Waugh: Civil War memory wars ‘continue to this day’

Benjamin Hoste | Staff PhotographerJoan Waugh, professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles, delivers Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater.
Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
Joan Waugh, professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles, delivers Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater.

History and memory have perhaps never been more at odds than over the Civil War. At least, that’s the way Joan Waugh, history professor at University of California, Los Angeles, sees it.

“1863 in History and Memory” was the title of Waugh’s lecture, the last one in the series of the Week Three theme, “America, 1863.” Through her lecture, Waugh sought to explain how memory traditions shape modern interpretations of history.

Waugh said it has never been more important to accurately teach America’s history. In recent Fourth of July interviews on Venice Beach, Calif., beachgoers were asked, “What country did the United States defeat in the Revolutionary War?”

The most popular answer?

“China.”

Waugh used this anecdote to emphasize the need for a national discourse on what she called the “epic” of the American Civil War.

“An epic creates a national myth intended to bond generations, to link the past with the present in powerful ways,” she said. “It’s like doing open heart surgery on American history to study the Civil War, because you must know the past causes of the war, the present as the Americans live through it and you must deal with the future and the consequences.

“And no year better signifies this than 1863.”

She said that the 150th anniversary of this pivotal year is the perfect opportunity to discuss the issues that still shape the United States today.

1863 was the year of big battles (Vicksburg, Gettysburg and Chancellorsville), the draft laws — followed by the draft riots — and President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Waugh spoke on the different memory traditions that shape the way Americans remember these events.

“When the guns fell silent, the United States struggled, not only to reconstruct and reunite the victors with the vanquished, but also to incorporate the freed men and women into the body politic,” Waugh said.

There was an immediate challenge to accommodate differing wartime experiences, Waugh said.

“Memory wars were declared,” Waugh said. “And they continue to this day.”

There are four main memory traditions that influence how Americans today remember the Civil War: the Union cause, the Confederate cause, the emancipationist cause and the reconciliationist cause, Waugh said.

The Union cause is the memory tradition Americans are most ideologically familiar with, Waugh said. Since the Union won the war, historians sometimes call this tradition “The Cause Victorious.” Lincoln spoke to this cause when he suggested that secession advocates anarchy.

“If our government is destroyed, Lincoln said, so are our ideals — the ideals that animate our country and make it possible for us to exist as a democratic republic,” Waugh said.

The emancipationist cause overlaps with the Union cause. Emancipationists said the war was waged to remove the stain of slavery and “redeem” America from her sins. Christian abolitionists, Radical Republicans in Congress and Frederick Douglass, among others, all believed emancipation was the reason for the war. This narrative was removed from the memory of most Americans for many years, Waugh said.

The Confederates’ memory tradition, or the “Lost Cause,” celebrated the Southern sacrifice while attempting to gain independence. During Reconstruction, many sympathetic to this cause romanticized Southern life before the war, downplaying the economic role of slavery, Waugh said. In this particular memory tradition, states’ rights replaced slavery as the cause of the war.

But perhaps the most influential memory tradition of the Civil War has been the reconciliationist memory.

“It blends together the most agreeable and non-offensive elements of the Lost Cause and the Union Cause,” Waugh said of the tradition. “The bottom line is that both sides acted in noble ways.”

A prominent example of the reconciliationist memory was President Woodrow Wilson’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, in which he stated, “We have found one another again, as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends, rather. Our battle is long past, the quarrel forgotten.”

Waugh said that reconciliationist memories can be dangerous, as they threaten to erase the realities of the war.

By the late 20th century, reconciliationist memories had started to fade, Waugh said. She noted that though race is still an issue today, few would deny progress has been made for African-Americans.

“Today’s [state-by-state] commemorations of the war are looking at the inclusiveness and the diversity of the entire experience of the Civil War,” Waugh said. “Yes, the battles, but also the aspects of the war about civilians, the homefront and about African-American experience.”