Last Sunday, I stood on a Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk, about midway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, waiting for a parade. Just after 12 noon, more than 1,000 people, sweating in nineteenth-century garb, began filing past. Women and men, civilians and soldiers, white and black, had come together to mark the sesquicentennial of the Grand Review of the Armies, a two-day parade held in May 1865 to celebrate the Union victory and to restore enthusiasm after President Lincoln’s assassination. About ten minutes into the ceremony, I said to my girlfriend, half-jokingly, that I might want to become a reenactor. But I realized that in a sense I already had. Thousands of spectators cheered the parading soldiers at the original Grand Review. The reenactment encouraged spectators to feel connected to the parade and to the conflict that had inspired it. I felt happy to see so many people—closer to scores than thousands—who wanted to commemorate nineteenth-century history. I felt excited, as a still-new D.C. resident, to take part in something that was so closely tied to the city’s history. I felt like the parade was, in many ways, a very cool event. As we watched the marchers, I was struck by the strange, distinct feeling that I love the Civil War.
I’ve found myself drawn to the Civil War era for a number of reasons over the past few years. The period allows us to explore big historical questions about the shape of the modern United States and the meaning of freedom. The documentation of the war in photographs, newspapers, and diaries lets us connect with a wide array of individuals and stories from a very different world. But beyond that, I’ve often found myself marveling at the War—a collection of coincidences and strange chances, a transformative era in which so much change hinged on so many contingencies. My feelings about the War are filtered through my time as a teaching assistant for David Blight’s course on the era. His compelling, meandering, heavily referential lectures seemed designed in part to inspire students to revel in the stories–to feel at least as much as they thought.
The Civil War can inspire a kind of awe, which is what I felt during the Grand Review reenactment. The War is beguiling. Maybe it’s my insecurity as a young historian, but it feels strange to be so drawn to a complex historical era, and to feel that the best way to explain that attraction is to say that the Civil War is cool. I’ve been wondering about what to do with these feelings about history that seem so far from historical thinking. What is the intellectual value of reverence? Do our feelings about the past need to have a particular intellectual value? How do we square a very human impulse towards awe with the historian’s mandate to think analytically? Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War, when a group of black Americans chose to commemorate Union soldiers who died as part of what had become a war for freedom. The individual dead were stand-ins, representing an intangible cause that was the real object of celebration. And the reverence of Decoration Day had a real political value, making claims about the meaning of the War and black peoples’ place in the changing nation.
There’s a sense that loving a subject can lead a historian to obscure the truth, to try to show a person or event in a flattering or exciting light, to try to make others feel the same love. But perhaps awe, reverence, or love can make us more invested in telling truths, more dedicated to exploring fully the nature and implications of a historical life or event. Perhaps reverence is a key tool for inspiring historical empathy in students and for helping scholars avoid becoming too detached from the humanity of the past. And perhaps it’s okay to take off the historian’s hat every now and then, and to join with a few thousand others in becoming a reenactor.