The past is a dim timescape receding into increasing darkness behind us, irregularly illuminated by the historical record. The future stretches before, obscured by an opaque screen upon which we project dreams, fears, and our perceptions of possibilities. We stand at the intersection in a moving bubble of the present, sometimes glancing astern or ahead, but often with our eyes closed to anything but the moment. Why bother staring back down that tunnel of time, seeking to comprehend what happened there? What is the future of the past? Why particularly the Civil War?
I first came to a love of history in high school classes in the late 1950’s (Abraham Lincoln High School, Council Bluffs, Iowa)—American History, Western Civilization, etc. Not sure why, just found them fascinating, and that attraction has only increased. So, one great reason for studying history is that it is fun, if you are into that sort of thing. Not everyone is, but many more would be and should be if properly encouraged.
That those early courses were somewhat selective and exclusionary later became clear. Lessons covering the Civil War were tinged with lost-cause romanticism; they certainly did not tell the full story of slavery and other important subjects. Some will say that they were biased; I prefer to think of them as incomplete but not necessarily wrong.
These deficiencies may have been mitigated by location: in southwest Iowa, we had no local and little immediate cultural connection to the conflict or its causes. There was no blood in the soil, at least from that struggle, and it was not a subject of everyday life. A great, great…grandfather served as a Union artilleryman in the western theater, but our communal ancestors were not Yankees in the true sense and were not Rebels either.
This perspective—from the West and from the Middle—perhaps enabled a certain objectivity. Surroundings do matter in historical viewpoint, and an awareness of that influence is necessary along with an open mind. Through subsequent study and observation, and having finally settled in Virginia, I have been able to revise and significantly expand my understanding of the conflict, and have been incredibly enriched in the process.
Those populating the tunnel of time are just like us, just as real, just as vital. Neither someone we encountered an hour ago, nor predecessors from bygone ages, are any more obscured by time than those in the next room or on the other side of the planet are blurred by distance. They all are beyond our immediate senses, but applying the evidence in front of us, we use the same faculties of reason and imagination to understand them, relate to them, learn from them. Or we should.
Human nature doesn’t change. We see different circumstances and context but not incomprehensible creatures. We share joys and sorrows, triumph and tragedy, humanity and inhumanity. It’s the Aha! moments: moments of inspiration, understanding, empathy, connection, companionship. There are no truly original thoughts or previously unfelt feelings; our ancestors have been there many times over. We see more of ourselves in them. “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Actually the past is the future, an endlessly rotating wheel rolling along a road where the scenery may change but not the substance.
I find myself asking these days how things could get any worse for the country, feeling the tug of despondency. But how must Americans on both sides have felt in 1861? Are there issues today of equal moral weight, difficulty, and potential consequence to, for example, slavery? Of course, and the parallels can be very instructive. Abraham Lincoln said if he had been raised in the South, he would have thought like them. He did not condone their conclusions, but he did understand them. They were wrong, but not all evil.
Lincoln came to see purpose in the struggle as expressed in the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, purpose beyond the bubble of his present, its needs and desires. Can we do less? His conclusions can apply equally to this moment. Comprehending more about the past as the future unfolds, we journey backwards as we journey forward. Life has more meaning. We are not alone in either time or space. We can feel closer to God, take comfort, make more constructive judgements, and renew a dedication to a better future.
One of the (few) advantages of ageing is that one’s picture of the past becomes more complete if one pays attention and is discerning. Modern technology delivers a deluge of content, but not necessarily information; much of it is trash. The challenge of the historian is to understand and then communicate to others the distinction between accurate presentations of known facts accompanied by reasonable—and hopefully objective—conjecture, and their opposites.
Younger people absorb a great deal of misinformation from bad history, distorting that projection onto their screen of the future, coming to inappropriate conclusions, and making poor choices. Perhaps we can help them; perhaps we must.
Why particularly the Civil War? One answer can be summed up in the word intensity—a heightened sense of all the feelings generated by the study of history in general. To some degree it is personal preference of subject matter, location, and time period, or availability of sources. But some times are just more INTENSE than others, more concentrated, more packed with whatever it is that attracts us to them, more wonderful characters, and with more potential lessons.
The past provides foundation and framework for the present while shaping the future, for good or ill. When historical comprehension is obscured by ignorance, hubris, or narcissism, poor decisions today influence tomorrow for ill, while a reasonable understanding of our heritage empowers us to shape the future for good.
What is the future of the past? The same as always: either we pay attention to it, learn from it, cherish it, and pass it on, or we do not. As historians, it is our responsibility as well as our joy to promote understanding through forums like Emerging Civil War.