Fondly, Fervently Remembering the American Civil War

There was lots to keep track of last week during the Bill T. Jones / Arne Zane performance of “Fondly do We Hope, Fervently do we Pray” over at the Hopkins Center.

In the midst of the fabulous dancing, I found myself perversely wondering what Nathan Lord would have made of this Lincoln-fest coming to Hanover and getting a standing ovation. Lord enjoyed the second longest tenure of any Dartmouth president. It would have been the longest had he not been fired by the Trustees in 1863, when he objected to Lincoln receiving an honorary Dartmouth degree.

Lincolnphilia nowadays extends well beyond the Dartmouth campus. The sixteenth president’s stock has been rising for some time and may have peaked last year with the bicentennial of his birth and with the inauguration of another Springfield, Illinois lawyer (this time a Democrat), who donned the Lincoln mantel while running for president.

The challenge for Bill T. Jones lay not in paying homage to a leader with so many devotees. What was fascinating about the production was its attempt to re-inject controversy into the Lincoln legacy. Associating the issues of the 1860s with today’s hot-button fights about immigrant rights and the uses of war allowed Jones to recall how Lincoln’s “greatness” operated in a context of enormous hostility. It reminded us (as the Nathan Lord example does, far less effectively) of just how contentious Lincoln was during his actual presidency.

A more publicized story of Civil War memorialization has generated an ongoing controversy filled with far more heat than light. On the morning that “Fondly do We Hope” debuted in Hanover, the new governor of Virginia resurrected “Confederate History Month” for the first time in eight years. Governor Bob McDonnell did not mention the role of slavery in sparking the war, nor did he list emancipation as one of its results. An understandable outcry forced him later to acknowledge slavery, though few critics were placated.

The Virginia story, and its continuing fallout, caught my eye and not only because I had spent the day thinking about Lincoln. About ten years ago, the politics of Confederate symbols informed the shape, audience, and reception of my first book. Since then, I’ve followed ongoing attempts of “neo-Confederates” to circulate a deeply ahistorical view of the Southern past.

Neo-Confederate controversies rage every few years, and I’ve taken these as evidence that the Civil War remains America’s “felt history” (to borrow from the poet Robert Penn Warren). Yet does this square with Bill T. Jones’s efforts to put more fervency into our fondness for Lincoln? To what extent can we say that Americans remain divided by the American Civil War? How does the apparent unanimity regarding Lincoln fit into this equation?

Answers to such questions depend on what sectors of national life we care to examine. My suspicion is that while region and race continue to drive popular understanding of the 1860s, political ideology, as expressed by the Right, has become a vital force in how public memory works in the age of Obama. To understand neo-Confederate celebrations requires looking at the resilience of “Lost Cause” among conservative white Southerners. But we need also to situate McConnell’s decree in another context — aside Tea Party nods to the founding, Glen Beck’s assault on Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressivism, and the Right’s increasing disparagement of the New Deal. In this respect, rooting for Confederates has become part of a reactionary tapestry of history . The otherwise dour President Lord would have been delighted.