Saturday, April 16, 2011

Forgetting History

Dunker Church, Battle of Antietam, 1862

150 years ago this week, General P.G.T. Beauregard of the newly formed Confederate States of America gave orders to fire on Fort Sumpter, starting the Civil War.

I don’t consider myself a Civil War ‘buff’, but I am a student of the war. What’s the difference between a buff and a student? A student knows that the 20th Maine under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain held the left flank on Little Round Top at Gettysburg.  A buff knows what weapons they carried, how many rounds they shot, what Confederate regiment they faced, and what Union regiment was on their right.

I’d add that buffs are interested mostly in the military aspects of the war. I am keenly interested in the military history of the war, particularly the major battles and commanders, but am as keenly interested in the political history.

From the debates over slavery in the Constitutional Convention through the vicious Congressional battles in the early 19th century; from the Mexican War through the Abolitionist movement; from the rise of Lincoln to the politics of Emancipation – it is the richest, most complex political story in American history. It is the story that gave birth to who we are today – the better and the darker angels of our nature - as much as the Declaration of Independence and the waves of immigration that followed the Civil War.

But I had a contrary thought this anniversary season. Maybe the remembrance of history isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

A Long Memory
Americans are often, and justly, criticized for our lack of historical knowledge. One recent survey showed that more Americans knew that Michael Jackson was the composer of “Beat It” than knew that the Bill of Rights was a set of amendments to the Constitution. More than half the respondents to that same survey thought the War of 1812 or the Civil War occurred before the American Revolution.

* when I was in college, I read one of these articles about how ignorant American high school students are about their country. I refused to believe the results and began ambushing my sister’s friends, quizzing them. In one instance, I asked “Who is Walt Whitman?” One of her friends got all excited, saying “I know this one! I know this one! He built shopping malls!” (This is funnier if you know we lived near the Walt Whitman Mall.)

Naturally, our collective national ignorance bothers me. But then I remember who is really good at remembering.

The Irish, for example, have long memories. More Irish, I'm sure, could tell you who* won the Battle of Kinsale in 1602, than Americans could tell you who won Gettysburg.

* The bloody English, that’s who!

They have long memories in the Balkans as well. The Battle of Kosovo, fought in 1389, remains on the minds of many in the Balkans. In fact, Slobodan Milosevic, future war criminal, cited it in an important speech in his rise to power.

And then there is the Middle East. Ask an Arab who the Muslim hero of the Crusades is, and he could probably give you a brief lecture on the life of Saladin. Ask an American who the Christian hero of the Crusades is, and his best guess might be Robin Hood.

And finally, there are the descendants of the Confederacy. The Confederate States of America existed as a country for all of four years. It spent the entirety of those four years fighting a war it lost, a war fought for an ignoble cause, a war that devastated their lands, their economy, and their way of life. The decision of the Southern states to secede from the Union and fight a war that caused the deaths of 600,000 of their countrymen was, by any measure, a catastrophe.

And yet, 150 years later, Confederate flags fly. Confederate leaders are revered – Lee especially, but also Stuart and Stonewall and Forrest. Taken to its comic extreme, you'll occasionally see bumper stickers in the South that say "Hell No - We Ain't Forgettin'!"

And I mutter to myself, maybe you should. Maybe some historical amnesia wouldn’t be the worst thing. In the South, in the Balkans, in Ireland, and especially in the Middle East – it might be time to let the past go and think about the future.

Recommendations: If you don't plan on flying Confederate flags, but want to read one book about the Civil War, that book is James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. On the internet you could do worse than spend some time at Disunion, the Civil War blog at the New York Times. Hat tip to Bamstutz.

Photo credit: The extraordinary photographs from the Battle of Antietam are usually credited to Matthew Brady, the famous Civil War photographer. They were in fact taken by Alexander Gardner, who was in Brady's employ. These photos were shocking to many Americans who were removed from the horror of war, and remain a landmark in the history of photography

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice piece on the difference between a buff & a student. I agree that forgetting might be a good thing in some ways, but our history is who we are in a sense isn't it? And yes the south tends to remember better than most northeners yet they seem to make up most of our servicemembers and are more outwardly patriotic than most other sections of our country.