Tarnished Memories

 

“The Peacemakers” by George P.A. Healy

Now that we are close to the end of this class, it seems that an inordinate amount of time and energy was spent working to vindicate the South. The results of the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy is the most tangible in terms of the many, many monuments erected as memorials to Confederate leadership, museums, portraits, etc.  It appears that no equivalent campaign was needed in the North because they, after all, were the victors.  In the century and a half since the war ended the Union generals and other leadership are no longer held in such high regard.  Certainly the Lost Cause propaganda served to tarnish their reputations and that legacy continues in the minds of those who were exposed to that version of Civil War memory in the classroom.

In the post-Vietnam decades, as the culture has become increasingly anti-militaristic, the popular culture attempted to cast the military in a less than favorable light.[1]  For a while, interest in the Civil War ebbed to such a low point that many publications focusing on that subject had such a decline in readership that they considered suspending publication.[2]  There has been a resurgence of interest in the military because of the recent high levels of operations.  The large audience for Ken Burns’ Civil War series on PBS piqued public interest.  The sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War has received a great deal of coverage in the press and in general interest magazines.  I am optimistic that sufficient numbers of families, children especially, will have visited battlefields and other historical sites, reversing the trend of declining interest in the Civil War.

Upon reading Gary Gallagher’s book, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood & Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War, I was reminded of the negative reputation that many Union generals still hold today.  Gallagher, when referring to public demand for Civil War artwork, suggests that there are almost no prints of these leaders are either sold, or created.[3]  He confirms that this represents a reversal of the immediate post-Civil War trends, in which they were popular figures for artwork in the North.[4]  How is it that the memory of these men became so tarnished in the North?  Obviously, figures such as General William T. Sherman became the target of so much southern vitriolic as a result of his march to the sea.  However, he held in similar low esteem by many in the North.  Is it legitimate to demonize him and other Union generals?  I would suggest not; they too became victims of the aggressive Lost Cause re-write of Civil War memory.

 

 


[1] Gary W. Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood & Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 4.

[2] Gallagher, 5.

[3] Gallagher, 142-143.

[4] Gallagher, 184-185.

 

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2 comments
  1. zfwerkowitch said:

    I don’t think I knew until this class that Confederate armies invading the North, like en route to Gettysburg, kidnapped free black people in Pennsylvania and pressed them into service. In a lot of ways this seems just as bad as, if not worse than, Sherman’s March to the Sea. One march freed people, and one enslaved people. It is interesting that this comparison is not more often made.

  2. drobnicker said:

    People do not regard the military in terms of specific heroes like in the Civil War. I agree a certain apathy toward war evolved out of the Vietnam era that has become a questionable Lost Cause in modern warfare. However, honoring anyone who fights in a war is an honorable thing. Fighting a war seems to be just a job to many soldiers,that continue to go back on more assignments because they can’t handle being out of war. The Hurt Locker created an interesting perspective on the Iraq soldiers and the devastating effects that remains on their pysche. War is Hell no matter which way you look at it.

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