Bentonville Teaches the Ever-Changing Lessons of History
"It was the largest Civil War battle fought in North Carolina and the last major Confederate attack on Union forces, but its importance is still under-recognized," Civil War expert Fred Kiger recently told a group sponsored by the UNC-Chapel Hill Alumni Association visiting the Bentonville Battlefield.
Along with tens of thousands of other -visitors, the Chapel Hill group watched several thousand -"re-enactors" in the -uniforms of Federal and Confederate -soldiers dramatically recreating a portion of the battle.
If you missed this amazing production, you will get another chance in March 2015 on the occasion of the battle's 150th anniversary. In the meantime, the -battlefield, a State Historic Site, with excellent interpretive exhibits, is one of the best ways to confront our Civil War heritage.
Who, you may be asking, cares about such old history?
Lots of people.
Ask folks at North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction what happened when word got out that they were considering focusing 11th-grade history on events beginning in 1877. They learned that many North Carolinians think that study of the Civil War era is critical to an understanding of our historic heritage.
Speaking to a group of Chapel Hill -students recently, the former British ambassador to the United States, Sir Christopher Meyer, said a familiarity with the historic experiences of Great Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan might have helped the leaders of his country and the United States keep from making the same mistakes again.
What then are the lessons to be gained from a study of history? To a certain extent, it depends on who writes the -history. For instance, the Texas Board of Education has been in the news recently for its proposals to revise the social studies curriculum to put conservative ideas, leaders and activities more -positively and completely.
When liberals write history, their -values have influence, too. The way they write history suggests the lessons they want us to learn from it.
The narratives of history and its lessons also change to reflect the values and conditions of the times in which they are written.
We will be testing this assertion -during the next five years as we -celebrate - no, that's the wrong word, we should say, commemorate - the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Civil War.
I remember the centennial of that war back in the early 1960s. Celebration was a big part of the remembrance. Robert Cook, author of "Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965," says that it "celebrated the common courage of Northern and Southern whites and -derided Reconstruction as an ill-conceived attempt to impose racial equality on gallant ex-Confederates" while it "downplayed" events like "emancipation and Lincoln's use of African-American troops, which dominated the marginalized black folk memory of the Civil War." Cook also says that some Southerners "sensed they could use the -centennial to foster a distinctive Confederate memory that would bolster resistance to integration."
So, a proper subject for today's historians is how we commemorated the Civil War 50 years ago at the same time the heated struggle for civil rights was dividing the nation again.
All these things make me wonder how the lessons of Civil War history will be different for us this time around.
North Carolina already has a Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. Its mission is to develop "activities to commemorate, in an appropriate and historically accurate manner, the richness, diversity and significance of the state's participation in and contributions to the American Civil War ... and to transform the interpretation of the events for a new generation."
Observing how that "transformation" of our interpretation of Civil War history takes place might turn out to be even more interesting than last week's activities at the Bentonville Battlefield.
UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," with D.G. Martin as host, returns to the air next month with a special conversation with Andrew Young, author of "The Politician," Friday, April 2, at 9:30 p.m.
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