, (Philadelphia: King and Baird, 1869), 694-95.

[31] In W.E.B. DuBois, “The War To Preserve Slavery,” National Guardian, February 15, 1960, described this as a positive expression of the Civil War legacy for African-Americans and something that likely would never happen again.

[32] See Carol Reardon, “The Forlorn Hope: Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys’ Pennsylvania Division at Fredericksburg,” in Gary W. Gallagher, ed., The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 104-105.

[33] See Robert K. Krick, “The Southern Volley that Doomed the Confederacy,” in Gary W. Gallagher, ed., Chancellorsville: The Battle and Its Aftermath (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 126-27.

[34] Shiloh Report, U. S. Army War College Class of 1905, Army War College Curricular Files, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA.

[35] See the entire contents of Five Points in the Recod of Northe Caolina in the Great War of 1861-5. (Goldsboro, NC: Nash Brothers, 1904).

[36] The endnotes to George R. Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Confederate Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959) clearly shows this trend. For a more recent work that does the same thing, see Rod Gragg, The 26th North Carolina at Gettysburg (New York: Random House, 2000).

[37] David Thelen, “Memory and American History,” 1120.

[38] Wilmer M. Mumma, Antietam, The Aftermath (privately published, 1993), 30.

[39] John M. Coski, “The Confederate Battleflag in Historical Perspective,” in J. Michael Martinez, William D. Richardson, and Ron McNinch-Su, eds., Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000), 109-111.

[40] W.E.B. DuBois, “The War to Preserve Slavery,” National Guardian, February 15, 1960.

[41] Quoted in “Civil War Sites Addressing Contentious Slavery Issue,” Pittsburgh Post-

Gazette, September 8, 2000.

[42] “Civil War Rages On At Round Table,” USA Today, July 30, 1993.

[43] Kate Masur, “Changes in the Offing for Civil War Sites,” Perspectives 38 (March 2000), 3.

[44] “Civil War Sites Addressing Contentious Slavery Issue,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 8, 2000.

[45] William G. Thomas, “’Fax Me Everything You Have on the Civil War!’: A Look at Web Audiences in the Valley of the Shadow Project” Perspectives 37 (February 1999): 35-37.

[46] “United States History Standards for Grades 5-12, Era 5, Civil War and Reconstruction,” taken from National History Standards website http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards/era 5-5-12.html.

[47] “History Course Stirs up Controversy,” Perspectives 37 (January 1999): 4.

[48] Douglas L. Wilson, “Remarks on Being Awarded the Lincoln Prize,” Perspectives 37 (November 1999): 33-35

[49] “What’s the Matter with History?” in James M. McPherson, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (New York: Oxford, 1996), 231.

[50] Quoted in Kamman, Mystic Chords of Memory, p. 30-31.

[51] The fullest examination of the Burns phenomenon can be found in Robert Brent Toplin, ed., Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond (New York: Oxford, 1999). The quotation can be found on p. 160.

[52] “TV Documentarian’s Advice to Disney: Scrap Your Theme Park,” Potomac News, May 24, 1994.

[53] The author was part of the committee and attended all ceremonies described herein.

[54] “Some Lessons in History Worth Taking,” Washington Post, April 2, 2000; “Va.Group Appeals for Confederate Observance,” Washington Post, August 26, 2000.

[55] “Heritage Groups March on South Carolina Capitol,” FoxNews.com, January 8, 2000.

[56] “Quiet Protest over Georgia Flag,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 28, 2000.

[57] “Barbecue Sauce Taken Off Shelves in South After Confederate Flag Showdown.” [State College, PA} Centre Daily Times, September 13, 2000; “Sauce Man Barbecued for Racial Views.” Pittsburgh, Post-Gazette, October 1, 2000.

[58] Martinez, Richarson, McNinch-Su, Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South, pp. xiii-xv.

[59] “Capture the Flag,” The Roanoke Times, July 2000.

[60] Ibid