How can Civil War sites offer a usable past during a time of war?

Keynote address at “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th” conference
March 14, 2013
Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA



I was a Civil War virgin the first time I came to Gettysburg. It was 1990 and I was a Canadian who had moved to the U.S. not many years earlier. I came to the College for an event that had nothing to do with the Civil War. I knew next to nothing about the war except that the North won and that at bottom, it had been about slavery. And I knew nothing at all about Gettysburg except that Lincoln had said some famous words here four score and seven years after the founding of the country.

But it was Remembrance Day weekend, and the town was filled with men in blue and gray uniforms and women in hoop skirts. I was, first of all, bowled over by the sheer magnitude of the battlefield; school field trips in Canada had conditioned me to think of military sites as something more the size and shape of a cricket ground. But I was even more fascinated by the people who were clearly here to pay homage to nineteenth century ancestors by wearing their clothes and following their footsteps. I started following the reenactors, and in a lot of ways that has led me to a lot of the work I’ve done since then.

My charge this evening is to talk about how Civil War sites might offer a usable past in a time of war, which I’m approaching as including not just the so-called “War on Terror” in which the U.S. has been engaged for more than a decade but also the more or less permanent war footing that the American economy has stood on since the end of the Second World War – the famous “military-industrial complex” that Dwight Eisenhower warned about before he retired to his farm here in Gettysburg.

But as I’ve thought about this talk, I’ve realized that I need to frame it in a very largely personal way. It’s interwoven with the Civil War historiography of the 1990s and with the ongoing story of American wars in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But at bottom, anything insightful I might have to say to you about Civil War battlefields comes out of being a Canadian mostly-pacifist feminist woman trying to understand how and why Americans go to war, how they remember wars, and how that has shaped a particular kind of martial masculinity that I’ve struggled for many years to situate myself in relation to. This may seem like a very small scale, but it’s actually part of my overall point: I want to build a case for why the next generation of interpretation at these sites might operate at the level of that kind of individual struggle, and what might be gained by refusing–as well as building on–the interpretation of the past couple of decades.


Let me start by trying to convey just how far I was from understanding any of this in 1990. I grew up in an era when Canada was redefining itself as a more multicultural and peace-loving place. There were plenty of contradictions in that, as there are with any nationalist project. But in general, at least among English Canadians of my generation, there was a sense that our history was evolving in a much more satisfactory direction than our colorful but violent neighbor to the south. Our conflicts, like our battlefields, seemed on a much smaller scale, and closer to being resolved. We watched America flailing through an unwinnable war in Vietnam and many of us felt a certain pride in being a place of refuge for draft-dodgers as we had been for escaping slaves in a previous century.

It was easy to feel a bit superior about all of this, in a modest Canadian way, and when I moved here, I was careful to keep my distance socially, politically, and emotionally from what felt like a continuation of a very long series of American military entanglements. In my first half-dozen years here, the U.S. invaded two countries and bombed a third; during my first visit to Gettysburg, the nation was ramping up for the first Persian Gulf War, in which a previously-barely-known dictator was suddenly being depicted as a monster on the scale of Hitler who had to be stopped if democracy was to endure on earth.

I was deeply disturbed by how quickly so many Americans aligned themselves with what looked to me like a trumped-up mission, but I didn’t know how to engage with that directly. The small but noisy protests before the war with their calls of “No blood for oil!” seemed almost as disturbing – and almost as aggressive – as the martial rhetoric calling for military action. The juggernaut of American militarism was so formidable that I couldn’t even try to parse my own relationship to it.

And then on that visit to Gettysburg I was presented with a usable way to start doing just that. Reenactment was clearly related to American military culture and martial tradition, but it was also removed in a way that made it less overwhelming. It seemed much more in the realm of mythologizing than literal warfare, and although part of my initial fascination came from being appalled that anyone would want to mimic the realities of a Civil War battlefield, the whole thing took place in enough of a performative framework that I was able to look at it and think about it without just wanting to run away and hide. It was a buffer zone where echoes of the real thing were everywhere but where there was also a chance to stand back and think about what had caused those echoes – a position that suited me and that gradually nudged me toward graduate work that combined anthropology and history.

Eventually, after being told by enough reenactors that you couldn’t understand reenactment without doing it, this then-thirty-something Canadian woman with strong pacifist leanings took to the field in a uniform as Horace the Yankee fifer boy. I spent two years marching around in formation, “taking hits” and playing dead and then getting up to fight again another day, while surreptitiously writing fieldnotes in my tent at night and eventually producing a master’s thesis that explored the conscious and unconscious reasons why people would want to reenact the American Civil War.

In a nutshell, I concluded that the contemporary community of reenactors had been shaped most profoundly by the experiences of a very largely baby-boomer generation of American men who grew up in a time of multiple challenges to white male dominance and American militarism. The reenacted Civil War was a parallel world where they could recreate visions of what they’d thought it would be like to be a soldier or to be a man or to be an American or all of those things. Their weekend encampments provided them with the “good war” they’d grown up expecting they might someday fight. The fact that there’s nothing simplistically “good” (or bad) about the Civil War only made this a more usable past for people unsettled by tectonic social changes in their own time.

The capaciousness of Civil War history provided endless corners for reenactors to locate themselves in, and, in some sense, to hide. My first training encampment took place the weekend after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and I remember asking my new comrades in arms about that. They expressed some mild concern that the public might see them as another set of gun-toting, anti-government militiamen, but overall, they assured me, “It really has nothing to do with us.” And I came to see that they were right, in that they were much more interested in stepping away from present-day battles than stepping into them.

Of course, they were also wrong. The mantra “It has nothing to do with us,” didn’t tell the whole story. And this is where the remarkable Civil War scholarship of the 1990s comes in.

Scholars were starting to show us in meticulous and compelling detail how Civil War commemoration has always been a continuation of the war – and a struggle over the peace that followed – by other, more symbolic, means.[1] As part of a broader scholarly reexamination of memory and commemoration, this new literature demonstrated how the politics of race, gender, and ideology had shaped Civil War preservation and memorialization in some cases even before the guns stopped firing, and how the practices of memory have created a layered commemorative landscape filled with multi-directional resonances, evasions, rediscoveries, and still-live nerve-endings.

I bought Edward Linenthal’s Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields in the national park’s Visitor Center on my second visit to Gettysburg, and it immediately confirmed my sense of these sites as shrines within a national civil religion that was continuing to grapple with a lot of unfinished business. Nina Silber gave us the term “romance of reunion” to describe the late-nineteenth-century reconciliation of the white North and South – exemplified by the white veterans of both sides – at the expense of blacks who had been beginning to make inroads into political power, a theme amplified in the indispensable work done by David Blight on race and reunion. Kirk Savage taught us to re-read the monuments that celebrated Northern victory and to see the way they worked to maintain the oppression of African Americans.

This decade of exciting work culminated to an important degree in the National Park Service’s “Holding the High Ground” initiative of the late 1990s and the Rally on the High Ground symposium and publication that emerged from it. The Park Service marshaled support from the best new Civil War scholarship to underpin an interpretive shift toward talking about race and slavery at Civil War battlefields, a re-engagement with many of the things that had been covered over during the years of supposedly “healing” from the war itself. In a very important sense, it undid some of the violence that was done to the struggle toward racial equality by the romance of reunion that followed the end of Reconstruction.

So scholarship and Park Service interpretation were pushing Americans in one direction, while reenactors were seemingly headed the opposite way. They were obsessed with minutiae and military maneuvers and were among the most vigorous opponents of “politicizing” their sacred pilgrimage sites.

But I came to see that their language of authenticity and material culture – how many threads per inch, what kind of buttons – which at first seemed at first like an evasion of the larger issues, could actually be a surprisingly effective way of incorporating them – gradually, unevenly, and with a huge amount of contention, but incorporating them nonetheless. Just like white veterans after the war itself, white and black reenactors managed to create new common ground through a shared veneration for the figure of the American citizen-soldier.

The troublesome issue of women who wanted to reenact in uniform, which was playing out while I was doing my research, was negotiated in a somewhat different way. There was a long argument over standards of believability and how closely reenactors had to come to reflecting actual precedent, which hung many male reenactors out to dry in a way that eventually forced a compromise and an acknowledgement that women had to be allowed to play too. In these and other cases, the common enterprise of staging a more-or-less credible performance in dialogue with credible historical research has, over time, led to the gradual inclusion of a lot of what had been excluded and resisted.

I’m not suggesting that Civil War reenactment has become a New Age movement deeply in touch with its feminine side, but I developed a real appreciation for the way it seemed able to adapt – not always happily, but fairly effectively. And I also came to see how my comrades in the 10th Mass. were both right and wrong about reenactment being separated from real American wars and school killings and bombings. These things were separate, but only in the sense that they were on different points in the same continuum. It was the recognition of that continuum – the strange line that connects play at one end with violence on the other, and that runs through sport and competition of all kinds – that was my own biggest intellectual and emotional shift as a result of my time with the reeenactors. I came to undersand what John Ciardi meant in his wonderful poem “.22” when he said that “Death was once a barefoot boy.”[2]

After I finished my master’s thesis, I made a trip back to Gettysburg and walked along Hancock Avenue and thought about Neils Bohr’s dictum that the opposite of a small truth is a lie, but the opposite of a big truth is another big truth. The big contradictory truths that I could now accept were that war is appalling, destructive, and profoundly inhumane, and also that war is compelling, awe-inspiring, and even generative, and that we have to reckon with its compelling aspects if we’re going to argue against its destructive ones.

I could also see how those contradictions made themselves felt in the specific way that Americans went to war. I grasped what the Jungian thinker James Hillman was saying when he wrote: “We may be a violent people but not a warlike people – and our hatred of war makes us use violence even against war itself… War is bad, exterminate war and keep peace violently: punitive expeditions, preemptive strikes, send in the Marines.”[3] I felt I’d come to terms with American militarized masculinity because I could see some of its complexities and its deep roots and some of the ways it could change and adapt even when it felt threatened and defensive.




[1] Among the key texts of this literature are David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2002); Edward Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields (University of Illinois Press, 1991); Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America (Princeton University Press, 1997); and work by Drew Gilpin Faust, Eric Foner, James Oliver Horton, and others.

[2] John Ciardi, “.22” in The Collected Poems of John Ciardi (Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 1997), p. 87.

[3] James Hillman, “War” in A Blue Fire: Selected Writings (New York: HarperPerennial, 1989), p. 182.