(part two of four)
As part of our Women’s History Month commemoration, we’re talking this week with Dr. Caroline Janney, professor, author, and past president of the Society of Civil War Historians. Janney has spent a good deal of her writing career discussing memorialization and memory. In part one of their conversation yesterday, ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski asked her about that in the context of Janney’s time at Purdue University. Today, they widen the lens a bit.
Chris Mackowski: So you’ve written two fantastic books about how and why the war has been remembered as it has been. [Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause and Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.] How did you get interested in that topic in the first place?
Caroline Janney: The first time I wrote about it was as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. I was struck by the Confederate monument in the cemetery there, and I wondered how and why that was the case. It was an English class on the Civil War, and I started to research and was struck to find that these women’s associations had come up with the idea to create a Confederate cemetery and to commemorate the soldiers who died in the area. It grew from that, but I always had a fascination with the fact that Virginia was populated with so many Confederate monuments.
For a long time, I joked that my hometown had as many Confederate monuments as it did stoplights. I never quite understood why that was the case and how and why they got there—it wasn’t a scholarly question I had as a kid, but something I sometimes wondered about. Then I had that opportunity as a student at a university to explore that and realized that there were a lot of questions that were still unanswered.
CM: I like to ask people what their “Civil War origins” are. Would you trace yours back to those monuments in your hometown?
CJ: That and the fact that my grandfather was a WWII Marine veteran, and he took me to battlefields as a kid. He took me to Antietam and Gettysburg, and my parents, who likewise enjoyed history, took my brothers and me to places of historical significance. We went to Williamsburg and Mount Vernon and battlefields—and the New Market reenactment, which we went to every year. I halfway joke, though I’m probably more serious than joking, that I grew up surrounded by the Civil War. I can’t fathom not wanting to understand how that shaped the landscape as well as the people who lived there.
CM: If it’s not too personal of a question, would you mind sharing a story of your grandfather at one of the battlefields?
CJ: He and my grandmother took me to Gettysburg when I was probably eight or nine, and I remember distinctly Pops would walk the battlefields. He wouldn’t go in the visitor center or the gift shop. Grandma and I went to the Cyclorama, but he spent alone time on the battlefield, and I never quite understood that as a kid.
When I was a junior in high school, my grandparents took me and my cousin to Antietam. Again, he walked the battlefield by himself, and we went into the visitor center, and I bought a book there called The Killer Angels. The one thing he would allow me was to get a book—and to this day, I still teach that book every year in my Civil War memory class.
I’ve come to understand more about why, as a veteran, he would want to have solitude on a battlefield, even if it wasn’t his battlefield. As a kid, I just appreciated that he took me to these historical sites, knowing that something both horrific and grand had happened at these places and trying to comprehend it all.
CM: I’m hearing a common theme while you’re talking here. Your grandfather’s sense of place and how he felt grounded there, and you walking the cemetery and feeling the connection, and that all kind of goes back to what you said earlier about Southerners having that sense of connection to place. How important to you think place is in our ability to reach out and experience Civil War history?
CJ: It’s central. I tell my students all the time that once you get out on a battlefield and you see the landscape, you have a greater sense of both strategically and tactically what happened there and why it happened as it did. Place is important both from a learned perspective and an understanding of the physical landscape, but also there is something about being in a particular spot and feeling that connection, as romantic as that may sound. For me, that may hold true at Civil War battlefields. I also experienced that at Pearl Harbor and places where something so much greater than myself happened. I don’t know that that’s true for everyone, but that’s how I feel connected to both the past and the present.
CM: Do you have a particular place on Civil War battlefields that you like to go?
CJ: I recently wrote an essay for a book that Gary Gallagher and Matt Gallman are publishing on places, and I chose Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam, and I reflected on my grandfather taking me there. That bridge—for all of those reasons, not just for the battle and what happened there, but for the fact that that it loomed so large in my memory of my grandfather—that place is important to me.
CM: How often do you get the chance to go back there?
CJ: Not as often as I’d like to. I equally say the same thing about the New Market battlefield. We went there for Mother’s Day—the reenactment was always on Mother’s Day, so that’s what we did.
CM: As an adult, seeing that same battlefield that, I’m sure as a child, you saw with a particular set of eyes—now you can revisit it as an educated expert. That’s got to be a pretty different perspective.
CJ: That’s the difference of a veteran going to a battlefield he fought on twenty years later and seeing it through a whole different set of eyes, knowing how the war ended, how that battle ended, knowing which comrades went home and which ones didn’t. I think we always filter our present through our past.
In tomorrow’s segment, Janney goes from the battlefield to the classroom to talk a bit about her work as a professor. “A lot of my students have a thirst and a desire to understand the complex, contradictory past…” she says.