War Memories

by I.A. Isherwood

Yesterday, my Aftermath class began discussing soldier experiences in the Civil War. We did so by first examining the Virginia Monument dedication speeches from 1917 so that we could work our way backwards a bit, examining how veterans reinterpreted their service in the early twentieth century on a site of American bloodletting. The speeches themselves are very fascinating and my students seemed very interested examining acts of public remembrance.

The point of this exercise was to examine how official acts of remembrance often reveal a sense of consensus for those who are actively participating. This doesn’t mean that individuals do not have contested memories of events or the way that they are interpreted, but that by dedicating a monument, participants usually rhetorically agree with the act of remembering itself. In the case of the Virginia monument dedication, the speeches demonstrate a message of reconciliation and an interpretation on the American Civil War that emphasizes individual bravery and sacrifice regardless of the ideology of those who fought. The speeches are also products of the ‘Lee myth’, hagiographic revisionism that venerates the general as a martial masculine American ideal. As the monument was dedicated in 1917 and within the presence of regular U.S. Army soldiers, the message of unity, despite historic differences, is all too apparent.

We then moved backwards and examined how the war was fought. My intention was to juxtapose the experience of war as it was ongoing to the way it was remembered fifty-four years later. I also wanted to provide some basic background of Civil War combat before we begin our discussion of Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage tomorrow. Linderman can be a tricky book for this class: the book is extremely accessible and has a very tidy argument. In the last three years of teaching this class, I have found students to be very mixed on their impressions. And that’s exactly why I still assign it because it sparks conversation, so let’s hope the next week is no different. Stay tuned.