I am researching Confederate memory in Virginia during the World War I period, circa 1914-1920. Focusing on public memory, especially the erection of Confederate monuments during those years, I ask if and how international conflict affected Civil War memorialization. America entered WWI only 52 years after the end of the Civil War, during a period when, according to some scholars, the importance of the Southern tradition or Lost Cause mentality was waning. I am interested in why the Lost Cause lost influence at this time. I will argue that US involvement in Europe played an important role in North-South reconciliation.
To be sure, many factors added to the decline of monument building in the South. I seek to explain one aspect of this phenomenon. Southern identity and defensiveness in the face of the federal government, of course, continued past WWI, but public memorialization and affirmation of Confederate identity dropped off after the second decade of the twentieth century.
This project will be primarily a cultural history, using memory, rhetoric, interpretation, and identity to examine the ways in which Virginians living during WWI used Civil War language to discuss current events and vice versa. I hypothesize that monument builders helped strengthen a united white American identity in the South by applying Confederate symbolism and rhetoric to WWI and also by reflecting on the Confederacy and Civil War through the lens of WWI. I will use sources such as speeches given at monument dedications, the design and inscriptions on monuments, letters, newspaper articles, and similar documents related to monument building and other public commemorations. Looking at this intertwining of Confederate and WWI symbolism and language will help historians understand the reconciliation of North and South and the growth of a united American identity in the early twentieth century.
I see this as a cultural historical project because I am looking for the answers to a question of identity. How did Southern whites see themselves during WWI? Although scholars have addressed Southern identity into the mid-1910s, I am pushing my research a few years further to examine the memory of war during wartime. How did WWI affect Confederate memory, and how did Confederate memory affect people’s reactions to WWI? I plan to incorporate memory theory and, to a degree, the ideas of human geography. What can the language used during recollections of the Civil War tell us about how Virginians viewed the World War? How does design and placement of monuments, structures that attempted to freeze one interpretation of history in time, reveal the feelings of the monument builders? What place did Confederate identity have in a reunited America at war against a foreign foe? As I get more into my sources and find more primary documents, I expect this methodology and these questions to evolve. Race is a big issue when talking about North-South reconciliation. Gender plays a role as well, especially the designation of women as keepers of Confederate memory after the war—a duty women defended against men throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Official memory was very much the realm of the elite, as well. There is much more to discover as I move forward with this research!
Reflections on Bertoti:
Overall, I think the Bertoti Conference went really well. This seemed to be the general consensus from people with whom I spoke over the course of the weekend. The speakers were definitely a high point, as were the presentations on the panels which I attended and moderated.
For next year, I would make sure to think ahead about logistics so that we have backup plans to keep everything running smoothly and professionally despite any unforeseen circumstances. Congrats all on a successful event!
This week I read two more books that I think will each add something to my paper. The first was War Memorials as Political Landscape: The American Experience and Beyond, by James M. Mayo (1988). Although this is an older work, I thought Mayo’s perspective on war memorials was really interesting. This book treats the intersection of politics and design at the emotional level. Memorials, as Mayo reminds us, signal what people want to remember about certain events. His chapter on memorials to defeat discusses the Civil War and the commemoration of soldiers’ sacrifices rather than the justice of the Southern cause in most cases. Interestingly, he focuses on a growing sense of “communal guilt” as a motivation for memorialization. His perspective on the Civil War as a failure on the part of the whole country, since it led to the destruction of so many lives, is one I have not seen in many other books, which instead contrast the successes of both North and South in their respective collective memories. This view will add to my discussion of how Virginians chose to remember their defeat.
The second book was Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation, by John R. Neff (2005). This is one of several books that deal with the culture of death following the Civil War. Neff examines “the role of death in condensing, and occasionally defying American nationality” (11). Neff, diverging from other scholarship on the postwar period, discusses commemorations that had no interest in reconciliation. I will have to look at this book as I fine-tune my argument, since I will be arguing in the same reconciliatory vein as scholars like David Blight—addressing arguments like Neff’s will strengthen my own work considerably.