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One nation, many stories

August 7, 2011 12:15 am


The author, John Hennessey, talks to a group of battlefield preservationists about a proposed development near an area Civil War site. vp0805battlefieldmain.jpg.jpg

A couple walk along a path at the Chancellorsville Battlefield, so peaceful now, so full of blood and death nearly 150 years ago.

NO HISTORIC event has a more complicated place in American culture than the Civil War. We don't even agree on its name: One person's "War of Northern Aggression" is another's "War for the Union."

Today, at the leading edge of its 150th anniversary, the Civil War continues to provoke uproar and debate. A "secession ball" in Charleston, S.C., triggered howls of protest. In Montgomery, Ala., thousands pointedly stayed away from the commemoration of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy. The Confederate battle flag has, in many eyes, been transformed from symbol of honor to one of oppression--banner of the KKK, emblem of resistance against civil rights, or, at least, symbol of modern rebelliousness.

Not so long ago, the war seemed a far simpler thing. The nation celebrated the opening of new battlefield parks, dedicating them, as one speaker in Fredericksburg declared, "to a more perfect understanding between the South and the North, and to an abundant increase in brotherly love." America reveled in the final reunions of Union and Confederate soldiers, cheering their legacy of courage and sacrifice in the name of home and principle (regardless of what those principles might have been). Fifty years ago, the nation entered the centennial of the Civil War bent on "celebration." (It didn't quite come off as planned.)

For more than a century after the conflict, the nation saw the Civil War through a singular lens with an unspoken purpose: reconciliation. The focus was squarely on those things Americans could agree upon, most of them embodied in the shared qualities of fighting men North and South: courage, sacrifice, fortitude. It is for this reason that battlefields and battles have been the dominant means through which Americans viewed their war. Set aside was discussion about the divisive issues that defined the war--difficult issues like slavery, the ordeal of Southern civilians, or the tragic fate of prisoners of war.

The quest for sectional reconciliation largely succeeded. That there are statues to Confederate heroes in the U.S. Capitol today is, when weighed against the fate of rebels and rebellions in other nations, astonishing.


Something else has shaped how Americans view the Civil War: their intensely personal relationship with it. Visitors to Civil War sites are often highly invested and possessed of information that reflects generations of conventional wisdom or family tradition. Spend time at a Civil War site, and before long a visitor will appear to assert his or her understanding of the war: "My great-great-grandfather didn't own slaves--he sure as hell didn't fight to preserve slavery. He fought to defend his home, the way of life of his community and state. You are wrong to tell people the war was about slavery."

This sort of soliloquy highlights one of the salient facts about the Civil War's place in American culture: In no other era of American history have we as a nation permitted the personal motivations of participants, often imperfectly remembered or revised over time, to define in the public's mind the cause and national purpose of war. This is one reason why there is often a vast difference between the ongoing scholarship about the war--which consistently pegs slavery as a central cause and "cornerstone" (as Vice President Alexander Stephens said in 1861) of the Confederacy--and popular perception, more often shaped by our interpretations of personal narratives.

This highly personal investment in the men and events of the Civil War sometimes renders scholarship that sheds light on the causes of war not as academic exercise, but as an affront. To say the Confederacy went to war to sustain the institution of slavery often challenges a descendant's understanding of the motivations of his ancestors. The response is sometimes the dismissal of solidly documented history as "politically correct" or "revisionist."

Into this tangled mesh of history and selective memory trots the sesquicentennial--into a very different world than that of 50 years ago. While many wish we could return to the days of the simple, personal, singular history (which engaged in as much forgetting as remembering), the changed nature of our country renders that impossible. It can be no surprise that our national narrative has expanded to include the role of women, common people, and the complicated part played by slaves and slavery in the evolution of America. We are in constant progression of second looks at our past.

This has caused mayhem as it relates to the Civil War's place in American culture. We see it in the form of debate over flags, the Lost Cause, and the legacy of Lincoln. Perhaps most importantly we see it in the ongoing separation from, and even rejection of, the Civil War's relevancy by huge blocks of the American public, especially African- Americans (one of whom recently asserted that, to him, the public interest in the war is nothing more than a vehicle for celebrating a "white-supremacist Confederacy." It's hard to miss the irony--even tragedy--of this disconnect, for the Civil War meant freedom for 4 million enslaved Americans and constitutes a major milestone in the progress of freedom across the globe.


Many have tired of the tumult, and so some Americans will pay the 150th anniversary of the Civil War little mind. But I offer that differing perceptions and narratives of the conflict--the product of a changing nation struggling with a historic tragedy of (we would like to think) un-American proportions--render this anniversary of the Civil War as an opportunity.

Even after the intense sectional reconciliation that characterized the century after the war, our nation still has some reconciling to do--now with history itself. Our challenge is not to see the war as just the sum of very personal stories--though those stories are important--but to see it as part of the evolution of America's national purposes of unity, freedom, and equality. Parts of that story are difficult, to be sure: America's longstanding commitment to oppression in a society dominated by a white majority, the war's unexcelled brutality, and the suffering it caused among soldiers and civilians. But the Civil War matters still precisely because its tendrils touched and shaped virtually every aspect of the America we know today.

So we enter the sesquicentennial with a different purpose and perspective than we had 50 years ago--less celebratory, more reflective, broader in reach, committed to history not just because it inspires, but because it matters. Understanding the Civil War is central to our nation's imperfect quest for a more perfect Union.

There is no greater laboratory for understanding the Civil War in all its forms than the Fredericksburg region. The experience of this community--a typically tense mix of people free and enslaved joined four times by tens of thousands of warring soldiers--is a vivid lens on a story critical to the health of the nation. A committee of residents has been working on the observance for nearly two years, establishing a vision that tells the whole story, using methods that we hope will make this epoch of our history accessible and engaging for everyone.

The focus will be on the major milestones--the battle anniversaries and the 2012 anniversary of "The Crossing," the exodus of 10,000 slaves to freedom. In between, we will intersperse what we hope are important and interesting events that will engage people from across the spectrum in a four-year conversation about the legacy of the Civil War here.


John Hennessy is chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and former chairman of the Fredericksburg-Stafford-Spotsylvania Sesquicentennial Committee.

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