While on site at the Manassas 150th Commemoration yesterday, I was interviewed by a news crew. The reporter asked what I thought of the sesquicentennial and what we (as in the country I guessed) hope to see as a result. I won’t mention the network the crew worked for yet. I suspect they were looking for a lot of “history and heritage… and heritage… and heritage” lines. My response was to a different line of thought.
My opinion is that this Civil War sesquicentennial is more about identity than heritage. But certainly history is the object being acted upon. Perhaps, and I would certainly entertain this point, the 100th observances were wrapped in a lot of “heritage” to the sacrifice of some “history.” But we aught to leave that in the box in which it fits – the context of the 1960s. Comparing the 1961 Manassas event to 2011 might entertain, but I’m always skeptical about anyone who attempts to derive conclusions against the incomplete data set of current events. Historical revisionism’s roots are planted upon the mistakes made by those interpreting their contemporary events. So before we start saying “we’ve come a long way” or “we are continuing the work” then we need to look at more than event attendance or op-ed pieces.
That in mind, I’m just not keen to establishing a lineage of intent for fifty years of Civil War memory. Remember when Bruce Catton and Douglas Southhall Freeman were the “last word” on so many of Civil War topics? Every generation has put its own “spin” on how we view the Civil War. Our generation will also. But none will stand long as the prevailing interpretation under the barrage of scrutiny and reassessment by succeeding generations. Someday “Battle Cry of Freedom” will likewise become the “previous last word”. We are full of ourselves if we think our interpretations will somehow retain ascendency in this cycle.
We inherit the cultural memory of historical events. But identity is something we forge upon that inheritance. And “forge” is the right verb, I think. Each generation acts upon the extant memory, in the molten form, to define its own, and thereby the nation’s, identity. So, in respect to the Civil War, what is the mold in which the current generation will pour our memory to form an identity?
Well that, I submit, is what this 150th stuff is all about.
The audience for the 150th, as with our country, is increasingly diverse. This brings new facets from different personal foundations. As realized by better writers than I, many segments of our society lack the direct personal attachment, by way of family lineage, to the war. Such removes one commonly used vector to personalize the larger “memory” of the war. To my coworker born in India, the surface discussion of the war offers only cold historical facts – lacking in the warm cloak handed down by an ancestor.
But at the same time is the audience properly served by what we might lightly consider “affirmative action” within interpretation? I’ve seen many historical markers that strive to introduce multi-cultural aspects of the Civil War, but end up appearing more like a bad welding onto the base forging. These might raise attention to the less well known components of the war, but often fail to weave them into the larger context.
The same might be said for the “traditional” interpretations. What good does the visitor derive from knowing at a particular spot a unit from North Carolina stood and fought against a unit from New York? Even ancestors of the participants are so much removed from the event as to render the meaning diluted.
Or who cares if some cannon was cast in Richmond? (To throw a rock at my own glass house.) Well actually here’s where I’d like to see us shape the identity.
As I stood on Henry Hill yesterday, I pointed out to a fellow visitor that likely none of the guns on the battlefield today were involved with the 1861 battle. But two of the cannons, ironically sitting side by side today, were quite possibly aimed at each other over some battlefield during the war – but out in the west. Each was cast early in the war for specific Federal and Confederate orders – in St. Louis and New Orleans, respectively. Each cannon arrived at a time when the field armies were desperate for anything to shoot. And evidenced by the bores, the gunners extensively used both cannons.
How those guns ended up on a prominence in northern Virginia is a story. Perhaps interesting to some, but boring trivia to others. But that story is a vector to help personalize the memory of the war. The physical object is an artifact by which to explain the larger context of the war. There are technical and operational aspects to be sure. Those guns were made by laborers, perhaps free and slave. Gun crews hauled the cannons over hills and across great rivers. The same gun crews launched projectiles from the cannons that released death and destruction on the receiving end. Men on the receiving end attempted to gain control of the guns, by force of arms.
And I stress “men.” Not so much in regard to gender. Rather that human beings handled those artifacts. The story is about people associated with the artifact – be it a cannon or blood stained letter. Those “people,” regardless of lineage or culture or race, were not substantially different than any of us standing on the ground today…. save one thing – the ideas carried in the mind. How we assess the “rightness” or the “wrongness” of those ideas is a key component to our collective identity.
We’ll see if my “moment” in front of the camera is part of the final product or just set aside. I suspect the crew was looking for something along other lines, and thus I disappointed them. My response to the question the reporter posed was not as lengthy as presented here. What I said then, and will conclude with now, is that I hope to see two main achievements from the sesquicentennial: preservation and definition. Preservation, I say, is more so about retaining the artifacts needed to tell, and then personalize the story. Definition is about shaping our ideas about the meaning of the war, as a presentation to those who will ask later what “our generation” thought.
I hope that for the 200th Manassas visitors will gather on Henry Hill, a preserved battlefield, with both the opportunity and the desire to produce their own definition about the meaning of the war – and thus help forge their own identity.