Honoring the Civil War Dead

Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation

John R. Neff

By the end of the Civil War, fatalities from that conflict had far exceeded previous American experience, devastating families and communities alike. As John Neff shows, commemorating the 620,000 lives lost proved to be a persistent obstacle to the hard work of reuniting the nation, as every memorial observation compelled painful recollections of the war.

Neff contends that the significance of the Civil War dead has been largely overlooked and that the literature on the war has so far failed to note how commemorations of the dead provide a means for both expressing lingering animosities and discouraging reconciliation. Commemoration—from private mourning to the often extravagant public remembrances exemplified in cemeteries, monuments, and Memorial Day observances—provided Americans the quintessential forum for engaging the wars meaning.

“A boon for anyone interested in the origins, effects or memories of the Civil War. It explores issues surrounding burial of Civil War soldiers to reveal racist, political and sectional divisions related to the war and its memory. . . . Brilliant and lucid analysis of a myriad of complex issues growing out of the Civil War. Every American needs to read it.

—Civil War News

“This is an extremely well-researched, thoughtful, and engaging exploration of public commemoration for this war’s unprecedented losses. . . . Neff’s refreshing perspective challenges numerous myths that have become entrenched in American war memory, but he does so without getting mired in messy theoretical abstractions. This is an exciting narrative and a welcome contribution to American Civil War historiography and to the literature on memory and memorialization, one that should be considered essential reading by all earnest scholars of the period.”

H-Net Reviews
See all reviews...

Additionally, Neff suggests a special significance for the ways in which the commemoration of the dead shaped Northern memory. In his estimation, Northerners were just as active in myth-making after the war. Crafting a Cause Victorious myth that was every bit as resonant and powerful as the much better-known Lost Cause myth cherished by Southerners, the North asserted through commemorations the existence of a loyal and reunified nation long before it was actually a fact. Neff reveals that as Northerners and Southerners honored their separate dead, they did so in ways that underscore the limits of reconciliation between Union and Confederate veterans, whose mutual animosities lingered for many decades after the end of the war.

Ultimately, Neff argues that the process of reunion and reconciliation that has been so much the focus of recent literature either neglects or dismisses the persistent reluctance of both Northerners and Southerners to “forgive and forget,” especially where their war dead were concerned. Despite reunification, the continuing imperative of commemoration reflects a more complex resolution to the war than is even now apparent. His book provides a compelling account of this conflict that marks a major contribution to our understanding of the war and its many meanings.

About the Author

John R. Neff is associate professor of history and Director of The Center for Civil War Research, University of Mississippi.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series