the ongoing clash over Civil War memory


A s birthday parties go, this one has been a bit of a downer so far. The American Civil War was 150 years old last year, but it went on for four years, so there’s still plenty of time for history buffs in period costumes to re-enact blood-soaked battles; actors to give President Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s speeches, grafting new wings on to a bygone era’s soaring oratory; and writers to churn out volumes chronicling the history of the nation’s deadliest conflict. But, up to now, the reaction has remained oddly muted, suggesting that people in the United States, though apparently still obsessed with the Civil War, remain uncertain about how to remember this troubling event collectively: as triumph or tragedy, as rebirth or mass murder, or as something else again. Or maybe it’s just that Americans are notoriously suspicious of foreign languages, and just what kind of fancy word is sesquicentennial anyway? The problem of how to recall the conflict dates back to its immediate aftermath. With broken bodies still cooling in trenches outside Richmond, and ruined swathes of Georgia and South Carolina still smouldering in the wake of Sherman’s march, Confederate ideologues, having lost the war itself, embarked on a memory project designed to help them win the peace.

more from Ari Kelman at the TLS here.