Tag Archives: Forgetting

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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