“Building blocks” of Civil War “memory”

Posted on March 18, 2008 by


In yesterday’s post I mentioned some personal connections to the Civil War. Specifically, I recounted a story that I had learned, not through family stories but through a newspaper clipping that I found in scanning through the records of the Page News & Courier (Luray, Virginia). Reflecting on this, and since I am quite interested in how different people develop their respective memories of the Civil War, I thought I would jot down some of the different things that some might consider the very basic “building blocks” of Civil War “memory.”

  • Family stories (real or imagined – how embellished can they be?)
  • Letters (are these the letters that the family, over the years, have censored or are these letters bearing the real thoughts of the writer?)
  • Diaries (as with the letters, the same applies… although does one writing entries in a diary do so truly thinking that it will remain private or is it a matter of writing to a potential future audience?)
  • Newspaper clippings (third person recollections of people, people remembering events as they really happened or people remembering events in a manner in which they are portrayed in a positive light?)
  • Military records (uggggh! I have real issues with this one)
  • Pension records (In the case of Confederates – how did the local pension boards evaluate the application of a veteran. In the case of the Union pensions, it’s an entirely different system of evaluation at the Federal level).
  • Regimental histories (written by veterans or someone over 100 years removed from the experience? Good reflection on letters and diaries? Telling the story to portray the unit in a positive light or telling ALL of the story?)
  • Civil War biographies (how does one connect an ancestor to a leader? Does association by affiliation tell a true story or a slanted story?)
  • Initial visit to a Civil War battlefield [I can’t believe that I forgot to add this one – thanks Craig.] (What do initial visits leave the visitor with? Are we left with passion for the subject or indifferent? Why? The initial battlefield visit, in my opinion, is the spark that ignites passion for further study of the war.)
  • Civil War reenactments (are visitors, especially after their first reenactment, left with a realistic understanding of, at least, some of the conditions of war? Do they do justice to newcomers to the study of ancestors or do they gloss over too much? While a starting point for many, do reenactments mislead Civil War “memory?” How many ways can the reenactment and the reenactors mislead?)
  • Television shows & films (I think Dr. Gallagher’s new book addresses this in detail)

I will add more to these (and enhance the ones that I have already listed) as time goes by.