Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: Symbols of War and Peace: The Tools of Remembrance
Abstract: The conclusion of a war prompts the beginning of an often much longer struggle. How societies remember any given war is a contested, negotiated process. Integral to these negotiations are the symbols used to commemorate those wars. Those symbols often say as much or more about the builder or creator than they do about the commemorated.
The essays comprising this panel examine some of these symbols of war and peace and the importance of the messages they convey. Bradley Keefer explores the impact of Civil War re-enactment on the creation and perpetuation of the "Lost Cause" idea. Keefer contends that the manner in which re-enactors physically reconstruct Civil War battles become symbols of the war in themselves. They tell a particular version of the story; in this case, a version that draws attention away from the contentious political issues. Derek Mallett examines the possibility of creating a more nuanced Civil War narrative, and ultimately collective memory, through the construction of new monuments. In this fashion, the meaning of one symbol might be balanced by the presence of other, competing versions of the story. As if to illustrate this potential, Heather Haley analyzes the process through which a particular image, the poppy, became a recognized symbol for World War I remembrance. In this case, the development of a sacred symbol resulted from a deliberate process.
Collectively, these essays not only illustrate the power of symbolism, but also the ways in which these symbols are purposefully used to shape collective memory. This panel provides a timely discussion amidst the current debate over the meaning of monuments and memorials in the United States. It provides historical perspective on the creation of commemorative symbols and suggests the potential for using these symbols of war to create a more balanced public narrative.
Derek Mallett, US Army Command and General Staff College
Participant's Paper Title: Nat Turner's Lost Cause
Participant's Paper Abstract: Nat Turner was born into slavery in Virginia at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. On 22 August 1831, Turner and his followers broke into the home of Turner's owner and murdered him and his family in their sleep. Thus began a killing spree in which the escaped slaves murdered between fifty-five and sixty members of white slaveholding families. Is Nat Turner the kind of person a society should commemorate? After all, he professed to have visions and saw natural phenomenon such as solar eclipses as signs from God. More importantly, he murdered dozens of men, women, and children in their beds. Confederate sympathizers suggest that Robert E. Lee and thousands of other southerners were justified, even honorable, in fighting and killing for their "states' rights." So, is a man who had been forced to endure slavery his entire life justified, even honorable, in killing for his own personal freedom?
In the midst of the on-going "war of monuments" in the United States, this paper examines what it means for an individual or event to be "monumental," i.e., worthy of commemoration. The scholar Stephen C. Murray writes that on Peleliu Island in Palau, disparate Japanese political groups have waged their own "war of monuments" over interpretation of World War II. On Peleliu, monuments are not taken down; rather both sides present their messages in stone, leaving a bit of a dialectic picture for visitors to absorb and interpret for themselves. This essay asks not whether we should tear down Confederate monuments. Rather, it examines the possibility that the story told by our current public monuments and memorials could be made more comprehensive by commemorating other figures?slaves, abolitionists, Union leaders, and other activists?who were integral to the American fight to end slavery and ultimately to achieve civil rights for African Americans.
Michael Dolski, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
Bradley Keefer, Kent State University at Ashtabula
Participant's Paper Title: Civil War Reenacting and the Lost Cause
Participant's Paper Abstract: In the 50 years since its centennial in the 1960s, Civil War reenacting has grown into a hobby that at one time had over 50,000 adherents in the US and around the world. Rooted in the reconciliation impulses of the 1890s and constructed around the "common soldier's" perspective, the reenactment community has generally maintained a neutral political stance. This paper argues that by judiciously avoiding the complex political issues of the day, reenactors consciously or unconsciously deliver a distinctly "Lost Cause" version of the war to the public. By insisting that it was a war for "States Rights" and "to save the Union," reenactors on both sides can portray the contesting forces as nearly identical, save for some "minor" ideological details. In such a context, they can argue that neither side was good or bad, the tragic loss of life and honors given to the dead are appropriately equal, while maintaining that the glorification of southern life and culture is an homage to a "vanished civilization" (as per Gone with the Wind). Using Charles Regan Wilson's definition of the Lost Cause as a "civic religion," we can examine some of the rituals that connect reenactors to this sentimental and sanitized version of The War. Along with the authenticity and internal politics that permeate the hobby, there are the defining military moments that characterize the Lost Cause for both Union and Confederate reenactors: Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, and the charge of the VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market, VA in March 1865. Using these two annual reenactment events as case studies, and utilizing a variety of sources (including my own 28 years of reenacting experience), we will attempt to analyze the extent to which Lost Cause values define the reenactment experience.
Heather Haley, Auburn University
Participant's Paper Title: Poppyganda: Commonwealth Commemoration of the Great War
Participant's Paper Abstract: Displaced from its original World War I battlefield setting and systematically integrated into an invented symbol, the Flanders poppy is an imposed memory upon the public as sanctioned by the British government. Members of parliament, and by extension the British Monarchy, appropriated, expanded, and implanted the poppy into the collective memory as a symbol of remembrance for political aims. By 2014, the poppy had become a master symbol in the United Kingdom as it formulated "a new social imaginary through a dynamic process of meaning making, memory marking, and contemporary identity creation." (Flores, 159) A lieux de memoire, or site of memory, the Flanders poppy continues to evoke memories from a bygone era and reinforces the British governmental aim of compulsory military support into the twenty-first century.
This paper traces the poppy's association with battlefield deaths following the First World War when wild red poppies flourished along battlefields in the Flanders region of northern France. Since the Royal British Legion's selection of the flower as its official emblem in 1921, it has become the focal point around which national and local remembrance ceremonies typically revolve in the United Kingdom. Typically worn on lapels during remembrance week in early November, paper poppies serve to commemorate service personnel of the commonwealth who died in military conflicts. The poppy also plays an important part in the multitude of personal and unofficial rituals by friends and relatives visiting the former Western Front battlefield sites. Poppy wreaths and small crosses adorned with poppies are found throughout the year at memorials and at individual graves in military cemeteries. Thus, the poppy became a lieux de memoire, "a notion produced, defined, established, constructed, decreed, and maintained by the artifice and desire of a society fundamentally absorbed by its own transformation and renewal." (Nora, 6)

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