Kaci Nash, M.A.

the past in progress

The High Ground: Contemplating My Childhood Understanding of the Civil War

3 Comments

When I was a kid, my absolute favorite film was Gettysburg. My interest in the Civil War developed at a very young age, and as a film lover, there were very few choices for me to get my “fix” in between viewings of The Labyrinth and The Princess Bride. I still remember seeing it for the first time in the movie theater with my extended family, and we routinely had viewings every summer as I grew up. The film played a large and memorable role in my formative years. Through the movie and the novel that gave birth to it, I was introduced to the side of the war that I would eventually study in graduate school: the human element. As an adolescent, I fixated on the emotional realities of soldiers on the battlefield, a focus that made the war terrible, but not divisive.

From my first trip to Gettysburg, 1995.

We see things simply as children, when we are not yet burdened with the knowledge that will weigh us down in our adulthood. When we can still love a movie steeped in Lost Cause mythology, oblivious to the significance of those careful omissions of history. And all causes are just, all soldiers mighty. Where it is okay to cry at the beauty and tragedy of 15,000 men marching across unharvested fields to epic, swelling music and recite every word of each beautifully-enacted monologue–“Winn was like a brother to me, remember?”– or memorable one-liner–“We should have gone to the right.”

It is a strange moment when you find yourself struggling to reconcile an important part of your past. Gettysburg is still one of my favorite films. As a movie viewer, I can appreciate its scale and the dedication of the actors. I can rub my arms to disperse the goosebumps I get during certain parts of the score, and I can retort along with Chamberlain, “Darn it, Tom, don’t call me Lawrence.” But as a historian, I cannot pretend not to notice the romanticization of  slavery (of all things), nor can I brush off my discomfort at the blatant canonization of the soldiers–officers and men alike. I cannot ignore the depiction of combat as the sanitized heroism that misled many of the soldiers into the ranks. And no matter how loudly I cough through Longstreet’s line, “We should have freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter,” it still stands there on film to mislead viewers for all of time.

In this context, I look back on that early version of myself, and I miss her. I long for her naive view of the war. For a little while. But then I take off my rose-colored glasses and remember that I should be proud of the steps that I have taken (and continue to take) to educate myself. And I realize that knowing a hard and complicated truth is infinitely better than believing in a comfortable and incomplete untruth.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day watching and listening to the live stream of the Sacred Trust Talks at Gettysburg, and while they were excellent, I noticed the absence of some voices. I suppose it is no surprise that at a national military park, military matters were prominent. But one of the interesting facets of the Gettysburg story is how well it can be used to address the many views historians use to study the war– military, social, race and gender, environmental. Perhaps this reflects where I am presently in my own readings on the war, but the loudest absence to me during yesterday’s brilliant talks were the voices of black Americans. Joseph Glatthaar briefly brought them up in relation to their servile role in the Army of Northern Virginia, but public audiences may have been completely unaware, for example, of the systematic abduction of freemen and self-liberated slaves by this same army as it moved through the North. But this is not the kind of history people want to hear.

It reflects one of the larger problems facing Civil War history in popular memory. We do not like to ponder the culpability of Americans, North and South, in the institution of slavery and the racism endemic to our society, then or now. It is an ugly side of our history, and it makes us uncomfortable. But the solution is not to hide from it, to erase it from our telling of history, but rather to accept it, to learn from it. Such has been my journey from childhood Civil War enthusiast to adult historian. It may not be an easy path, but it is a rewarding one.

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3 thoughts on “The High Ground: Contemplating My Childhood Understanding of the Civil War

  1. I think that’s what happens to so much history. When you are a child it’s all about heros and progress and movement toward the good. Then as an adult you dig deeper and you realize that it’s a much more complicated story. But maybe it’s an even better one.

    • A better one, indeed. It might be hard to swallow, but I think the nearest we can get to understanding the past, the better. Sometimes it is hard to reconcile the “reality” (or at least the lastest understanding of it) of past with our belief or memory of it. That is one of the things that makes the Civil War such a complex subject to study. It means so many things to different people, and many have a lot of emotions invested in it. Thanks for your thoughts!

      • Good points, both of you! Thanks for sharing this “forgotten” part of history. I do hope we have learned from our past; I think that we are at least starting to.

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