- Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation, and: These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory
Ten years ago, there were only a handful of studies exploring the shifting memory of the Civil War or the politics of commemoration. Although this is no longer the case, recent publications by Thomas A. Desjardin and John R. Neff add insightful new perspectives to what is now a burgeoning literature on Civil War memorialization. In addition to their similar titles, these two authors share a number of identical concerns: for instance, with the way historical contexts shape commemorative practices, or with the implications of such practices for historical interpretation. Yet they are far apart in tone and content. Neff's meticulously researched and elegantly written book focuses on how the bitterness engendered by mass slaughter indelibly shaped the politics of commemoration. Desjardin's tone is lighter but no less compelling. Mixing personal anecdotes with original analysis, he sets out to debunk some of America's most revered myths about the battle of Gettysburg.
One of the dominant themes in the recent literature on Civil War memory concerns the way white sectional reconciliation took place at the expense of black citizenship rights. Most scholars have tended to portray reunification as a relatively straightforward process, a matter of white veterans on both sides acknowledging an equal heroism and thereby displacing the contentious issues that spawned the war. Neff's argument is different. Concentrating on the dead, he highlights the way some memories were simply incompatible. To remember and honor the dead was to bring to mind "their cause and the reasons for their deaths," Neff writes. Any attempt at reconciliation thus necessarily ran "counter to the undeniable fact that many young men lay in graves because of the actions of the enemy, and no reunion, encampment, or political oration could deny that essential reality" (p. 6). The abiding sectional hostilities that are underestimated in most accounts of postwar culture thus lie at the heart of Neff's study.
After analyzing how partisan feelings were reflected in and fuelled by the primacy that each side accorded to caring for its own dead, Neff traces the way commemorations of the dead shaped postwar mythmaking. The white South was not alone in developing a version of the war to suit its own ends. In an astute chapter dealing with the way Abraham Lincoln's death came to symbolize the cumulative Union losses of the war, Neff reveals that this event was a catalyst for the development of a Northern nationalist myth ("the Cause Victorious"), which asserted the presence of an undivided body politic that did not yet exist and promised national rejuvenation and an expansion of global influence. Despite its seeming inclusiveness, this myth [End Page 516] spoke only to those who had remained loyal to the nation. Northerners might have created a vast network of new "national" cemeteries, but as Neff contends this was a process that systematically excluded former enemies. Scholars have long been interested in the assertion of a distinctive white Southern identity embodied in the myth of the Lost Cause, he notes, but they have missed this powerful Northern mythology because, as victors, the North had the authority to transform their myth into reality.
After finishing Neff's thoughtful and fascinating work, I was hardly expecting to stay up half the night reading a book on a similar theme. But Desjardin's examination of the copious myths spawned by the epic battle of Gettysburg is captivating. Alternatively depressing and hilarious, this is a book that should be read by every student of military history, anyone who has ever been or ever intends to go to a battlefield park. Having worked...