Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Making the Civil War Strange Again"

The current issue of Prologue (Spring 2010, Vol. 42, No. 1) has a brief article by Bruce Bustard, curator of the new Civil War exhibit at the National Archives. The ingenious invention above (click to get a larger view) is featured in the article, and the exhibit. The caption reads: "In 1862 Louis Joubert patented this multipurpose device that could serve as a tent, knapsack, or litter. (Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, RG 241)."

Bustard attributes the phrase "make the Civil War strange again" to historian Edward Ayers. It is that spirit which gave the exhibit its name, "Discovering the Civil War"in the expectation that even seasoned students of the Civil War era can "rediscover" a familiar subject. I personally am really looking forward to seeing the exhibit on one of my trips to Washington this fall. The notion of making the war "strange" again is really apt, and not a difficult feat. Those of you who have gotten swept away into a years-long fascination (obsession?) with the Civil War periodwho, though you may have broad interests in the full spectrum of human history, continue to find yourself drawn to yet one more Civil War campaign study, one more biography, one more monograph on an aspect of the periodknow the idea.

It's a subject area that is so big, so all encompassing, so woven into the nation's fabric, so recent, that one can manage to find fresh reading material, and fresh insights, with virtually every trip to the bookstore. One thing I've noticed over the years, something hard to convey to people who don't share an abiding passion for American history (hereafter referred to as soulless robots), is that just when you think you might be getting burned out on the subject, just when you think you can't stomach any more glorification of horrific carnage, when you swear you can not tolerate one more tortured rationalization about fighting for the liberty to keep others in bondage, or one more cliched fairy tale about saintly motivations, something washes over your senses, making you remember why you became fascinated with the subject to begin with.

Some passing thought, or dawning realization, or new-found perspective gives you pause and fills you with awe, causing you to fleetingly graspin a moment of claritythat it's not just a familiar narrative to dissect and critique or challenge or substantiate, but something that actually happened, a strange and amazing story about who we are and where we came from.

History will always be bigger than our attempts to chronicle it.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
from "Little Gidding," T.S. Eliot

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