Friday, September 26, 2008

How We Remember

Kevin Levin on his fantastic blog Civil War Memory recently posted a segment from Time Magazine's Robert Hughes' series entitled American Visions. This is from the 4th episode entitled "The Gilded Age and is the first of five parts available on youtube. Please watch before moving onto the discussion below.

This video is a fascinating study on the role of historical accuracy versus hyperbole based upon several of the memorials it depicts, so let's unpack it a little bit.
The first scene in the clip after the montage of modernity is footage of a memorial ceremony at Virginia Military Institute. It is held annually on May 15 to commemorate the Battle of New Market, which occurred in 1864. During the battle, 257 VMI students from the Cadet Corps , many of whom were first-year students, were used to plug a hole in the Confederate lines. On a day that would end in Confederate victory, ten cadets died. During the annual ceremony seen in the film, near a monument where 6 of the ten men are buried, each man's name is spoken and a representative from the same company in today's Corps answers, "died on the field of honor, Sir."
The second memorial we see is the monument to the 54th Massachusetts. As we look at it, we get a focused discussion on the regiment's fighting history. The battle spoken of is the Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. We are told that "they were killed almost to the last man" and I remember the penultimate scene of the movie "Glory", where Morgan Freeman and Cary Elwes lead a handful of men along the parapet of the fort, only to disappear in a blaze of fire and smoke.
The reality is that the 54th suffered 272 casualties in the assault, including 116 men killed. This was out of a total force of just over 1000 men, so the "last man" notation is not accurate.
This provides an interesting juxtaposition of Civil War memory. The Battle of New Market saw the deaths of 10 cadets, each one tragic and deserving of a somber memorialization. We do not hear about all of the cadets present that day dying, but instead each man is honored. The 54th Massachusetts also saw combat and suffered horrific casualties, but we hear an exponential exaggeration of the facts. This also occurred while examining a sculpture that doesn't directly investigate the fighting at Fort Wagner, but of the journey of the men in the 54th as a whole. That single statement can easily pervert the solemn subtlety of the 54th's monument, and this comparison begs the question of the right way to remember what these troops, and fighting men and women in general, suffer through. To truly honor them, we must do so with our facts in order.
We move next to Lexington, VA and the tomb of Robert E. Lee. Please recall our recent discussion on the Lee Mythology as part of the Lost Cause and how he is remembered compared to how he was. Now, with the video rolling, we are told how he is "the archetypal cavalier" and grieving visitors lay flowers at the base of the monument. Problem is, he is not buried there. His corpse is in a different part of the chapel. Again, we are reminded that memory and reality surrounding Robert E. Lee are two different things in that room and in our culture.
We must also ask the question why Lee is not buried at his home, as was tradition at the time. Well, Lee's home was at a place called Arlington, VA, now the home of Arlington National Cemetery. In 1864, Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs declared that a cemetery for Union troops would be established there, ensuring a dignified resting place for casualties of war, but also (and this is well-documented) to guarantee that Lee and his family could never return to their home. There is an undeniable irony that Lee's ancestral home became the eternal home for thousands of men his army, his rebellion, and his treason had a role in killing.
The last monument is of General Sherman and Nike, the goddess of victory located in New York City. This is a man reviled as a demon and a destroyer throughout the South, and yet here he is cloaked in gold, walking with the immortals. I would argue that neither representation is correct, and the deification or damnation of those who came before us does not help us understand their efforts, results, and personalities in context, but instead divides us along lines too long riven between different parts of our country.

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