(part one of four)
March is Women’s History Month, and to commemorate the event, Emerging Civil War is talking with several women who work in the field of Civil War history. This week, ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski talks with one of the most notable voices among the new generation of Civil War scholars, Dr. Caroline Janney.
Janney earned her PhD from the University of Virginia in 2005. She currently teaches history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, but next fall, she’ll return to the University of Virginia to join the faculty of her alma mater. She is the past president of the Society of Civil War Historians and the author of two books, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (UNC, 2008) and Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (UNC, 2013). She’s also editor or co-editor of two volumes in the Military Campaigns of the Civil War Series, Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign (UNC, 2015) and Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia (UNC, 2018).
The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Chris Mackowski: Since you’re at Purdue, I want to start by giving a shout-out to Indiana, which has a fantastic Civil War history. How have you been able to explore what’s out there since you’ve been there?
Caroline Janney: One of the things that is certainly the centerpiece of Indianapolis is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. I quickly realized when I moved to Indiana that anyone who lives in and around Indianapolis knows that monument, and it’s allowed me to connect with the local population who don’t have battlefields in their backyards the same way that the people in Virginia and Pennsylvania and other places do. It’s allowed me to bring the war in some ways into classrooms and public lectures in a way that is still very present and real to the minds of people in Indiana.
CM: That really surprised me when I went to downtown Indianapolis: it’s a city that really admires its war memorialization.
CJ: Very much so—and not only the Soldiers and Sailors Monument but also the various others, like the World War I monument, along the mall. It’s kind of a miniature D.C. in terms of the memorialization of United States soldiers. [NOTE: There’s a monument to the U.S.S.Indianapolis there, too.]
CM: You’ve spent a good deal of your writing career on memorialization and memory—and I’ll ask you specifically about Indianapolis, and then get into that in a larger area—but that connection to memory certainly that must have struck a chord with you when you went downtown.
CJ: Yes, on a couple of levels. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument—I’m pretty confident it’s the largest Civil War monument in the country, and that, in and of itself, speaks a great deal that it would be in Indiana of all places. Of course, Indiana was an important site of organization for the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest of the Union veterans’ associations. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the city boasts such an impressive monument to the Union Cause.
But there’s also the symbolism that’s on those monuments. On one side, the Confederate battle flag is being trampled, which suggests that at the turn of the 20th century, there was no glorification of the Lost Cause and the Confederate flag. On the opposite side, it depicts African Americans being freed and breaking the handcuffs of slavery. Even though Indiana certainly has its own ugly racial history, the notion that freeing the slaves was a central part of the Union victory was still very much important in the early 1900s to Union veterans and their descendants.
CM: That was something that David Blight argued was not necessarily the case across the North during re-unification.
CJ: He’s absolutely right if you look at someone like Frederick Douglass, who was outraged to say the least that reconciliation seemed to be trumping emancipation and the Union cause—that white Union soldiers seemed to forget what they fought for. But in looking at countless speeches and memoirs and other writings of Union veterans, it became clear to me that the opposite was true: that early into the 20th century, Union veterans and their descendants, in fact, said freeing the slaves was part of the war. That didn’t mean they were racial egalitarians the way that Frederick Douglass wanted them to be, but they understood that ending slavery was paramount to their cause, at least at the end.
CM: Where would you see the tipping point is where people forgot about slavery as a war aim and the Lost Cause interpretation started to dominate memory?
CJ: It’s really the mid-20th century when that happens. It’s two generations separated from the Civil War when that increasingly becomes the case. Part of it is from popular culture most notably Gone with the Wind, but it’s also the passing of the veterans and their direct descendants that, by the time that we get to the Centennial, in the 1960s, there’s more of a reconciliationist narrative among white northerners or descendants of the Unionists. But that’s really a 20th century phenomena. It’s not the way that most of the Civil War generation or even their children understood the war.
CM: I think one of the things that struck me in your first book, Burying the Dead, was where you talk about how “loss” was still a very, very personal thing for these ladies across the South, and that affected how they remembered the war and how the lost soldiers were remembered. It’s got that very deep personal motivation wrapped up in that commemoration effort. At what point does it stop being so deeply personal and it becomes a habit of memorialization?
CJ: I think it depends on the people. Because Confederates and their descendants aren’t just talking about the Civil War but equally talking about Reconstruction and the legacies of Reconstruction, it remains personal and intimate for a longer period of time for subsequent generations in a way that it doesn’t for the white north.
The sheer numbers of the population—the fact that less than 50% of white, northern men fought in the war—meant that there was a smaller percentage that was as tied to the war than in the white south, where 75-80% of white men of military age fought in the war. That number is diluted in the North in the postwar period by immigration, so you don’t have those personal ties and you don’t have those Union veterans that are as important to communities as veterans tend to be in the postwar South. It seems to white Southerners—even if it’s not true—that their war was more personal and immediate than the war was in the North. They can often name ancestors who fought or point to places in their backyard in a way that many white northerners—again I’m speaking in a collective fashion here—didn’t or couldn’t. It seemed personal longer to the white South than it did in a lot of other places.
CM: My own experience, at least anecdotally, the North just seems less connected to the war than the South does, for those reasons you mentioned: with the influx of immigration, fewer people as a percentage fought in the war, so today, if you talk to a high school class, many of them have no connection to the war whatsoever. They’re immigrants or descended from immigrants, so they can’t trace back to ancestors who fought in the war. But in the South, people still say, “My great-great-granddaddy did ‘X.’”
CJ: That connection to place is important—the notion that families did or didn’t leave a certain area and being tied to a place. It’s a combination of all those things, and sometimes the perception is more important than the reality. It very well may be that northern students have ancestors that played some role in the Civil War, whether they were Union soldiers, or members of the Sanitary Committee, or some other fashion, but somehow preserving that memory hasn’t been as culturally and politically important as in the South.
“I grew up surrounded by the Civil War,” Janney explains in tomorrow’s segment. “I can’t fathom not wanting to understand how that shaped the landscape of where I grew up.” Find out more in part two of our interview.