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The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture


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The Civil War retains a powerful hold on the American imagination, with each generation since 1865 reassessing its meaning and importance in American life. This volume collects twelve essays by leading Civil War scholars who demonstrate how the meanings of the Civil War have changed over time.

The essays move among a variety of cultural and political arenas--from public monuments to parades to political campaigns; from soldiers' memoirs 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. Setting the politics of Civil War memory within a wide social and cultural landscape, this volume recovers not only the meanings of the war in various eras, but also the specific processes by which those meanings have been created. By recounting the battles over the memory of the war during the last 140 years, the contributors offer important insights about our identities as individuals and as a nation.

David W. Blight, Yale University
Thomas J. Brown, University of South Carolina
Alice Fahs, University of California, Irvine
Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
J. Matthew Gallman, University of Florida
Patrick J. Kelly, University of Texas, San Antonio
Stuart McConnell, Pitzer College
James M. McPherson, Princeton University
Joan Waugh, University of California, Los Angeles
LeeAnn Whites, University of Missouri
Jon Wiener, University of California, Irvine

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807875810
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 10/12/2005
Series: Civil War America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 296
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Alice Fahs is associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865.
Joan Waugh is associate professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell.

Read an Excerpt

The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-5572-3

Chapter One

Ulysses S. Grant, Historian

Joan Waugh

His troubles began on a festive holiday. Christmas Eve in 1883 was cold and rainy, and by late evening the sidewalk was frozen in front of Ulysses S. Grant's house on 3 East Sixty-sixth Street in New York City, not far from Central Park. Stepping out of a rented carriage, Grant slipped on the ice and sustained a painful injury. As the formerly robust general struggled to regain his health, another blow struck. In May 1884 he learned that Grant and Ward, an investment firm that held his fortune, had failed. Aged sixty-two, Grant was penniless.

Friends and supporters rallied around Ulysses and his wife, Julia. He was able to keep his residence but little else. In desperation he agreed to write an account of the battle of Shiloh for Century Magazine. He did it for the money at first but found that he liked the task. He decided to write more articles. One thing led to another, and before he knew it he had signed a book contract. A brief period of happiness ensued, but fate once again intervened. In the summer of 1884 Grant bit into a peach and was immediately seized with a terrible pain in his throat. A few months later his doctors confirmed the worst: he had a fatal throat cancer. Most men would have abandoned an ambitious writing project at such a time. Not Grant. Famed for his quiet determination on the battlefield, he decided to finish the manuscript before he died.

Through many months of indescribable agony Grant painstakingly recorded his role in the history of the great conflict. His family's financial future depended upon the successful completion of the books, and he would not let them down. But the writing also took on a special urgency; he felt an obligation to tell what he knew to be true about himself, about the war, about the United States. "I would like to see truthful history written," declared Grant. "Such history will do full credit to the courage, endurance, and ability of the American citizen soldier, no matter what section he hailed from, or in what rank."

Grant wrote those words just a week or two into July 1885. In mid-June he traveled by train from the city to a wealthy supporter's summer cottage at Mount McGregor, a beautiful resort in the Adirondacks near Saratoga Springs. When he felt well enough, he liked to sit on the large and comfortable porch to read newspapers and enjoy the cool air. Grant reserved what little energy he had left for his memoirs. He fretted over the page proofs for the first volume, revising and pointing out errors that should be corrected. He continued working on the second volume, still in manuscript, adding pages, even chapters, and providing detailed commentaries.

A poignant photograph showed Grant writing intently while seated in a wicker chair on the porch at the Mount McGregor cottage. Swathed in scarves and shawls, with a woolen cap perched on his head, and propped up by a pillow, he was simply unrecognizable as the strong general who led the Union armies to victory. But a sharp observer of the image will note the resolution in his frail, ravaged countenance. Even as he faced death, Grant openly relished his role as a writer of history. As Bruce Catton described, Grant had become a "man of letters." "I pray God," Grant wrote to his wife, "that [my life] may be spared to complete the necessary work upon my book." His unfinished work kept him alive longer than his doctors had predicted. Grant died on July 23, 1885, two days after writing his last words.

The posthumous publication in December of the two-volume Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1,231 pages in total) proved a spectacular popular and critical success. The publisher, New York's Charles L. Webster and Company, eventually sold more than three hundred thousand sets. Within the first two years, royalties totaled over $450,000, bringing financial security to his widow and four children. With the publication of Grant's memoirs, "historian" could be added to his list of professions.

My essay explores the interpretative significance of Grant's Personal Memoirs. It does not present a detailed review or analysis of the narrative; rather, it offers an elucidation of the process that led to the completion of the massive work. In other words, I am concerned about the battle over the meaning of the American Civil War and Grant's role in that battle as a historian. I am defining "historian" broadly, as someone who is "a writer or student of history." Grant's account of the war, above all, conveyed what he himself called "truthful history." It can be simply put. According to Grant, the Northern cause (based upon the sacredness of unionism and opposition to slavery) was the morally superior one. Grant challenged the idea, just beginning to take hold in the 1880s, that the Northern and Southern causes were equivalent. He reminded the country's citizens that "the cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery."

Thus, the Personal Memoirs were written both to advance a larger truth, that of Union moral superiority, and to remind Americans of Grant's contribution to the victory that remade America into "a nation of great power and intelligence." In Grant's mind the two purposes were linked. If the North's aims were union and freedom, then his reputation was forever secured. Few expressed Grant's thoughts better than his supporter Frederick Douglass: "May we not justly say, will it not be the unquestioned sentiment of history that the liberty Mr. Lincoln declared with his pen General Grant made effectual with his sword-by his skill in leading the Union armies to final victory?"

Grant's importance as a symbol of unionism for his generation was undisputed. As a lieutenant general, as a general-in-chief, as a twice-elected president, as an international figure, as a private citizen, and as a dying hero, Grant sought actively to influence and shape the historical memory of the South's rebellion. That he identified himself with the "Union Cause" made it even more imperative to control the war's memory. Grant was a historian of the war as well as of the Union cause. Broke and discouraged in 1884, Grant turned the Century articles into the basis of his hefty memoirs. When he did that, he was emphatically not, as is sometimes portrayed, starting from scratch. Importantly, the volumes were the last stage of a process that began during the war and continued, gathering steam, in the decades of his postwar career. Grant explained his literary credentials in the following way:

I have to say that for the last twenty-four years I have been very much employed in writing. As a soldier I wrote my own orders, plans of battle, instructions and reports. They were not edited, nor was assistance rendered. As president, I wrote every official document, I believe, usual for presidents to write, bearing my name. All these have been published and widely circulated. The public has become accustomed to my style of writing. They know that it is not even an attempt to imitate either a literary or classical style; that it is just what it is and nothing else. If I succeed in telling my story so that others can see as I do what I attempt to show, I will be satisfied. The reader must also be satisfied, for he knows from the beginning just what to expect.

Grant's late-blooming literary masterpiece therefore represented a culmination, by one of the major figures in the conflict, of twenty-four years of thinking, writing, and talking about the meaning of the war for the United States. Finally, Grant's interpretation of the war was interwoven with and reactive to controversies and events-such as the development of the Lost Cause ideology and the publication of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion-that shaped the writing of the civil war.

The Personal Memoirs: A Background

To understand the books' import, a brief background on the reception and reputation of the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant is necessary. In the 1880s there was an explosion of publications about the Civil War. Indeed, the amount of literature pouring forth from the presses seemed unstoppable: books, newspaper and magazine serials, and the conflict's official documents. Much of the material was military in nature-descriptive accounts of battles, fictional portraits of soldiers coming to grips with the war, biographies and memoirs of soldiers, unit histories-and it fed the public's insatiable appetite. Grant facilitated, and benefited from, this publishing phenomenon. For example, even before Grant's death, sixty thousand sets of the Personal Memoirs had been ordered by subscription, much to the astonishment of the ailing general. "General Grant," wrote an Ohio veteran and agent selling subscriptions for the books, "the people are moving en masse upon your memoirs."

The reviews were effusive, and many compared the Personal Memoirs favorably with Caesar's Commentaries. Mark Twain, Grant's great friend as well as his publisher, pronounced, "General Grant's book is a great unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece." The Personal Memoirs elicited praise from prominent journals and intellectuals. "Fifty years hence," wrote one reviewer, "the mind of the nation will distinctly recognize only two figures as connected with all that great upheaval, Lincoln and Grant." Grant the historian was almost universally praised for his direct, simple, honest, and fair-minded portrayal of the Civil War and for his modesty in downplaying his own considerable role in bringing about Northern victory. Many readers observed that Grant's memoirs, above all other accounts of the war, told the "truth" about the nation's greatest conflict. People were impressed by his ability to write a compelling narrative of the war's battles. His narrative seemed calm, measured, objective, and buttressed by solid documentation. The Personal Memoirs sold briskly into the first decade of the twentieth century before falling into obscurity by the late 1920s and 1930s. It was no coincidence that Grant's reputation reached a nadir in those particular decades, as the popular culture celebrated the romantic image of the Confederacy epitomized in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and immortalized in its movie adaptation.

When interest revived in Grant's life and career, it sparked a reappraisal of his military and political record. Although the Personal Memoirs never again achieved its late-nineteenth-century best-seller status, modern scholars and critics turned to the books to help explain the man and the war. Edmund Wilson's assessment of the volumes as "a unique expression of national character" included a forceful argument for considering Grant as a writer who deserved to be included in the American literary canon. The editor of The Papers of U. S. Grant, John Y. Simon, asserted that the Personal Memoirs offered "candor, scrupulous fairness, and grace of expression." Bruce Catton called the work "a first-rate book-well written with a literary quality that keeps it fresh." William McFeely, James M. McPherson, and Brooks D. Simpson have singled out Grant's memoirs as a historical and literary tour de force and all have written introductions to new editions. In short, a strong consensus has emerged. The Personal Memoirs provide a literate, accurate, and indispensable resource for understanding the military and political history of the war that neither the professional historian nor the amateur can afford to ignore. But the work offers much more than that. For the modern reader, the Personal Memoirs can also explain two interrelated questions, "Why the North won" and "Why they fought." Not surprisingly, Grant's war experiences laid the foundation for his later writing efforts; his pen first captured those experiences in battlefield reports.

Battlefield Reports

The history of the Civil War and its individual battles began as soon as the muskets and cannons fell quiet on the battlefield. The old saying "The pen is mightier than the sword" applies to the official reports that had to be written by the leading battle participants who had to justify their successes and failures to their military and political superiors. Grant's major (and minor) battles and campaigns from Fort Donelson to Shiloh to Vicksburg to Chattanooga to Cold Harbor had to be analyzed, explained, and defended, with blame cast and praise awarded to the major officers.

The eminent editor of the Century series on the Civil War, Robert Underwood Johnson, was a close reader of numerous battles' conflicting accounts. In frustration, he turned to humor to explain the process. He observed that every battle has at least four points of view: that of the man who gets credit for the victory, that of the man who thought he should get the credit, that of the man who is blamed for the defeat, and that of the man who is blamed by the man who is blamed for the defeat. Out of such confusing elements, Johnson mused, history is written. During the war, however, many reputations were advanced or damaged by the official reports, and if a high-ranking general was perceived as committing a serious blunder on the battlefield, he knew that his actions would be written up immediately and he could expect to be rebuked at best or, at worst, to be fired or court-martialed.

As a general Grant was no different than any other officer in the Civil War in this respect. Like other generals, he suffered from negative reports and evaluations as well as vicious attacks in the press. Like other generals, he cultivated certain politicians and reporters who would unfailingly support him and to whom he would explain and justify controversial actions. Grant's great supporter in Congress during the war was Illinois Republican Elihu B. Washburne. Washburne made sure that Grant's accomplishments were brought to the attention of President Lincoln. By August 1863, with Vicksburg secured, Grant had emerged as Lincoln's favorite general. In that month Grant sent a crisp letter to the president informing Lincoln of his plans regarding the enrollment of black soldiers in the Union army. He added, "I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heaviest blow yet given to the Confederacy." Those were exactly the words that Lincoln had been waiting to hear. Grant's wartime correspondence shows that he approached the ending of slavery as a practical problem to be dealt with as dictated by military necessities. Grant also judged the South harshly for slavery and often commented on the virtues of the free labor system. Grant's enthusiastic support, with both words and action, of Lincoln's emancipation policy endeared him to his commander-in-chief almost as much as his winning record on the field had.


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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

A valuable new contribution. . . . Provides new insight.—H-Net Reviews

Those curious about the war's larger place in American history and its continuing relevance will find here much to ponder.—Civil War News

The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture is an excellent distillation of . . . scholarship, a kind of greatest hits collection that brings together a distinguished collection of middle period historians who perform characteristic riffs in a genre that they play with ease, skill, and insight. . . . It is hard to imagine a better distillation, even summation, of the study of the memory.—Journal of American History

This is a great collection of essays, all of which speak to the powerful and ongoing hold the Civil War has had, and continues to have, on the American imagination.—Nina Silber, Boston University

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