Tag Archives: Civil War memory

North Koreans love Gone With the Wind

Pyongyang is just about the last place in the world you’d expect to find GWTW fans, but apparently you can’t swing a dead cat there without hitting one.

Maybe the notion of a society devastated by war and famine is especially resonant in North Korea.  Or maybe it appeals to some aspect of East Asian culture in general; Tony Horwtiz mentioned GWTW‘s popularity among Japanese visitors to Atlanta in Confederates in the Attic.

Personally, I think the explanation is pretty simple: Margaret Mitchell was a master storyteller who knew how to create remarkable characters.  Sure, her portrayal of the Old South was mythical—but holy cow, what a myth she managed to build.

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Is Lincoln to blame for America’s empire?

Some observers see Lincoln’s presidency and the outcome of the Civil War as the point when America got off-kilter, sort of like a national equivalent to the Fall of Man.  At some point between 1860 and 1865, so this line of thinking goes, the country went off the rails and abandoned the legacy of the Revolution and the Constitution, leaving us with the centralized, interventionist, and industrial nation in which we now live.

There’s a nugget of truth to all this, but it’s hidden among a lot of overstatement and moralization.  The Civil War did contribute to the creation of a stronger and more vigorous central government, Lincoln’s use of presidential authority was broader than many of his predecessors, and the Union’s victory did accelerate the creation of a more consolidated and economically modern America.  At the same time, though, you can’t attribute America’s transformation entirely to the Civil War or to Lincoln’s presidency.  The war was a critical step down that road, but it wasn’t the only one—and the road itself was circuitous, since the exertion of federal authority has expanded and contracted at various times between 1865 and today.  Lincoln did a great many consequential things, but he didn’t sucker punch the whole country into the modern age single-handedly.

Abraham Lincoln portrait by William F. Cogswell, 1869 (The White House Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons)

In an interesting and provocative essay, Thomas DiLorenzo takes this notion of the Lincoln presidency as something akin to America’s moment of original sin and applies it to foreign policy.  He argues that Lincoln abandoned the Founders’ desire for neutrality and friendly commerce in favor of “imperialist fantasies about perfecting the entire planet as the bedrock of American foreign policy ideas.”  Lincoln, he states, believed that it was incumbent upon Americans to impose democratic ideals on other countries, and so our subsequent foreign entanglements and interventions follow from this misguided conviction.

DiLorenzo thus uses an interpretation of the past to critique the present.  As far as his criticism of American interventionism goes, I’m inclined to agree with him, at least to a considerable extent.  What I don’t agree with is his diagnosis of the historical origins of the problem.  Like the larger concept of which it’s a part—the notion that the Civil War is the point at which the country somehow went wrong—I think his argument contains a kernel of historic truth hidden in a matrix of serious oversimplification.  DiLorenzo makes Lincoln out to be a far more influential figure than he actually was.

He’s certainly correct that Lincoln believed the U.S., as an experiment in popular government, had an important role to play in the world.  Indeed, that’s one reason why he took secession so seriously.  If the nation collapsed in civil warfare, he thought, then the whole notion of a nation governed by the people themselves was in doubt.  Hence his argument at Gettysburg that America was a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition of equality, and that the war was a contest to determine whether any such nation could survive.  If the Union prevailed, self-government would be vindicated and would have the opportunity to take root elsewhere.

But I don’t think DiLorenzo is accurate in equating Lincoln’s brand of American exceptionalism with a zealous support of foreign intervention.  Ever since the Revolution—since earlier than that, actually, if one takes the Puritans into account—Americans have believed they could instruct the world, but not all of them have believed they must do so by force.  I don’t really see any reason to assume that Lincoln’s American exceptionalism was necessarily of the militant kind or to lay the blame for America’s status as a global policeman at his feet.  True, the interventionist and expansionist U.S. of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries probably wouldn’t have taken the form it did if it weren’t for the creation of a consolidated and industrial nation with a vigorous government, which the Civil War made possible.  But that’s not to say that it wouldn’t have become an interventionist and expansionist country at all.  The agrarian, slave-based economic interest that was so influential in antebellum America was something of an imperialist engine in its own right, spurring on conflict with Mexico and sparking filibustering expeditions in other parts of Latin America.  Indeed, well before the Civil War, America had been practicing a form of internal imperialism with regard to the Indians.  It’s therefore entirely possible that an America without a Lincoln presidency or a Civil War might have become an interventionist world power anyway, albeit an interventionist power of a different kind.

I have no idea how Lincoln would feel about modern America’s willingness to spend blood and treasure policing the world.  Maybe he’d endorse the extension of American ideals and institutions to foreign countries by force of arms, at least under some circumstances.  Or maybe not; after all, he was a vocal critic of America’s war with Mexico in the 1840’s.  Whatever the case, I think he’d be quite surprised that anyone would draw a direct line between his readiness to use force to suppress what he considered an internal rebellion and the deployment of American forces across the globe a century and a half later.

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Paranormal investigators add gravity, scholarly rigor to Antietam commemoration

Staff rides and ranger walks are great, but there’s just no substitute for the insight of an experienced ghost hunter:

Among the stories told was one about a re-enactor who was re-enacting a battle at one point and thought he had been “killed” by another re-enactor. However, after the battle was over, nobody else saw the “killing” re-enactor, and Riley implied it was the spirit of an actual dead soldier who took part in the battle re-enactment, thinking it was real.

A subsequent investigation by four adolescents and their dog revealed that the “spirit” was actually a local con man in disguise.  When reached for comment, the malefactor stated, “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids!”

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Confederate descendants carry on the work of their forefathers

…by seceding from their SCV camp.

It seems some members of Florida’s General Jubal A. Early Camp No. 556 (of ginormous Confederate flag fame) wanted to devote more of their efforts to historic preservation and education.  Their compatriots preferred to focus on charitable work and PR, so twelve of the historically minded gents accordingly took their leave and formed a new camp, named for Judah P. Benjamin.

When members of a Civil War heritage group can’t persuade fellow members to engage in Civil War heritage activities, I think you’ve got a case for secession that even the most radical of nineteenth-century Republicans would support.

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The ultimate Gettysburg souvenir

The original, honest-to-goodness Electric Map is up for grabs at a government auction site (with a tip of the hat to Brooks Simpson).

Need the perfect gift for that Civil War buff who has everything? Look no more. He’ll be the envy of all his fellow CWRT members. Oh, Bob, I heard your kids bought you another Kunstler print. Here, step into the living room for a minute and I’ll show you what the wife picked up for my birthday.

But wait, there’s more! During the holiday season, the Electric Map doubles as a festive lawn decoration! With a simple bulb reconfiguration, Longstreet’s July 2 attack on the Union left transforms into two elves dancing atop the words JOY TO THE WORLD.

All joking aside, think about this for a minute. On several occasions we’ve noted how an individual’s personal memories sometimes intersect with collective historical memory. When you’ve been visiting a site for many years and it’s become the locus for many fond recollections, you come to regard it as much for its personal nostalgic value as for its objective historical significance.

Now, consider how the Disney parks cater to hardcore fans. Some Disney rides stay in operation for decades, acquire enthusiastic followings, and become venerable institutions in their own right. A few years ago, the folks at the Mouse introduced a line of commemorative pins which contain tiny pieces of the actual attractions themselves, removed during refurbishment or when a ride is dismantled. They’re like little pop culture reliquaries.

Thus Disney enthusiasts get to have a tangible connection to something that’s dear to them, and the parks make a little money. Maybe historic sites are missing out on the nostalgic market. The uproar over the Electric Map and the Cyclorama building indicate that we’re a pretty sentimental bunch.

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Another Civil War heritage controversy, coming right up

When all else fails, you can always count on a Nathan Bedford Forrest monument to stir up a mess.  This one’s in Selma, AL and got vandalized back in March.  Now it’s about to get repaired, but there’s a petition going around asking the city council to take the whole thing down.

The thing is, neither the monument nor the land on which it sits belong to the city.  It was on public property when first erected in 2000, but a ruckus ensued which resulted in its relocation to a plot owned by the UDC following year.  What do the petitioners expect the city council to do about a monument on private land?  Your guess is as good as mine.

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Principles of historical punditry #107

For the purposes of writing an op-ed, any form of dissonance—be it political, cultural, or sectional—portends that we are either (a) in the midst of a metaphorical Civil War or (b) on the brink of another literal one.

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