The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

By Alice Fahs; Joan Waugh | Go to book overview

Introduction

Alice Fahs & Joan Waugh

The Civil War has never receded into the remote past in American life. The most momentous conflict in American history, it had a revolutionary social and political impact that continues to be felt today. The political firestorms of the 1980s and 1990s over the appropriateness of the Confederate battle flag flying over statehouses in Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, for instance, demonstrate how deeply meaningful Civil War symbols remain in American politics, especially racial politics. The unveiling of Richmond's first and only statue to Abraham Lincoln in April 2003 brought forth a bevy of protesters. Although supporters of the life-size bronze sculpture of Lincoln and his son Tad emphasized the statue's symbolism for reconciliation, neoConfederates waved signs bearing the slogan "Lincoln: Wanted for War Crimes." Indeed, in any given year since 1865 individuals and social groups have sought to legitimize claims, and even to redefine what is American, by evoking selective memories of the war. Such evocations have been—and continue to be—a powerful means of claiming membership in the nation as well as of denying others' claims to such membership.

This volume examines a variety of battles over the memory of the war during the last 135 years, finding in them important insights concerning our identities as individuals and as a nation. It recovers the racial and gender politics underlying numerous attempts to memorialize the war, provides new insights into how Lost Cause ideology achieved dominance in the late nineteenth century, and shows how contests over memories of the war were a vital part of politics during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. One of the innovations of the volume is that it moves among a variety of cultural and political arenas—from public monuments to parades to soldiers' memoirs to political campaigns to textbook publishing to children's literature—in order to reveal important changes in how the memory of the Civil War has been employed in American life. By setting the politics of Civil War memory within this wide social and cultural landscape, it is able to recover not just the meanings of the war in various eras but also the

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