Last week I discussed the year 2015 and the potential it holds for memory of both the end of the Civil War (1865) and several key turning points in both American domestic and foreign policy histories (1965). Today I’ll shift focus to the year 1865, and in particular emphasize why it’s important the period be marked with a national focus on the potential of Union victory, Emancipation, and Confederate defeat—and how the aftermath of this era created the modern nation we know today. Before I continue, I’d like to address an important point made by one of our frequent commenters, Kahlil Chaar-Perez, in the comments for my post last week.
His point that we make sure to differentiate between official, government-sponsored commemorations and more partisan affirmations of the past was an excellent one. And, as 2014 ends and 2015 begins, it’s important to take stock of just what that means. For instance, the events in Ferguson this year have caused some historians to point out the historical continuity between those incidents and the events of the early long, hot summer of 1964. That’s certainly not the stuff big, national celebrations are made of. But it’s always important to consider how both partisan and nonpartisan organs of news and opinion remember the events of the past—without having to worry about crafting a government-sponsored narrative. And even government sponsored narratives are malleable because, after all, governments change.
With that said, remembering 1865 and the end of the American Civil War is all the more important because it was a pivotal year in American history. Any celebration of the events of 1865 (Appomattox Court House, the passage of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln’s death, etc.) should be used to do two things: mark the end of the war and the beginning of the Reconstruction era. That second part would be a bit trickier, because you’d be attempting to explain a complex time period to Americans. And it’s a time period that, I’d argue, hasn’t been remembered very well in popular culture. Just think of a common trope in Westerns: the ex-Confederate soldier who has gone to the Western United States for a new life. The most recent example of this is Hell on Wheels, but many of you know about other examples (the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone “Spaghetti Westerns” spring to mind). I include these in Reconstruction popular narratives because, well, the cowboys are trying to escape something—in this case not just the East as an idea, but the upheaval and chaos of Reconstruction in particular.
I don’t have to say much about Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind in regards to their take on Reconstruction—both films are well known for being the pillars of the Southern “Lost Cause” on the silver screen. However, the miniseries Roots could be considered part of an alternate Reconstruction narrative. Don’t forget that a significant part of the miniseries deals with the Civil War and its aftermath, and it captures something I like to refer to as “the Spirit of ‘65”—1865, that is. What I mean here is a two-headed spirit: one head for the hopefulness felt by the millions of recently freed black men and women in the south (along with quite a few Union soldiers who supported both a war for Union and Emancipation); the other head signaling an uneasiness with the sudden revolution in the South that came to a head in 1865.
The 1990 film Glory, about the 54th Massachusetts, is also an example of this Spirit of ’65, albeit two years before the war’s end. Here, the hopes and fears of African American men going off to fight for freedom is masterfully captured. It’s a shame we haven’t seen any films centering on the African American soldier’s experience during the Civil War—although Lincoln (2012) certainly does include some of their voices. Hollywood could do worse than producing more films and television shows centered around, say, an African American veteran of the Civil War trying to raise a family in 1860s and 1870s Mississippi or South Carolina, and becoming politically active while at the same time resisting White Leagues or the Ku Klux Klan.
Of course, that’s a pop culture example—other manifestations of public memory, such as museums, are crucially important as well. Now, this isn’t meant as simply a personal plug, but friends of mine here at the University of South Carolina have had to deal with this issue first hand. The recent renovation to the Woodrow Wilson Family House, for instance, has given the men and women in charge that site the opportunity to use the home as a place to teach visitors about Columbia during the Reconstruction era. It hasn’t been easy—far too many people still cling to the “Lost Cause” narrative of the South being a vulnerable, oppressed region during the period. But with scholars such as Jennifer Taylor, for example (a good friend of mine—but trust me, her work is very important and deserves your attention if you care about Reconstruction memory) working in the state on how we think about Reconstruction, it’s clear that memory of the end of the Civil War—and the start of the modern American Republic—is being molded and contested as we speak.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this question. Next week I’ll return to it, with the help of a few dear friends of mine.