Collective Memories of the Civil War

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The Civil War collective memory was created by the generation who lived through the war and was passed on from generation to generation. Collective memory is more about emotional and political growth rather than accuracy with regards to historical events. Four dominant collective memories were supported after the end of the civil war: The ‘Lost Cause’, the ‘Union’, the ‘Emancipation’, and the ‘Reconciliation memories. The ‘Lost Cause’ memory “justified secession on constitutional grounds…and insisted that defeat in the face of impossible odds entailed no loss of honor” (Gallagher, A Contested Historical Landscape, 17). The ‘Lost Cause’ writers lionized confederate soldiers, including General R.E. Lee as “stalwart heroes engaged in a valiant but hopeless struggle” (22) hoping to provide future generations with a “correct narrative of the war” (17). The ‘Union’ collective memory sought to leave “Americans infused with a sense of national exceptionalism” (25).  This collective memory articulated that the sole reason for the war was reunion and that it was the greatest outcome of the war (26). The ‘Emancipation’ memory focused on the importance of ending slavery and how “the emancipation of more than four million slaves to be the conflict’s most important outcome” (29). The ‘Emancipation’ memory saw the liberation of the four million slaves as “an outcome that…preceded final restoration of the union” and that also provided for “a higher civilization” (30-31). The ‘Reconciliation’ memory sought to mute the divisive subjects of slavery and “avoided value judgments about the righteousness of either cause, and celebrated the valor and pluck of white soldiers in both Union and Confederate amries” (33). Writers of this memory often pointed towards the peaceful interactions between General Grant and General Lee at the surrender at Appomattox, “as the beginning of a healing process that reminded all Americans of their shared history and traditions” (33).

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If I Taught a Similar Class on the American Civil War…

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Over the course of this semester, I have found that a few things conflicted with things I have learned previously. Some themes of ‘The Lost Cause’ memory were present in my middle school and possibly some of my high school education without realizing it until taking Dr. Meier’s American Civil War course. When learning about the civil war at a young age you learn that it was in fact fought over slavery and the union fought to end slavery. However, over the course of middle school and high school I do remember mentioning of the protection of states’ rights being the reason for secession and the resulting civil war. For both these cases I know all too well to be untrue.

While the war evolved with a military goal of emancipation to attack the South’s economic constructs, it was not fought to end slavery, it was fought to put down the rebelling states. And while it was not fought for or to end slavery the southern states seceded because of slavery, and southern states felt its domestic institution of slavery was being encroached upon. While I do not plan to teach about the American Civil War, if I had to there are certain themes even in a middle school or high school atmosphere, I would put certain emphasis on. First and foremost being the myths of ‘The Lost Cause’ memory with regards to the south being doomed to lose, the war being a war to end slavery, and what states’ rights role truly was in secession.