Thirty-six leading scholars from across the country gathered at the Library of Congress Nov. 12-14 for a major symposium on the Civil War. Librarian of Congress James Billington and Ralph Eubanks, director of the Library's Publishing Office, welcomed a crowd of 300 to the free two-and-a-half-day symposium, "The Civil War and American Memory." Panel discussions, followed by lively, thought-provoking question-and-answer sessions, addressed a wide range of topics that reflect the many ways the Civil War era continues to affect American life. The cybercast of the symposium will be available soon on the Library's CyberLC Web site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc.
Sponsored by the Library's Publishing Office, the symposium celebrated Simon & Schuster's recent publication of "The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference," a 949-page illustrated trove of information on the antebellum period, the war and the aftermath of the conflict. Intended for a general audience, the desk reference was edited by Paul Finkelman, Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa; Gary W. Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor of the History of the American Civil War, University of Virginia; and Margaret E. Wagner, Library of Congress writer and editor. With its unparalleled Civil War collections as a foundation for the book, the Library served as an appropriate setting for the symposium.
Gary W. Gallagher, the keynote speaker, launched the symposium with an address on "A Contested Historical Landscape: Understanding and Interpreting the Civil War."
"Beginning in the spring of 1865, when the guns fell silent after four years, after enormous slaughter, Americans struggled to understand and define the conflict. Their quest frequently took the form of heated debate that continues, despite the passage of 137 years," Gallagher said. He discussed three of the war's major interpretative traditions: the Lost Cause, which emerged in the South; the Union Cause; and Reconciliation. Discussion of these interpretative traditions also continued in subsequent panel sessions throughout the symposium.
"Lost Cause writers understood that slavery posed the biggest obstacle to their constructing a version of the war that would resonate favorably before the bar of history," said Gallagher. Consequently, Lost Cause proponents maintained that slavery was merely a peripheral issue of secession. "They said they fought in defense of constitutional principles … that invested great power in the states." Gallagher continued, "To a great degree, these Lost Cause warriors succeeded, with Robert E. Lee becoming the preeminent Lost Cause hero."
By contrast, what Gallagher called the Union Cause identified slavery as the catalyst for secession. This tradition, said Gallagher, "placed the outbreak of fighting squarely on the shoulders of the slave-power South, which plunged the nation into a bloody contest for preservation of its threatened life."
The third major interpretation considered, Reconciliation, ignored the divisive issue of slavery and celebrated the valor of white soldiers on both sides. This notion came to dominate popular perceptions of the war. "Reconciliationists often point to Appomattox, where Grant and Lee behaved in a way that promoted peaceful reunion, as the beginning of a healing process that reminded all Americans of their shared history and traditions. Emancipation and the contributions of 180,000 black Union soldiers … found little or no place in the reconciliationist narrative," according to Gallagher.
Gallagher applauded the growing movement toward linking the war's military history with the social and political ramifications of battlefield clashes. "I hope we have matured enough as a society to confront our Civil War past, warts and all, directly," Gallagher said. "The point isn't to identify heroes and villians in this story. The point is to achieve understanding of a turbulent and profoundly influential epic that has much to teach us about our current condition."
Later that evening, Pulitzer Prize-winning Yale history professor David Brion Davis, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, spoke on slavery. Davis examined the enormously powerful economic and political factors that sustained slavery before the war. In his view, Southerners overreacted to what they perceived as a growing Northern threat and developed a confrontational attitude that, in turn, helped create a more militant and anti-slavery attitude in what had been a "neutral, complacent, and highly racist" North.
Panel discussions began with a consideration of the "Causes of the Civil War: Slavery and Race and the Evolution of Northern and Southern Culture." James Huston of Oklahoma State University, speaking on "Southern Calculation and Northern Emotions: How the War Came," focused heavily on economic considerations. He sparked pointed rebuttals from the University of Maryland's Ira Berlin and Michael Holt of the University of Virginia.
Joseph Glatthaar of the University of Houston, author of "Partners in Command: Relationships between Civil War Leaders," addressed "Why They Fought: Soldiers and Civilians of the Civil War Era." Chaired by Civil War scholar Catherine Clinton, the panel included Anne Rubin of the University of Maryland and Auburn University's Kenneth Noe.
Mark Grimsley of Ohio State University, author of the prize-winning "The Hard Hand of War," and T. Michael Parrish of Baylor University were the featured speakers on "General Assessment: Battlefield Leadership in the Civil War," with commentary by Steven E. Woodworth of Texas Christian University.
Grimsley closely examined the working relationship of Ulysses S. Grant and his commander for the Army of the Potomac, George G. Meade. Grimsley characterized Grant as having a "coping style of leadership," which contrasted with the "control style" of Meade.
Parrish discussed the myth of the South's lost opportunity at Shiloh. He said that P.G.T. Beauregard's decision to stop fighting at Shiloh was militarily a rational one and not a grave mistake. In his commentary, Woodworth disagreed with Parrish. Woodworth said there were too many intangibles and unknowables to determine whether the South would have won or lost Shiloh; but to walk away from the fight was wrong. Woodworth said trying to win Shiloh was a chance the Confederacy could not afford to miss. Beauregard might not have succeeded, but he should have tried, Woodworth added.
"Abraham Lincoln vs. Jefferson Davis: The Commanders-in Chief," a panel chaired by Gabor S. Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute, featured Phillip Shaw Paludan of the University of Illinois, whose "The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln" was awarded the 1995 Lincoln Prize. Paludan emphasized that it was best to remember Lincoln as a leader who operated "within the political constitutional system, proving that the system could bring forth the equality promised in 1776, and calling on the people to live up to the better angels of their nature." Paludan characterized Lincoln as "the cautious emancipator" rather than "the reluctant emancipator," as he is often characterized; he needed to present emancipation in a context that Northerners would accept.
William Cooper of Louisiana State University, author of "Jefferson Davis, American"—awarded the Los Angeles Times Prize in Biography—spoke on the Confederate leader, addressing critics of Davis. In Cooper's opinion, Davis performed far more ably in a political role than in a military one. He "led, but he also heard and heeded both leaders and private citizens in an effort to ensure that governmental policy did not stray too far from public opinion." Davis "insisted he was not directing a war for slave owners but for white liberty," Cooper said. He steered government policy to reflect public opinion, and although adversaries criticized him, no single politician rose to seriously challenge his leadership.
As the military commander-in-chief, however, Davis exhibited serious flaws, according to Cooper. He said that when the military needed a fundamental overhaul, Davis failed to act. He characterized Davis as not having the steel or ruthlessness for the job.
Jean Baker of Goucher College pointedly responded to Paludan's portrait of Lincoln, which she felt made the president "too much of a saint."
Panel sessions continued with a consideration of "The Civil War and American Law: Civil Liberties, Habeas Corpus, and the Roots of Freedom." William M. Wiecek of Syracuse University spoke on "The Civil War and Equality," and Michael Kent Curtis of Wake Forest University discussed the case of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham, who was prosecuted before a military commission for making an anti-war speech at a Democratic rally. Chaired by Leo Richards of the University of Massachusetts, with Robert Cottrell of George Washington University as commentator, the panelists emphasized that issues of civil liberty and national security remained vital.
Panelists on "Reconstruction and Race: The Extended Tragedy of the Civil War Era," suggested that a better subtitle would have been "The Extended Triumph and Tragedy of the Civil War Era," for the postwar era included many accomplishments, as well as setbacks in the quest for equality. Moderated by former Library of Congress staff member Debra Newman Ham, now at Morgan State University, the panel featured a presentation by 2002 Lincoln Prize recipient David W. Blight of Amherst College ("Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory"). Comments by Wang Xi, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, were followed by remarks by Thavolia Glymph, Duke University, who noted the importance of examining the largely ignored Southern black narrative history of the wartime and Reconstruction eras.
John David Smith of North Carolina State University moderated the panel on "Reshaping the Civil War: Changing Views from Generation to Generation," which featured a presentation by Joan Waugh of UCLA, who focused on the changing assessments and fluctuating popularity of Ulysses S. Grant. Waugh said that Grant's rise and fall in popularity parallels the rise and fall of the Union cause. At the end of the 19th century, Grant was highly regarded and extremely popular. Today, however, Waugh asserted, the public seems to hold Robert E. Lee in higher regard than Grant, in part because the Northern version of the war has lost out to the romantic appeal of the South.
Commentators George Rable of the University of Alabama, author of "The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics," and Tony Horwitz, author of the bestselling "Confederates in the Attic," also spoke. Rable and Horwitz agreed with Waugh that the North won the war but lost the battle for the hearts and memories of many Americans today.
Drew Gilpin Faust, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and author of the landmark "Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War," moderated the session on "Can We Know the Civil War? Methods and Pitfalls of Civil War Research." The panel featured presentations by Brooks D. Simpson of Arizona State University, author of "Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868"; William C. Davis of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, author of "An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government"; David Eicher, author of "The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War" and compiler, with John Eicher, of "Civil War High Commands"; and Nina D. Silber of Boston University, author of "The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900."
Simpson spoke of the need to focus on the Civil War homefront and its effect on the battlefront. He said all Americans, from 1861 to 1865, experienced the Civil War in different ways, and the research of minor stories can have a major impact on the understanding of the war. Also, Simpson said the whole history of emancipation needs to be written, because there is no single volume available today that examines how freedom came to African Americans.
Silber made the point that more studies are needed on the role of Northern women. She said that in addition to letters and diaries, pension records are often a good source of information about women, because they had to explain why they needed to receive the pension money.
In the symposium's concluding address, "The New Birth of Freedom: The Central Meaning of the Civil War," Paul Finkelman reminded the audience of Grant's declaration, in his memoirs, that "'the cause of the Civil War was slavery.'" Finkelman then traced how, through the years, slavery was forgotten as a reason for the Civil War; and how the U.S. government, in many ways, eroded the rights that African Americans had gained as a result of the war. However, "In the 1960s, we begin to move toward a new birth of freedom," Finkelman said. Gradually, scholars determined that the tragedy of the war was the failure of Reconstruction, the failure and betrayal of the Supreme Court and the failure to help the freed slave. Finkelman concluded that "We can better understand the central meaning of the war when we see that the task of those who study the war is to ensure that this indeed remains a government of the people, by the people and for the people, a government that seeks a new birth of freedom."
Several special events added creative dimensions to the symposium. Library curators and specialists Clark Evans, Rare Book and Special Collections; Ron Grim, Geography and Map Division; Harry Katz and Carol Johnson, Prints and Photographs Division; and John Sellers of the Manuscript Division described each division's extensive Civil War holdings and how many of these materials can be accessed online.
The Federal City Brass Band, dressed in Federal regimental band regalia, presented an evening of Civil War music using period instruments. Band members explained the history of their instruments and provided information on the musical selections, many of which they had come upon in the Library's collections. The performance concluded with a rousing rendition of "Yankee Doodle." Audience members—some in 19th-century costumes themselves—rewarded the musicians with a standing ovation.
A two-night Civil War Film Festival presented seldom-seen movies from the Library's vast film collections. Ray Brubacher provided piano accompaniment to the silent films, and sound films included footage of a 1930 Confederate reunion and the 1951 feature "Red Badge of Courage" with Audie Murphy.
A riveting dramatic reading of Civil War letters, diaries, and speeches drawn from the Library's collections was a fitting conclusion to the symposium. Actors Edward Gero, Nancy Robinette and Craig Wallace gave voice to the thoughts of soldiers, civilians and politicians caught in the nation's greatest upheaval. Beginning with an 1854 letter written by Marietta T. Hill, a student at the Normal School for Colored Girls in Washington, D.C., the reading moved through battlefield experiences, the occupation of Southern cities, the siege of Vicksburg, to Lee's surrender at Appomattox, and a compelling eyewitness account of the Lincoln assassination.
"What I hope people learned from this symposium was the broad nature of Civil War scholarship. It's not just about battlefield maneuvers, commanders and statistics. It involves complex issues of freedom, the end of slavery, national unity, the disrupted lives of millions of people and much more," said Paul Finkelman as the symposium drew to a close.
Publishing Office Director Eubanks praised the efforts of an army of Library volunteers and staff members for making the symposium a success and an event that both the scholars and the audience hope will be repeated.
This article was prepared by Margaret E. Wagner, Linda Osborne, Susan Reyburn and Blaine Marshall of the Publishing Office. Freelance writer Donna Urschel contributed to the piece.