Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation
By the end of the Civil War, fatalities from that conflict had far exceeded previous American experience, devastating families and communities alike. As John Neff shows, commemorating the 620,000 lives lost proved to be a persistent obstacle to the hard work of reuniting the nation, as every memorial observation compelled painful recollections of the war.
Neff contends that the significance of the Civil War dead has been largely overlooked and that the literature on the war has so far failed to note how commemorations of the dead provide a means for both expressing lingering animosities and discouraging reconciliation. Commemoration—from private mourning to the often extravagant public remembrances exemplified in cemeteries, monuments, and Memorial Day observances—provided Americans the quintessential forum for engaging the war's meaning.
Additionally, Neff suggests a special significance for the ways in which the commemoration of the dead shaped Northern memory. In his estimation, Northerners were just as active in myth-making after the war. Crafting a "Cause Victorious" myth that was every bit as resonant and powerful as the much better-known "Lost Cause" myth cherished by Southerners, the North asserted through commemorations the existence of a loyal and reunified nation long before it was actually a fact. Neff reveals that as Northerners and Southerners honored their separate dead, they did so in ways that underscore the limits of reconciliation between Union and Confederate veterans, whose mutual animosities lingered for many decades after the end of the war.
Ultimately, Neff argues that the process of reunion and reconciliation that has been so much the focus of recent literature either neglects or dismisses the persistent reluctance of both Northerners and Southerners to "forgive and forget," especially where their war dead were concerned. Despite reunification, the continuing imperative of commemoration reflects a more complex resolution to the war than is even now apparent. His book provides a compelling account of this conflict that marks a major contribution to our understanding of the war and its many meanings.
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Abraham Lincoln American Antietam National Cemetery April Arlington Arlington National Cemetery Army assassination asserted battle battlefield black soldiers bodies Camp Cause Victorious Charles Cincinnati Daily Enquirer Civil War Dead civilians commemoration Confederacy Confederate dead Confederate soldiers Confederate Veteran Dahlgren Davis's died efforts Eminent Death enemy federal field flag funeral GNMP Library graves historians History Honoring the Civil ibid interment Interminable Grave-Yard Jefferson Davis John Lewis Lincoln's death living Lost Cause Maryland Meigs Memorial Association Memorial Day monument mourning Mysterious Providence myth North Northern Notes to Pages officers Official Records Oration political President prisoners Quartermaster quoted rebel reburial regiment reinterred remains removed reported reunion Richmond rituals sectional sentiments Sermon social soldier dead sought South Southern tion U.S. Colored Troops U.S. Congress U.S. War Department Ulric Dahlgren Union army Union dead Union soldiers United University Press Vertical Files Virginia war's Washington Whitman William women York