"Competing Memories of the War": An Interview with Dr. Caroline Janney

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the prominent historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI Summer Conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with Dr. Caroline Janney, Professor of History at Purdue University. Janney is the author of Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), and most recently, the multi-award-winning Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

Caroline Janney

CWI: How did Reconstruction shape the public memory of the Civil War? Who participated (or was not allowed to participate) in the shaping of Civil War memory and why?

JANNEY: Memory is a multi-faceted process that is at its heart about contemporary events. That is, the way in which people (northern and southern, black and white) thought about the war between 1865-1877 was in response to what was happening between 1865-1877. One of the best examples of how the policies of Reconstruction – or at least the uncertainty of what lay ahead – affected memory is the Lost Cause. Because former Confederate men were fearful of being charged with treason, southern white women took the lead in memorializing the Lost Cause. By invoking their maternal obligations to care for the dead, they were able to create Confederate cemeteries and establish the practice of Memorial Days as early as 1866.

To be sure, there were some voices that were louder than others, but during Reconstruction Unionists, Confederates, African Americans, whites, men, and women all played different roles in shaping the memory of the Civil War. Union soldiers, both black and white, joined the GAR and organized northern Memorial Day services. In the former Confederacy, white women played a more prominent role until it was clear that Confederate veterans would not be punished for doing so (for the most part this happened after Reconstruction policies were lifted in the various states and especially after Lee’s death in 1870).

CWI: Why is the study of Reconstruction and Civil War memory still relevant and important in today’s society?

JANNEY: Both the study of Reconstruction and Civil War Memory remain relevant as we look around at the events that have unfolded since the spring of 2015. Understanding how — and why — various groups crafted their competing memories of the war allows us to more fully examine why Confederate symbols, for example, still carry so much cultural and political power today. The study of both topics reminds us how intimately connected race relations were to the causes and outcome of the Civil War.

For more information on the 2016 Civil War Institute Summer Conference, click here!

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