Author Interview--Sarah J. Purcell (Spectacle of Grief) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Sarah J. Purcell about her new book, Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War Era, published by the University of North Carolina Press in April 2022.

Part 1

Thank you for those excellent answers on some smaller details in the book. One part that struck me about your characters is that the public almost every time ignored their personal wishes. Why cannot we let go and allow the deceased have their private funeral, I am thinking here especially Joe Johnston?

SJP: That’s a good observation—these figures were important symbols who couldn’t control their own reception and meaning, especially after death.  Joseph Johnston wanted to have a very quiet funeral with no Confederate symbolism and minimal pomp and celebration.  But he was too important to individuals and organizations, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Southern Historical Society, who had an interest in promoting him as part of the Lost Cause memory of the Civil War to just be buried quietly.  Former Confederates, who believed rightly that Johnston had done much to support their cause (even though he had also supported many rituals of reconciliation), couldn’t afford to let Johnston go quietly, when they could celebrate the Confederacy by mourning and celebrating him. Even though most former Confederates honored Johnston’s wish for a simple church service and quiet burial, others showed up as his body was transported to pay it respects and many more commemorated him in print culture and continued to use him as a symbol of the Lost Cause.

Many of the individuals you study have a role in memory and reconciliation regarding the Civil War--how do you challenge established views in Civil War Memory scholarship?

SJP: A lot of the historiography on Civil War memory emphasizes competition between different strands of Civil War memory (reunionist, reconciliationist, white supremacist, Lost Cause, emancipationist, Union Cause)—showing one strand or another rising to dominance over time between 1865 and 1913.  My work shows how all the different strands coexisted—often even in the mourning rituals for one person, like Robert E. Lee, who might be thought of as a good candidate to represent a particular theme in Civil War memory.  I follow Nina Silber’s suggestion that we view Civil War memory as less a contest between different themes and more as a factor that influenced the “imagined reconstitution of the nation.” Blatantly contradictory themes in Civil War memory all influenced contested versions of U.S. national identity; the “nation” was reconstituted out of many different kinds of memory. Looking at one cultural form—the public funeral—allows us to see how the different strands of Civil War memory were part of a larger contest over what the nation should mean.

Examining public funerals also shows that several of the really important themes in Civil War memory—such as reconciliation—became influential earlier than is usually thought. Collective memory of the Civil War began to be created as soon as the war started. For example, the commemoration of dead officers right away in 1861 was already serving to mute the issue of slavery and providing the groundwork for the reconciliationist memory of a common “white male” sacrifice identified by David Blight as a major factor in the memory of the 1880s.

One final person I want to touch on is Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. There are so many interesting parts to your story and how his funeral relates to Robert E. Lee's. It seemed so odd that Lexington, VA with the burial of the two became a focal point of Lost Cause Memory, but is a bit more of a sleep town today and Richmond, which wanted the bodies, is the bigger memory battleground. How much, then and now, are the two cities still struggling with the Lost Cause focal point they would like or not like to be?

SJP: I think the legacy of the Lost Cause and the present-day struggles over its persistence are still very much present in both Lexington and Richmond, VA.  Both cities draw folks in the Neo-Confederate movement and both are also reckoning with efforts to lessen commemoration of enslavers and the Confederacy. Lexington still draws many visitors who are intent on visiting the graves of Jackson and Lee, even as the town has reduced the presence of Confederate symbols (like battle flags) in the past decade.  The commemorative landscape there is also shaped by the continued institutional presence of Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute—both of which also have their own particular struggles over Civil War memory.  Richmond, of course, has had an even more high-profile contest over issues of commemoration, particularly over the removal of Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue—even as Hollywood Cemetery continues to be a huge tourist draw, as well.  In some ways, the struggles between the two towns in the 1860s and 70s over which would become the commemorative “heart” of the post-Confederate South can be seen in the echoes of these battles over Confederate memory today.  Visiting the graves of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee (and also Winnie Davis in Richmond), remain part of the political and cultural struggle over the legacies of the Confederacy.

To close, you mentioned in one of our emails that you were on sabbatical, are you working on a new project? 

SJP: I am working on a new project about the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, focusing on how particular “battles” over the monument’s meaning between 1825 and today show us how monuments are always contested, even though they are supposed to be the most permanent and “stable” forms of public memory.  The project will also look at how different themes in U.S. commemoration overlap in important ways. For example, during the Civil War, the Bunker Hill monument was used both as a symbol of U.S. nationalism and as a provocation against the Confederacy.  Some Confederates, however, were loath to give up the monument and its ties to American Revolutionary memory. Virginia Senator James Murray Mason (of the Trent Affair) commented early in 1861 that if he ever visited the Bunker Hill Monument again it would have to be “as an ambassador.”