Commemorating July 1

by I.A. Isherwood

July 1 causes me a degree of pause. It commemorates two events that weigh on the mind of a First World War historian teaching at Gettysburg College. Both Gettysburg and the Somme are iconic battles that represent something of the way in which people interpret both the American Civil War and the First World War. Though their differences are more apparent than their similarities, both battles have survived in the memories of Americans and Britons as being essential historical moments for the formation of national perceptions of the wars they represent.

What do I mean by this? A simple but important historical concept is that often people (or groups of people) interpret the past in ways that fit their way of looking at things in the present. The recent debate over the Confederate Flag’s place in American life is a case in point. If this debate has demonstrated anything, it is that just about everyone who cares about history has an opinion, but that these opinions are shaped by contemporary politics. The battle flag is a part of an ongoing national cultural/political debate about something much bigger.

Commemorating tragic events is a way to pause – to remember – and to mull over the significance of violence in our past, indeed, even in our present. Relating to both Gettysburg and the Somme, battle commemorations should make us ask hard questions about wars in the present, not just in the past.

Take Gettysburg, for instance. The facts of the battle are straightforward: two armies, three days (July 1-3, 1863), around 50,000 casualties, and a hard-fought victory for the Army of the Potomac. It is in the measuring of the legacy of the battle that things get a bit murky. And in the murkiness we see something of the way that people appropriate historical events to fit their politics.

This week we will see visitors to Gettysburg who are coming to honor their ancestors, Union and Confederate, and who view their sacrifice, indeed even their cause, as being equally virtuous. We will see those who interpret the battle as some kind of national bloodletting, a tragic necessity in our national development, what I will call crudely the ‘growing pains’ interpretation of the Civil War.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A few years ago I was with someone on Little Round Top and they looked out in awe upon the fields below and simply said, ‘all these people, dying for freedom.’ This tidy sentence, a nationalist bedtime story in miniature, came from this person’s need to believe in the purposefulness of the battle, in the rightness of the soldiers who fought on both sides as Americans, in some sort of ‘patriotism trumps all’ way of seeing those who fight and die for causes.

In a similar way, the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) is one that is extremely important to the way the First World War is remembered in Britain. The way many in Britain interpret the First World War itself comes down to a metaphor of man against machine gun, of wasted youth, which was forged out of the tragedy of the Somme. Where abstract notions of ‘freedom’ are bandied about in Gettysburg, ‘futility’ is the buzzword in Britain for the First World War. This is despite decades worth of scholarship that has attempted to correct the record on this battle, indeed, of the war itself. Next year, we’ll see whether the narrative changes in light of the centenary of the battle, whether all of this excellent historical scholarship will muddy the waters a bit, but I have suspicions that many will believe what they want to believe regardless.

Historians, of course, have a public duty to discuss these issues. But we also face an uphill battle. Anniversaries help because they give academics a chance to weigh in and have an audience that otherwise we wouldn’t have. But in some ways anniversaries don’t help our cause. The past is often reduced to its most mawkish aspects for commemorative purposes, what many call myths, not fallacies but stories that help us understand in the present what the past was all about. Mythology isn’t a bad thing – as Stephen Cushman said at the CWI this year we should ‘hug the myths’ – to embrace them so that we can understand how history itself is created from the shards of broken stories that can never fully be glued back together again.