For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching memory and the War. Yes, I know, it’s been the topic of the academics for some time now, and I’ve written about memory in a few different projects in the past. Recently, I was reading an essay by Dr. James H. Madison entitled “Civil War Memories and ‘Pardenership Forgittin,’ 1865-1913”(Indiana Magazine of History, XCIX [September 2003]). Madison seems to be troubled that the monuments that the soldiers from Indiana erected after the war don’t pay homage to why academic historians think (and write) that soldiers fought. On a trip to Shiloh, “What I saw… was silence. I could find no Indiana monument to the bravery and sacrifice that had freed the slaves. There was only one sermon carved on those monuments: Indiana’s heroes had helped save the Union,” Madison writes. He, and probably a host of others, believe that there was some great conspiracy, with an effort aimed at reconciliation North and South, to take the emancipation of the slaves out of the pictures. Madison later continues with, “This way of remembering the war, conflating it with union and nation, requiring veterans to do some forgetting.” Well, I think that the reason that Indiana, and the nation, chose not to commemorate the emancipation of the slaves in its many monuments and memorials is, frankly, that it was not all that important to those who actually fought the war.
Gary Gallagher brings this up in a recent piece in Civil War Times. He talks about four different interpretations of the war: the Emancipation Cause, the Lost Cause, the Reconciliation Cause, and the Union Cause. Gallagher writes that “the Union Cause is the least appreciated of the four great traditions. It is dismissed as unworthy, of great sacrifice by many historians and is virtually absent in the popular understanding of the war.” Gallagher goes on to remind us of Ken Burns’ PBS Series The Civil War, and Dr. Barbara J. Field saying that the preservation of the Union was “A goal too shallow to be worth the sacrifice of a single life.” Yet in the grand scope of world history, just the opposite is true. Barbara J. Field was wrong. While the emancipation of the slaves was, of course, a good thing for the United States, it pales in comparison to the preservation of the Union as a cause.
Thomas A. Desjardin, in his book, These Honored Dead, makes a good case as to why emancipation is, while important, secondary to the preservation of the Union. He writes in his introduction that a Southern victory would have “Balkanized” the country, much more than just a “North and South.” With this multiple splitting of the country, “On what path would World War I have taken us without, first, American industrial might, and, later, military involvement? How would Europe and Russia alone have stopped Hitler’s blitzkrieg? What if the coal in Kentucky and West Virginia had been separated by national boundaries and tariffs from Pennsylvania steel and factories in the East? How quickly would technology have advanced without the combined drive and intellect of a whole United States? No atom bomb, no space program, slower moves toward automobiles, airplanes, computers.”
So, I guess my answer to Dr. Madison’s question, “what sermon those Hoosier veterans were preaching to me?” would be this: the emancipation of the slaves was just not all that important to the boys in blue, certainly not compared with keeping the United States intact. They fought to preserve the Union. If emancipation was what the soldiers themselves saw as paramount, would it not have appeared on their monuments?