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 ReviewsSee all reviews...
“This informative book concentrates on one of the most important ways in which Americans remembered the Civil War, their disposition of the dead bodies that the war left in its wake. Neff’s approach to the topic provides a useful perspective on the sectional dynamics of Civil War commemoration and identifies valuable opportunities for examining other transformations wrought by the war. . . . When Neff . . . reflects on the pervasive, profound challenge of death in the Civil War, he points toward a vital line for future exploration. Scholars who follow that line through literature, religion, political science, and other fields will benefit from his thoughtful and assiduous research.”
—Journal of Interdisciplinary History
“A moving and detailed look at how our ancestors dealt with war deaths and how they worked their feelings into the fabric of their national personality, thereby shaping not only remembrance, but their own understanding of history. A very important work.”
—William C. Davis, author of The Cause Lost
“A persuasive revision of the ‘road to reunion’ thesis that has dominated recent historiography.”
—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
“Imaginative, thoughtful, and well written. A superb book.”
—Phillip Shaw Paludan, author of A People’s Contest
“A profoundly thought-provoking work.”
—Steven E. Woodworth, author of While God Is Marching OnSee fewer 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.