- Americans Remember Their Civil War by Barbara A. Gannon
In 2011, Barbara A. Gannon's The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic became the definitive book on the history of the GAR. Now an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, Gannon has produced the first book-length historiography of Civil War memory. Although Americans Remember Their Civil War is a quick read and can easily be completed in an evening, scholars will return to it again and again as a key reference for historical memory studies.
This book will be particularly useful for teaching and as a study guide for graduate students preparing for comprehensive exams. Gannon summarizes the major points of countless important Civil War books, while also making an original contribution by detailing how the field of Civil War memory has evolved. Given the vast number of books on the topic, a historiography of Civil War memory was sorely needed to help synthesize what we know about how Americans remember the conflict. Gannon seems to have read nearly every book and article on Civil War memory written before the book's 2017 publication date—an impressive feat. She discusses each work succinctly and clearly summarizes the arguments of book after book. Anyone considering completing a study of Civil War memory should consider reading Gannon's book early in their research to help orient them to the state of the field. It also includes an excellent introduction to the concepts of collective and historical memory.
The book traces the historical memory of the Civil War from 1865 all the way to the present. In examining how Americans recall the war, Gannon tracks two competing memories—the Lost Cause and what she calls "the Union Cause." The first two chapters explain how historians have understood the various narratives and counternarratives that have evolved about the Civil War. The first surveys the Lost Cause, and the second examines pro-Union memories of the war. While the first two chapters focus on the nineteenth century, the third assesses how these various strands of memory functioned in the early twentieth century and how the narratives interacted with America's rise as a global power around the turn of the century. [End Page 334]
Chapter 4 explores how the war was recalled during the civil rights era. While Gannon's work is not a general historiography of the war—the focus is on memory—chapters 3 and 4 both touch on multiple major debates in Civil War historiography, as Gannon examines "the role of historians like [James] McPherson in constructing Civil War memory" (62). These chapters make an important point: the master narrative of the war that historians use (as opposed to how the public remembers the war) has been heavily influenced by the memories that were crafted in the late nineteenth century, such as the Lost Cause. This is perhaps one of the most important contributions of the book, as historians increasingly consider what role the profession has played in continuing, and even bolstering, a narrative that was based more on contemporary needs than historical reality.
Later chapters turn to other aspects of memory, particularly memorialization and commemoration. Chapter 5 focuses on the role of monuments, battlefield preservation, and other aspects of commemorative landscapes in remembering the war. The penultimate chapter examines how popular remembrances of the war in literature and film have evolved, and the last chapter turns to the twenty-first century. Like chapters 4 and 5, the final chapter details how the field of Civil War history more generally has evolved in the past twenty years.
Because of the nature of historiography, the book occasionally feels a bit list-like. Nevertheless, the chapters are short enough and clearly written such that readers wanting an introduction to the field will rarely feel bogged down and will instead find a compelling narrative. Gannon is able to make historiography interesting by creating two coherent narratives for readers: first, she covers how Americans have remembered the Civil War, and...