Confederate Veterans And The Politics Of Memory
In the next few weeks I have to put together a brief presentation for a roundtable discussion on Civil War soldiers which will take place at the AHA in January. The panel is made up of five co-authors from the recently released The View From The Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers. We have been instructed to prepare some brief comments about methodology and questions that need to be addressed for future research. My contribution to the book is a chapter from my Crater manuscript which analyzes postwar debates between Virginia veterans of the battle and their former comrades from Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolinians. ["Is Not the Glory Enough To Give Us All a Share?: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the battle of the Crater"] The debates centered on which unit could take responsibility for the victory on July 30, 1864. Here is the central argument of the essay:
Over the past few years, historians such as David Blight, Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Goldfield have led the way in explaining the process by which national reconciliation came to shape the way the nation understood its Civil War at the turn of the twentieth century. In Blight’s view the veterans on both sides of the Potomac chose to assign the deepest meaning of the war to the heroism and valor of the soldiers on the battlefield. The shared experiences of soldierhood was a theme that could bring former enemies together peacefully on old battlefields. Such an analysis tells us much about the general trend toward reconciliation. Debates between one time enemies over the meaning of the war, however, masks the extent to which former comrades in Confederate ranks continued to wrangle over specific questions related to both defeat and victory on the battlefield. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in the postwar debates among the Confederate veterans of Virginia and North Carolina over which state could claim the deepest penetration of Union lines during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The disagreement left lasting scars that continue to fuel heated debates among the members of Confederate heritage organizations from the two states.
Continued interest in the battle of the Crater easily approached the level of interest in Gettysburg if for no other reason than that the battle constituted the last significant Confederate victory in Virginia before their surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. The continuing sectional tension between Confederate veterans over who would control the public memory of battles such as Gettysburg and the Crater solved the problem of which units would shake hands with their former enemies as blue and grey reunions became more popular. More importantly, veterans utilized their memories not only as a way to maintain pride in their individual units, but with the former Confederate nation. Strong feelings of nationalism could not be set aside even as the men in the ranks returned home to rebuild and decide when or if to take the loyalty oath to the Union. Recounting their heroics on the battlefield allowed some veterans to begin to make the psychological shift that involved redefining themselves as Americans. The tendency for veterans to focus on individual regiments and larger units associated with their respective states may have reflected a need for self-identification somewhere between Confederate and American. For others, the concentration on the past simply provided a means to avoid thinking about defeat in a post-emancipation world. Regardless of the reasons, the steps taken early on in the postwar years by Virginia’s veterans to celebrate and commemorate their valor and sacrifice on battlefields such as the Crater only served to isolate their former comrades from outside the Old Dominion and to diminish their service and sacrifice for the Confederacy. (pp. 227-28)
The overall goal in this chapter is to demonstrate that Confederate soldiers utilized their memories of service for a number of different purposes throughout the postwar period. The interesting aspect of this story, which I explore in a different chapter of the manuscript, is that Virginia veterans not only competed with fellow veterans from outside of the Commonwealth but with one another during the four years of Readjuster control under William Mahone. Veterans of the Virginia brigade battled one another depending on their political affiliation (Readjuster v. Funder) and Mahone was caught in the middle. Supporters of Mahone defended their former commander from attacks which challenged his own claims to the title of "Hero of the Crater" and his most vociferous critic was none other than Brig. Gen. David Weisiger who aligned himself with the Funders. In other words, one way of challenging his politics was by attacking his war record. And the problem for Mahone was that he worked hard throughout the first decade following the war to shape his war record to benefit both his business and poltical career. Confederate veterans in Virginia were highly political and their memories were shaped by the controversy surrounding the Readjuster Movement. I will share additional thoughts as I organize the presentation.
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