(Part four of four)
Paul Ashdown and Ed Caudill are co-authors of the latest book in the Engaging the Civil War Series, Imagining Wild Bill: James Butler Hickok in War, Media, and Memory (Southern Illinois University Press). Their work on Hickok parallels other work they’ve done on Custer, Forrest, Mosby, and Sherman. The memories of all five men have followed a familiar process of national myth-making.
Conclusion: The Epicenter of Imagination
The facts of history are indifferent to their audience, but myths make history useful by giving storytellers, journalists and historians a context for validation by their audiences. Thus, historical memory, undergirded by select and relevant facts, often is used to support ideology rather than gain a deeper understanding of the past. The recent frenzy by some to ordain the United States a Christian nation illustrates one way in which historical narrative, with select facts, is put to the service of ideology. In spite of a well-documented history of the Founding Fathers’ antipathy to a state religion, the First Amendment’s establishment clause, and the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, many people in the 21st century insist the United States was created as a Christian nation.
This is what Michael Kreyling deems “counterfactual history,” which, however repulsive to the purist, may serve immediate political and social needs. Kreyling cites Civil War novels in which the war ends in a negotiated truce, and in which Robert E. Lee, like Abraham Lincoln, is a pragmatic emancipationist seeking gradually to end slavery. Such counterfactual history absolves the South by recasting Lee as ultimately fighting for a morally defensible cause—just like Lincoln. Therefore, modern Southern pride is not necessarily racist: “In other words, alternate history attempts to alter what we remember about the past to create a plausible (simulated) ground for a counterfactual present in which certain political positions can be held without the burden of knowing that they have already failed.” Similarly, the Christian nation ideologues find validation in a contrived narrative including iconic, even mythic, figures in the founding of the nation.
Likewise, myth permeates post-Civil War history, which teems with fantastic characters, blown to the surface by the depth charge of war, many of whom were resurrected, like Custer, Hickok and Jesse James, in the Wild West. Their exploits and outrages spawned fictional and semi-fictional characters who captured the imaginations of succeeding generations. The Western stories that filled newspapers, magazines and dime novels came to life in tent shows and on stage, screen and television, from Dodge City to Deadwood. They all shaped public history.
Peering into myth and memory casts new light on how the Civil War and its immediate aftermath remain at the epicenter of our collective imagination. Historical manticores abound, for, as the philosopher David Hume observed in a different context, “To form monsters, and join incongruous shapes and appearances, costs the imagination no more trouble than to conceive the most natural and familiar objects.”
 David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 22. On the issue of the Founding Fathers and the idea of a Christian nation, see Brooke Allen, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), and Forrest Church, So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (New York: Harcourt, 2007).
 Michael Kreyling, A Late Encounter with the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 76-77, 84.
 David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in The Philosophical Works of David Hume, Vol. 2 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1875), 14. Originally published in 1748.