Mystic Chords of Memory: Thoughts on the Impending Civil War Sesquicentennial
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Mystic Chords of Memory:
Thoughts on the Impending Civil War Sesquicentennial

When I was a boy growing up in Rhode Island, way up there in Yankeeland, my mother took my father's watch to be fixed to a clock shop in Providence. Inside, I looked around at the watches and clocks on display. This must have been in the mid-1950s, when all watches and clocks had to be wound to keep them running. I noticed that every clock and watch was set for the same time: 7:22. So I asked my mother why all the clocks and watches were set the same. Her answer surprised me. "It was 7:22 a.m.," she said, "when Abraham Lincoln died on April 15, 1865." It turned out that most Northerners of her generation knew the importance of 7:22, and I mention this today only to emphasize, in a very personal way, how close we still are to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and the generation of Americans who experienced this nation's worst catastrophe. Many of you probably have your own connections to the Civil War—some of them of a more intimate family link to a forebear who served in the Union or Confederate armies. My point is that the Civil War, even though it is now removed from us at a distance of one hundred [End Page 63] fifty years, is still close enough in time to strike in us what Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory."

It is, in fact, those "mystic chords of memory" that I believe we must take into account during the commemoration of Kentucky's Civil War sesquicentennial. But even as we do so, my initial thoughts about the commemoration are cautionary and even a bit sober. As we well know, the Civil War enjoys a great following in this country, not only among reenactors and Civil War buffs, but among a multitude of Americans who are drawn to the tragedy and the romance of the bloody clash between the Union and the Confederacy. But the popularity of the Civil War does come at a price. Even as the American public seems drawn to the deep drama of the Civil War, they sometimes lose sight of the human dimensions of the conflict, often forgetting the disastrous reality of so much blood shed across so many fields. In their effort to understand the past, the Civil War takes on for some Americans all the characteristics of a hobby, a pleasant pastime that allows those interested in the many stories of the war to travel temporarily into the past, pay a brief visit to the early 1860s, and then return to their modern lives unhindered and unscathed. More often than not, it seems to me, it is the romance of the war that appeals to our modern sensibilities; it is this sword-and-roses view of the past that we most readily embrace and hold closest to our hearts.

The Civil War, sometimes called the last of the old-fashioned wars or the first of the modern wars, overflows with lush romance and heartrending sentiment. For one thing, the war took place during an era of excessive sentimentalism, when popular songs mourned for "The Last Rose of Summer" or bewailed the stark sacrifice of "The Vacant Chair." For another thing, few can resist the rousing and romantic escapades of the bold Confederate cavalry raider, John Hunt Morgan, or the titanic impediments that Ulysses S. Grant overcame to take Vicksburg, or the howling emotionalism of William Sherman's March to the Sea, or the tender tale of Carrie McGavock, "the widow of the South," and her creation of a Confederate [End Page 64] cemetery on her property in Franklin, Tennessee. 1 Romance and sentimentalism revolve around the Civil War like twin moons casting a pale glow over everything.

And that is precisely the trouble, for the moon glow reveals all of the romance and little of the reality of the Civil War. I am certainly not the first historian to criticize how the Civil War has been romanticized and how much that idealization pervades the public understanding of the war...