By Mark Acres
Wars fade from memory, but they fade very, very slowly.
“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….”
–William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust
Sometimes we Americans, sitting at the corner diner, chatting over a cup of coffee, shake our heads in wonderment at the peoples of the Middle East. How, we wonder, can they still be fighting conflicts that date back thousands of years? Why can’t they just accept present day realities and move on?
But our American memories are long as well. Take, for example, the cultural memories of Americans of British heritage. The wars of the indigenous peoples of the British Isles prior to the coming of the Romans are largely lost to cultural memory, preserved only in a few dry textbooks by a very few scholars. We who are British-Americans, to coin a phrase, no longer remember the details of the struggles against Roman rule in Britain, but do have a legendary, some might say mythical, hero from that period: Boudicca. Her statue stands today in the shadow of Parliament and Big Ben on the banks of the Thames, ironically in the heart of the city her troops burned and razed. We remember Boudicca – she has been the subject of modern movies, a television mini-series, and she even has her own wargame, albeit one out of print.
Move forward in time a few hundred years. We no longer remember any great details about the struggles of Romanized Britons against the Saxon invaders, but we do have Britain’s greatest hero: Arthur, the “once and future king.” Lost in the murky depths unrecorded history, Arthur is not just an intriguing legend, he is a mythical figure of religious power. The story of Arthur never loses its fascination; it morphs through endless reinterpretations, all centered on the goodly tragic king who will come again in the time of greatest need to recreate his ideal kingdom. Chances are the myth grew from the exploits of a Romanized Briton general against Saxon invaders in the sixth century AD.
And from there forward, memories are fresher. Alfred the Great against the Vikings, William and Harold at Hastings, Crecy and Agincourt, Richard Lionheart at the gates of Jerusalem (not the finest hour in the history of western civilization), the Spanish Armada, Blenheim and Ramilles, Quebec… and then the battles take on that strange ambivalence in our relationship to Britain: Saratoga, Yorktown, and New Orleans stand in memory with Waterloo; the Argonne Forest with the British fiascos on the Somme; Tunisia with D-Day where we fought side by side.
But the battles of the American Civil War – ah, those, those belong to Americans alone.
Yes, people from other countries become fascinated with this aspect of our history, and we welcome their interest; we welcome them in our reenactment groups and history seminars and their interpretations of our own history. But Americans – no matter what their ethnic or cultural background – all Americans, are the sole “blood descendants” of the American Civil War.
No war has a hold on the American consciousness like the Civil War. This war of farm boys and immigrant factory hands, free men and freed men, common men all, alike, on both sides, still lives on in our hearts and our homes. What American doesn’t have a family story of an ancestor who fought in the Civil War? What American heart does not still feel a thrill, perhaps a guilty thrill but a thrill all the same, when the period music starts, whether it be “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” or “Dixie?” Do we not still have passionate, emotionally charged debates over the display of the Confederate flag?
If you think the Civil War has no bearing on contemporary American history, compare an election results map from 1860 with one from 2000. The striking visual similarity reflects the ongoing struggle between evolved ideologies that nonetheless date back to the Civil War, or even earlier. The names have changed, the parties have certainly changed, but the differing patterns of thought, evolved and adapted to the issues of today, are still very much present.
And so we remember, and we memorialize.
And yet, there is some truth to that question in the coffee shops about those in other lands who “remember.” Americans ask the question because we remember, and we still have the heritage of that great struggle – but we have also healed and moved on, past the blood feud to democratic argument; past hatred to respectful difference; and more recently, passing blame and pressing together into a new future.
Growing up I had the mumps, the measles, and the chicken pox. I healed from them; thanks to my body’s memory in the form of antibodies, I can’t ever get them again. My mind remembers, too, and those memories are part of who I am today. We have healed from the Civil War, and God willing, the “antibodies” from that healing are still robust, but we remember, and chances are, we will never forget.
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