by edited by Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 286.
Illus., notes, index. $19.95. ISBN:0-8078-5572-3
In the last several years many historians have emphasized how the cultural memory of the Civil War differs from the history of that conflict. Books that explore this area include Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory, Nina Silber’s The Romance of Reunion, David Blight’s Race and Reunion, and Susan-Mary Grant and Peter Parish’s edited volume, Legacy of Disunion. The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture is part of this trend. The volume contains eleven essays (four of which, previously published, revised for this volume), that look at how the meanings of the Civil War have changed over time, with each new generation using its own interpretation to support its own social and political agenda (such as proponents of the Lost Cause myth, and participants in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s).
The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture evolved from a 2003 conference held at the Huntington Library, which itself developed from a session at the 1999 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians entitled “What Do Military and Cultural Historians of the Civil War Have to Say to Each Other?” I believe that if you asked many NYMAS members this question, they would answer “not a great deal.” Even this book only has two authors, James McPherson and Gary Gallagher, who have dealt extensively with the military dimensions of the Civil War. Due to the book’s concentration on the war’s place in American culture, both past and present, those whose interest focuses solely on the military aspects of the conflict may not find much to interest them here (with the exception of the first two essays, which show how generals of both North and South argued their cases for the rightness of their respective causes).
The essays in this book look at how the memory of the Civil War has been employed in various aspects of American life – monuments, parades, political campaigns, publishing, generals’ memoirs. The essays tend to use time to examine geographies of memory, as opposed to the usual strict sectional North/South analysis. Stuart McConnell’s epilogue addresses this idea extremely well. He shows how memories compete for cultural space within power structures which existed at various times in American history.
Several of the essays, especially David Blight’s, address how both Northern indifference and a desire for national reconciliation allowed the South’s view of the Civil War to prevail, and caused the emancipatory potential of the conflict for African-Americans to not be fulfilled for another century. Reconciliation was dependent on memory as depicted in literature and art as much as on politics. Alice Fahs’ exploration of how children’s literature changed over time, so that by the 1890s it helped perpetuate Jim Crow ideology, is particularly fascinating.
Readers who are interested in the continuing importance, and ever-changing perception, of the Civil War in American society will find this book a great addition to the growing literature in this area.