Forgiving and Forgetting

“Forgiveness, which is voluntary,” writes the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit in his 2004 book The Ethics of Memory, “should not be tied to forgetting, which is involuntary.” Forgiveness, Margalit insists, should be understood as a process, not a statement of policy. “The decision to forgive is a decision to act in disregard of the injury. But as long as the offended one retains any scars from the injury, the forgiveness is not complete.” (Margalit, 203-205)

Could forgiveness be complete after four years of a bloody, fratricidal war that left thousands maimed and wounded?  Or did Union veterans share in an “ethics of memory” until the final roll call?  “That sickly sentiment which would have us believe that the soldiers on either side can ever forget the privations they have endured, the painful marches, the dreadful battle fields, their suffering in field, camp and prison, is more than foolish,” Union veteran C.D. Clark contended in an 1868 piece for The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Half Dime Tales, a literary magazine peddled by disabled ex-soldiers.  Writing in the Grand Army Journal, another blue-coated vet maintained that “the momentous events of the war . . . are too fresh in memory to be forgotten at the command of any party.”

Historians have long been captivated by the images of Union veterans extending their hands across the stonewall at the High Water Mark. This remarkable gesture of forgiveness, scholars assume, was a moment of profound historical forgetfulness.  What C.D. Clark and so many of his comrades quite eloquently suggest, however, is that forgiveness after the Civil War was not necessarily a statement of policy.  Again, forgiveness was voluntary; forgetting was not.

Of course, wars generate an array of memories, and some Union veterans by the war’s jubilee had embraced, in David Blight’s now famous formulation, “healing at the expense of justice.”  But one essential ingredient that made possible this “healing” was the reality that so many the war’s most unsettling reminders had, with the heavy hand of time, disappeared – making what veteran Frank H. Evans called “march to the Celestial land.” At the beginning of the new century, there were fewer and fewer veterans leaning on crutches, begging for spare change, and staring vacantly into space.   Forgiveness could be more complete indeed.

We need to interrogate the historical relationship between forgiving, forgetting, and sectional reconciliation.  What can we learn about Civil War memory by re-thinking forgiving and forgetting as discrete forces shaped by their specific, historical moment?

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6 thoughts on “Forgiving and Forgetting

  1. edabney says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Brian and now here goes some ramblings.

    I think there is something to the reminder factor disappearing by the time of the 50th anniversary of the Civil War. Buildings standing 50 years before may have disappeared in the moments of battle or since the soldiers stopped shooting on the battlefields (I hesitate to say the war ended), the veterans were dying out.

    I think too there is also another factor here is that people don’t forgive or forget but they just move on. The late 19th century featured a lot of changes which we may tie to the Civil War but I’m not sure people at the time would have always seen it that way. The waves of immigrants from countries where English, French, and German were not spoken; the rise of white supremacy across the country, a series of depressions, political campaigns and politicians fraught with problems, plus all the daily strains and successes of life. For some elites of course the post-war period became the “Gilded Age” and for the large majority it was at best a survival period. I think as in so many things people just wearied of the war in the Northeast and Midwest because of rapid growth of cities, industry, etc. Whereas in the South, often the progress was slowed, reminders of the war was everywhere from the closet where grandpa’s coat was to the bullets still turning up in the farm fields, and the post-1870s wave of new Confederate monuments where often there may not have been any battles. You also have a large labor class of former slaves and their families working for medium and large landholders who often were the old slaveholding class. Fewer immigrants, continued melding of blacks in some industries (tobacco as example) and whites in others (textiles as example).

    I am in short agreeing with Margalit on the point of so long as there is one party scarred by something then the forgiveness is unlikely to easily come about, if it comes about at all. I think this is clearly seen across the South (and I don’t live in the North but interact with a lot of Northerners through work yet I’m still not going to speak of the North) because the physical scars are still on the earth and the depth to which some people cling to their family’s past means an emotional scar that still nearly 150 years since Appomattox Court House, Bennitt Place, etc. has not gone away.

    And in keeping with the theme of your blog, I therefore am suggesting (though you know better than I) that it was easier for this third part of moving on where there is no forgiveness needed because it’s 1913 and Papa Yankee died ten years ago, his wife is receiving a pension, the children have married and moved out and started their own adult lives. There is little need for forgetting for some because they arrived in 1880 with the clothes on their backs and started working in a factory in New York and have no ties to the country’s past and are struggling to survive in the present. It becomes easier for the old veterans to just live out peacefully and the new folks (whether the children of the Civil War generation or immigrants) to just focus on the future. Much longer than I thought I would ramble.

    • Emmanuel: Thanks for contributing this incredibly thoughtful response. I think you are right — the South found it more difficult to move on because the physical scars were all around them, whereas in the North, Union veterans themselves were the most insistent reminders of the war’s horrors — and once they were gone, the war could be a distant, dim memory. And you also raise the crucial factors of postwar immigration and industrialization. By the 1880s, millions who labored in factories in an increasingly dynamic northern industrial landscape had no immediate connection to the Civil War. Subsequent waves of immigration throughout the twentieth century and our own changing demographics at the dawn of the twenty first century may explain why Tom Brown seems to lament a diminishing interest in the Civil War. Again, thanks for reading and please, keep contributing as much as you see fit.

  2. Keith Harris says:

    What I think is most remarkable – the remembering (of painful events and all) that appeared alongside explicit expressions of forgiveness. For example – and I am paraphrasing many – there were those who promoted reconciliation and embraced forgiveness – but insisted on never forgetting. And thus they are forgiving on terms very particular to their causes and experiences…remembering that, not so long ago, their now forgiven former enemies had tried very, very hard to kill them. It has been far too long that scholars have lumped forgiving and forgetting together.

  3. Craig L. says:

    If you’d like an insight into the life of Union Civil War veterans, run a Google search on “Valentine Herman cow train” to see what might have become of my great great grandfather if he had survived his six months of service with the 27th Wisconsin.

  4. Craig L. says:

    Sorry. That should be “Valentine Herman train cow”.

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