Historian talks about memories, memorials as part of 150th Civil War anniversary

February 15, 2011

Caroline E. Janney

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Many people believe "winners write history," but a Purdue University historian shows how changing memories and remembrances from both sides of the Civil War over the past 150 years continue to evolve and shape people's beliefs and perceptions today.

"The contentious nature of Civil War memory is part of today's discourse and consciousness, and that is not surprising because any significant event, whether it is the signing of the Declaration of Independence or 9/11, continues to affect contemporary politics," said Caroline E. Janney, an associate professor of history who studies the Civil War and memory. "We need to understand that memory is not passive, and it is constantly evolving. Every generation is omitting, embellishing or organizing their thoughts in different ways, and it is crucial to follow that progression to better understand, accept and discuss how history affects people today."

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the war that over its four-year course led to the death of more than 620,000 Americans.

Even today, Civil War images and references - from how it is portrayed in movies to cultural symbols such as the Confederate battle flag - are still celebrated and challenged, said Janney, who is working on a book about memory and the Civil War from 1865 to 1960.

"Even 150 years later, that memory continues to have great power," Janney said. "Understanding the war's causes are as equally as important as understanding its consequences and how these consequences have shaped our memories and interpretations."

The debate over a memorial at Appomattox, Va., is a good example about how people feel about interpreting and memorializing historic events, Janney said. On April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. In the 1880s and 1890s after the war, veterans from both sides were willing to work with government officials to create a peace memorial there.

In the decades that followed, that cooperation dissipated and there were disagreements about the site's preservation. For example, plans for the Appomattox peace monument were challenged in the 1930s - more than 60 years after the war ended - when the more recent generation of Confederate sympathizers argued that the proposed monument would promote the South's defeat and its struggles during the Reconstruction period.

"The fierce fight that erupted between the government and Confederate groups at this time reflected a significant shift in historical memory," Janney said. "As aging veterans passed, a new generation of white southerners, often led by women's groups, began to shape the memory of the Civil War, and, more specifically, Reconstruction, to maintain control of the war's interpretation.

"This controversy shows that the Civil War legacy for many didn't end at Appomattox - but it began there. It is a reminder that memory is fed by current events, politics and passion, and that is something to keep in mind as the United States remembers the Civil War during the next four years."

Janney's research is published in this month's Journal of Southern History, and the Purdue Libraries Scholars Grant funded her research. 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Caroline E. Janney, 765-496-9496, cjanney@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in a copy of the article can contact Amy Patterson Neubert, Purdue News Service, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu