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One nation, many stories page 2
The Sesquicentennial's Tangled Web

 The author, John Hennessey, talks to a group of battlefield preservationists about a proposed development near an area Civil War site.
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Date published: 8/7/2011


Something else has shaped how Americans view the Civil War: their intensely personal relationship with it. Visitors to Civil War sites are often highly invested and possessed of information that reflects generations of conventional wisdom or family tradition. Spend time at a Civil War site, and before long a visitor will appear to assert his or her understanding of the war: "My great-great-grandfather didn't own slaves--he sure as hell didn't fight to preserve slavery. He fought to defend his home, the way of life of his community and state. You are wrong to tell people the war was about slavery."

This sort of soliloquy highlights one of the salient facts about the Civil War's place in American culture: In no other era of American history have we as a nation permitted the personal motivations of participants, often imperfectly remembered or revised over time, to define in the public's mind the cause and national purpose of war. This is one reason why there is often a vast difference between the ongoing scholarship about the war--which consistently pegs slavery as a central cause and "cornerstone" (as Vice President Alexander Stephens said in 1861) of the Confederacy--and popular perception, more often shaped by our interpretations of personal narratives.

This highly personal investment in the men and events of the Civil War sometimes renders scholarship that sheds light on the causes of war not as academic exercise, but as an affront. To say the Confederacy went to war to sustain the institution of slavery often challenges a descendant's understanding of the motivations of his ancestors. The response is sometimes the dismissal of solidly documented history as "politically correct" or "revisionist."

Into this tangled mesh of history and selective memory trots the sesquicentennial--into a very different world than that of 50 years ago. While many wish we could return to the days of the simple, personal, singular history (which engaged in as much forgetting as remembering), the changed nature of our country renders that impossible. It can be no surprise that our national narrative has expanded to include the role of women, common people, and the complicated part played by slaves and slavery in the evolution of America. We are in constant progression of second looks at our past.

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John Hennessy is chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and former chairman of the Fredericksburg-Stafford-Spotsylvania Sesquicentennial Committee.