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A student-led group project from HIST 246

For lack of witty title — blog post 12

An appropriate, even if it’s not comprehensive way to commemorate the Civil War, is to concentrate on “the great men” such as Robert E. Lee’s Tomb Dedication in Lexington 1883. The dedication speech was dedicated not to Lee’s crushing blows to Union armies or his defense of slavery. On the contrary he uses one of Lee’s quotes : “Mr. Blair I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union.  But how can I draw my sword against Virginia?” – to indirectly urge southerners to commemorate the Civil War as a sectionalist conflict.  While I am not personally wooed by the “Lost Cause” — it neglects to mention the role of slavery in causing the Civil War – it is perhaps the best wide scale remembrance because it omits race tensions without rearing the ugly head of race prejudice that existed during the war.  Despite the almost universal omission of race in the Lost Cause sentiment, it does not prevent modern critics from imposing their own lens on the issue. For example, the statue of Robert E Lee in Richmond, erected 1890, was seen by contemporaries in one way and yet another by modern art historians. The modern art scholar Kirk savage proclaims Lee’s statue to be ”a model of leadership for a white supremacist society trying to legitimate its own authority…it could bridge the old regime of slavery and the new regime of white rule without representing either.” In stark contrast, a contemporary at the ceremony explained the statue in a military context in which Lee was a conquering general and the object of soldiers’ adoration. This little anecdote goes to show that any  physical commemoration can be “spun” to support any group’s aims.

Better yet, I believe what Horwitz stumbled upon in his essay “Cats of the Confederacy” shows us perhaps the best local remembrance of Civil War ancestors — the practice of genealogy.  Horwitz comes upon the town of Salisbury, NC  and its obsession by its Civil War forebears even though the town was merely a rural outpost during the war. Everyone collects the war’s memorabilia.  Mike Hawkins, the poor color sergeant of the SCV, evokes the tie the town has with its past by saying “It’s been seven years, but when I find [my great-great-grandfather’s (a confederate veteran) grave I’ll feel like I’ve finally accomplished something…a connection with my past.”  By exploiting personal connection to the Civil War, modern Southerners [ 25% of whom descend from veterans] can commemorate the war through their kin’s sacrifice. HOWEVER, Horwitz points out a very negative consequence of this view of the war through personal connections. Their personal study makes the citizen’s biased. They begin to distort history by viewing it through a rose lens. Despite having previously said that most locals during the Civil War didn’t own slaves and rebelled in light of perceived government persecution, a man let racial prejudices creep into his historical argument and said “[it was the] Same as today…government letting the niggers run wild.” (35) On multiple occasions we see that the UDC and SCV selective  “Lost Cause” self-education about the war brings about mind-boggling prejudices that enter the civil war memory. For example one child dives under his table and responds “Someone told me there’s Yankees around here! They hate little children!”

For many, Horowitz says, the Civil War lives on not as a memory but as a game in intermission.  In the case of Salisbury and many other small Southern towns, the histories of the blacks and whites of the town are separated. The whites memorialize their Confederate Veterans, the blacks memorialize civil rights activists. Until they combine, there can be no way of memorializing the Confederacy without offending their black peers. Reconciliation, perhaps by a combined study of the unknown Union dead in the  “National Cemetery” seems to me to be the best way to broaden the memory of the Civil War and make it more palatable to African-American peers.


Progress Report: This week has been hectic with final papers and exams, however, I went through the list generously provided by Courtney and began putting together a “yes/no” and “why” each monument/dedication was related to the UDC, the Irish Heritage Societies, or “the African-American Community”. This weekend we need to schedule a meeting to put all of our work together and make a multi-layered map with Arc-GIS. Hopefully we can have a “prototype” by next Wednesday.

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