At what point did I change in my focus?

Posted on April 18, 2012 by

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A quick thought…

Recently, I was had a chance to participate in a Civil War-focused luminary project in a cemetery within my home county. For a number of reasons, I declined… partly because of the time required to prepare for it. Not only that, but I think my interests in walking folks through the cemetery is not necessarily the same as the organizing group’s plan.

Their focus would be Civil War soldier-centric. Mine would be “everyone from the Civil War era-centric”… at least everyone who has a story that I can relate to others.

This leaves me asking myself… at what point did I change in my focus? I used to be a soldier/battles/units-centric Civil War historian. In fact, I spent an immense amount of time on that, writing unit histories, compiling rosters, following the route of troops, etc., etc., etc.

Sure, it’s still an interest, but it’s not the only interest when it comes to the war. In fact, that has shifted to my secondary focus… or perhaps it has come to a comfortable blend, with the civilian side of things.

At some point I finally saw the value in looking into the lives of the civilians, and really… there are some great stories connected to many a civilian in the war… especially civilians in the South, because the war was at their backdoor. Of course, that doesn’t mean just talking about the “Yankees who stole grandma’s quilts off the clothes line.” Sure, I can tell those stories as well (in fact, that IS a story from my own family), but I think the greater value is showing the war from all perspectives, and, in this particular cemetery, I have stories from all angles; from the soldiers (Confederate and Union) there (it’s a postwar cemetery, so there are no wartime dead), to the grown-ups who were children during the war… to the two secession delegates buried there, to the Southern Unionists… to the civilians working in wartime industries, to the leave-aloners… to… well, you get the point.  They are all represented there, in that cemetery.

So, if I had to guess, and looking at my personal studies timeline, I’d have to say that things changed when I became more and more aware of Southern Unionists. Sure, I knew about them before, but I wasn’t fully aware of the extent of Southern Unionism in my home county until… around 2005. Learning about them opened the floodgates, so to speak… and that history, which I brought back to the surface again, was the central theme of my masters thesis for my M.A. in History. Yet, at the same time, I became more aware of… perhaps more sensitive to… the stories of all the local civilians in that war… even the civilians who were sympathetic to the Confederacy.

In my opinion, bringing myself to such a full-bodied awareness was a good thing. I think being aware of all of them, one can appreciate the complex dynamics of a local people at war. It is no longer a story about a Southern community going full steam behind the Confederate cause, and every eligible male grabbing a weapon and a Confederate flag (or about every woman who knew how to sew, making socks, uniforms and flags for Confederate soldiers, and cursing every Union soldier they saw) . So, if I were to only talk about the soldiers in that cemetery… approximately 100 Confederate, and 3 Union (and, I might add… no, not all of those Confederates were willing participants)… I’d only be telling part of the story of a people… my people… at war.

Let me add to that… courage and bravery doesn’t begin and end in people in uniforms, and on the battlefield, especially when war is at one’s own backdoor. Nor, among Southerners, does it begin and end with Confederate sympathizers… no, not at all. In short, I don’t think I can limit myself to such a narrow focus if I were to walk through that cemetery with a tour group. I feel it would be my responsibility to tell the story of those people at war… from all angles. Not doing so would be a disservice to those in the tour group, and most certainly to those buried in the cemetery. Additionally, there are stories to tell about those same people, as they lived after the war… after all, in the larger picture of their lives, the war only made up four years.

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