I recently have been struck by the oddity of how we view our personal links to (and thus how we remember) history. I work in an interpretive business, dealing with the public all the time. I am always struck by how excited people become upon learning that their ancestors were witness to the grand-and often terrible-events in our history.
Should we be excited that our ancestors fought for twenty-two straight hours in the muddy, blood-soaked trenches at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle? Or that they witnessed the terrible slaughter in front of the stone-wall at Fredericksburg? What sparks such a positive emotion to such an evil event?
It is always exciting to learn of our direct connections to history. It makes the past come alive, and we feel pride in learning that our ancestors fought for a cause, or participated in the great moments of our history. But it is always important to remember not just the grandeur, but also the fear and pain and darkness that make those events grand. These events are great because they are terrible.
In a sense, we are guilty of that same sanization of history when children are sworn into the army daily at Gettysburg’s Visitor’s Center, when Hollywood romanticizes the war, or when we focus too often on battles and tactics and anecdotes.
We must not forget the powerful emotions and darkness ever present in moments from the past.