In search of objectivity in presentation of Civil War history

Posted on November 2, 2008 by


What is objectivity and can it exist in historical analysis? As we grow and learn, what is it within our individual world that impacts our ability to objectively analyze different aspects of the American Civil War? To answer this, it may be that we first need to ask… how is “Civil War memory” formed?

Can birth alone, whether it be in the North or South, impact “memory?” If we develop an interest in the war in the absence of external influence, we might “go back to the land of our birth” and develop “imagined memory” based on that connection with land.

Yet, for some, growing up on family land can also mean tighter familial bonds. In this case, “memory of the Civil War” is/can be passed along, at the hands of others. It can be taught to us by our parents, grandparents or other family members. This “ancestor-based memory” might take hold, but there is no guarantee. Whether it does or not, are the family stories true and has embellishment tainted facts? Should we care? Whatever the case, this “memory” is learned.

How do we realize the level of delivery? This level of learning, is it intense and transparent or does it occur subconsciously? Take, for example, the way that a person, in almost knee-jerk fashion, calls a Northerner a “Yankee.” Success! We have been influenced in our upbringing! Yet, the level of “memory” can vary. Do we jokingly call a Northerner a “Yankee” or do we, with “learned animosity,” direct the remark in anger? Do we/should we care about the level of delivery?

What about those with ancestral ties who have minimal or no “external” influence? As I mentioned before, maybe we learn about the ancestral ties, start reading, gather military records of that ancestor and formulate our own “Civil War memory.” We fill in the gaps where gaps exist and formulate a series of “absolutes” in our understanding. We need these “absolutes” or else we stand on rather shaky ground in our beliefs. Adding to that, if because of this system of absolutes, we group with others with whom we identify through our interests, we can develop animosities for the “other side” and even an anger. Again, “memory” is learned, as is the anger/animosity that might accompany it.

What about those with no ancestral ties to a Civil War ancestor? This can develop in several different ways. Do we develop a passion for one side or another by reading about history or do we develop a passion for making connections through other interests? Do these elements lead to the development of strong connections with one side or another? How is the information in books delivered. Can even traditional history be construed as delivering history with a particular slant? Once the connection(s) is/are made, how does our “memory” of the Civil War grow? No matter what, this is a result of learning. We developed our “memory” based on information presented to us in some medium.

What about memory learned in our youth, through schools? Certainly, there are those who develop memory beginning in the classroom. Does it take hold in elementary school or high school? Is not the teacher the method of delivery? Then too, there are those who develop memory from a visit to an historical site or battlefield. The visit leads to reading, or asking questions. Queries tap into other “imagined memory” or information provided in books.

So, “imagined memory” of the Civil War is really the result of two things. It is conveyed to us through others, and it is learned through efforts of our own. The influence of others is external and the reading is internal (although this too can be influenced by others). The reading, by the way, is not exactly natural or “organic” since the ability to read and comprehend what is read is something that is taught.

These memories are all learned, but are “imagined memories” objective? Can they be objective? Do we need to refine “imagined memory” in order to understand the complexities of historical events? Do we need to look at history critically? What does this mean for “imagined memory” that was learned as a result of familial ties?

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