Author Interview--Shannon Bontrager (Death at the Edges of Empire) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Shannon Bontrager to talk about his book, Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921, published by the University of Nebraska Press in February 2020.

Shannon Bontrager is a Professor of History at Georgia Highlands College in Cartersville, Georgia. He received his Ph.D. from Georgia State University in 2011. 

To start, Shannon, how did you become interested in writing a book that looks at the remembering of Civil War, 1898, and WWI dead?

SB: I was orphaned twice after I became ABD in my doctoral program as former advisors left to take other jobs. Ian Fletcher, took me on as his student even though he focused on World History and the British Empire. This unorthodox inter-historiographical relationship produced a creative energy that generated many innovative outcomes. I have to give Ian a lot of credit because instead of coaxing me to fit my work to his specific area of expertise, he came up with a way for us to meld our areas together. It gave us the creative license to focus on U.S. History but borrow from the methodology of World History. We had so many conversations about history and politics that extended late into the night over curry at the Indian restaurant near his home. And our conversations buoyed my fascination with the Annals school, which looks at history through the longue durée, the microhistories of scholars like Emmanual Le Roy Ladurie but also theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein. U.S. historians tend to shy away from these methodological approaches and Ian helped me see that I wanted to bring these interpretations to American historiography, if I could. So we reconceived a smaller paper I wrote years earlier on death and the Anglican church during the First World War and focused instead on the making of American nationalism. Ian suggested we start with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This kind of idea was especially on our minds as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were entering their 5th and 6th years and it was clearly evident the Empire that Americans had learned to obscure for much of the twentieth century was now being laid bare in the twenty-first century not only by the George W. Bush administration but also by American corporations collaborating with middle-class citizens. The controversies surrounding Corporal Pat Tillman’s (former National Football League star) death in Afghanistan, for example, were rapidly unfolding at the time. His family’s devotion to him and their collective resistance to remember Tillman the way that the NFL, the federal government, and, frankly, many Americans wanted the family to remember him was profoundly anguishing and asymmetrical to the American tradition of commemorating the war dead. The Tillman family challenged American collective memory in ways that had never been tried before and they largely succeeded in keeping his memory from being assimilated into the banality of American imperialism. I began thinking about how, or even if, Pat Tillman would fit into the promises embedded in the Gettysburg Address. To answer this question and understand the process of an “American commemorative tradition” it became apparent that I would have to begin with the Civil War and move through American westward expansion, Cuba, the Philippines, and the First World War.

What do you argue in Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: I tried to write a multi-layered history that used the “thick description” of cultural history to compliment and reinforce the political narrative, and vice versa. For example, one argument I propose is that studying the rituals of the war dead allows us to detect imperialistic practices. I argue that America is an Empire and the nation’s imperialism can be revealed through the lens of cultural memory because it allows us to see how imperial memories work. These memories were exceedingly untrustworthy because they were made by Americans who looked back at the Civil War and worked extremely hard at forgetting the history of slavery and emancipation and covering over that history with ahistorical memories that stressed the conflict as a war of states’ rights and reunification. Only by acknowledging reunification as a false memory can we begin to peel back the layers of the past to see empire as a historical possibility. We can see this memory of empire most clearly in the invasions of Cuba and the Philippines. Here Americans had to retrieve and remove the war dead from places outside the U.S. precisely because their burials (including the dead, at the time, still in the wreckage of the USS Maine) in non-American locations reminded people around the world (and at home) of American imperial behavior. Later, it became so difficult to explain America’s involvement in the First World War that political and military officials had to retool America’s commemorative rituals surrounding the war dead again in order to justify the conflict to Americans but also to justify American expanse into European political and economic affairs to Europeans, which had not been done before. By using cultural description and political narrative, I tried to argue that Lincoln’s promise to the dead—given in his speech at Gettysburg—that the nation was obligated to remember those who sacrificed in the noble cause and a new birth of freedom, had been turned upside down into a justification for American empire. Those who turned it on its head used Lincoln’s promise to disguise the nation’s imperialistic tendencies with the window dressing of democratic ritual. The evidence of this disguise—the proof of the imperialistic nature of the nation—is in the memories of the war dead. This obfuscation worked again and again throughout the twentieth century to justify the cost of war—so that those who died shall not have died in vain. It worked right up until Pat Tillman’s death and his family’s reluctance to place Tillman into this cultural memory of the empire.    

I very much enjoyed the modern ties and connections you made in the book. How do war, memory, nationalism, and republicanism intersect, especially for Lincoln?

SB: One location where war, memory, nationalism, and republicanism intersect is our collective memory of the war dead. Other locations also exist. When a wartime soldier sacrifices his body for the Republic and for the Nation we commemorate this sacrifice with rituals through which we adorn the soldier’s body. But it’s our use of language that actually creates this intersection. This is why I spend so much time setting up and contrasting important Presidential speeches while also describing the media through which the language of memory could be communicated: cemeteries, the wreckage of battleships, archival collections, theater, photographs, nurses reunions, the aural technology of telephony, the visual representation of monuments, and the actual process of retrieving dead bodies. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is the opening move in this history of how Americans should remember the war dead. It establishes the criteria and the rules for American collective memory. At Gettysburg Lincoln made a solemn promise to the dead. He obliged the living to remember them for the noble sacrifice they made for the freedom of Americans, including freed people, that the nation might endure. Since then every conflict—from Little Bighorn to Vietnam to Niger to Afghanistan—must be placed within the American Valhalla of what I call Lincoln’s promise. But as U.S. wars became more imperialistic it became harder and harder to uphold the criteria that insisted that noble sacrifices had to accomplish what Lincoln described as a new birth of freedom. That is a high bar used by the President to justify the sacrifice that comes along with combat. Frankly, I doubt if any of America’s wars since have met this benchmark. And yet committing the nation to war required the government and the public to somehow meet these kinds of standards and nothing short of re-remembering the past would accomplish this task. With the invasions of Cuba and the Philippines, for example, politicians tried to uphold this criteria by turning Lincoln’s language upside down. Politicians and the public knew they had to transform their collective memory of the Civil War away from slavery and emancipation and toward reunion and reunification if they had any hope of justifying their imperialistic invasions to a skeptical American citizenry. And so Americans built their imperialistic impulse out of their zealous work of reunification. They used new technologies, from plays to print media to phonographs to obscure the self-sacrificing of the war dead. Americans worked hard to transform Lincoln’s promise from an obligation owed to those who fought for emancipation and a new birth of freedom for the Nation to one that obliged the American public to commemorate those who died for national expansion and outright empire. In completing this work the citizenry and government officials worked together to cement and secure the reunification project between Northerners and Southerners. Just as the memory of emancipation became tertiary to the memory of the Civil War so did colonization become inconsequential to the collective memory of American expansion and empire. Eventually Americans began to refute this obfuscation of Lincoln’s promise but it took experiences like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to expose it. Again most of this work happened in our collective memory of the deaths of people like Michael Blassie, who was the Vietnam Unknown Soldier until DNA evidence exposed his true identity, Patrick Tillman whose family challenged and chastened Americans and government officials who tried to cover up his peculiar death in Afghanistan, and Myeshia Johnson who refused to accept the pitiful fulfillment of Lincoln’s promise offered by the Donald J. Trump administration for her husband Sergeant La David Johnson’s death in Niger. 

Your first chapters cover the emergence and different National Cemeteries and the one that just oddly stood out was Sitka—how did you find this one and its story?

SB: I discovered the story of what is now called the Sitka National Cemetery accidently while doing research in the National Archives and Records Administration. I was going through boxes and boxes of files containing the histories of our National Cemeteries and I discovered this one thin folder marked Sitka, Alaska. I had no knowledge of this cemetery and so I opened the file and there was a single report, as I recall, from Judge John H. Keatley who the federal government sent to Sitka to help take over authority from military officials and establish a civilian government there in the 1880s. Before Keately arrived, military officials had laid out a cemetery for those who died while in service in Alaska but it was not considered a National Cemetery, like Gettysburg. Keatley thought this unjust and believed that these servicemen, most of whom, like Keately, served in the Civil War, deserved to be covered by Lincoln’s promise even though they died during peace time in what was the furthest most remote outpost of the American empire at the time. The report in the file amounted to Keately’s failed petition of the U.S. government to turn Sitka into a National Cemetery. I thought it provided an excellent illustration of how hard it was in the nineteenth century for Americans to apply Lincoln’s promise to places outside of what they considered the U.S. nation. This changed, however, after American experiences at Little Bighorn, and later, Cuba and the Philippines. Eventually federal authorities gave the Sitka site National Cemetery status in 1924 not too terribly long after Americans established a consensus around the American Empire. 

With both your answers, the imperial aspect and change from Lincoln’s ideals are rather fascinating. Now, let me pose a little challenge, while Lincoln and the U.S. Army fought the rebellion had that higher bar, there were also soldiers at the same time fighting an imperial struggle against Native Americans in the West—how do we delineate between Lincoln’s republican struggle and the new imperial watering down, if I may call it that?

SB: That’s a great question! I think, early on, it was questionable as to whether or not Lincoln’s promise would be extended beyond Gettysburg and the battlefields where slavery was clearly the central issue of the conflict. In places throughout the trans-Mississippi West, where lands still often looked much more like the spaces of imperial borderlands, it was much less certain if soldiers who died in these spaces would be covered by Lincoln’s promise. I think the early history of the Sitka cemetery illustrated well that there was no guarantee that Lincoln’s promise would be extended to imperial spaces where “the new birth of freedom” seemed extraneous and even incoherent. That Judge Keatley couldn’t convince War Department officials to turn the Sitka cemetery into a national cemetery is quite telling. I think, however, people like Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer began to turn Lincoln’s promise on its head about a decade-and-a-half after Lincoln delivered his infamous speech. She persevered, over many years, to salvage her husband’s tainted reputation after his defeat and death at the Battle of Little Bighorn. A Civil War hero, George Armstrong Custer’s postwar military career became infamous for his imperialistic and inhumane ambushes of Native Americans in the defense of the interests of railroad corporations and gold diggers who sought to violate federal treaties in the racial pursuit of land and treasure. As the nation’s attention focused on the Great Railroad Strike in 1877 that challenged the power of railroad tycoons, Libbie Custer orchestrated the disinterment of her husband’s body from the battlefield and reinterred it on the grounds of West Point. The ornamentation and fanfare that surrounded Custer’s reburial was profound and completely orchestrated by his wife Libbie. In essence Libbie Custer designed a commemorative tradition from her husband’s funeral that transformed Lincoln’s promise and opened it up paradoxically to include perhaps the most notorious imperialist of the age. The hinge here was that Custer fought bravely at Gettysburg even as he fought cowardly at places like Washita and Little Bighorn. After federal officials broke the Great Railroad strike, Libbie Custer continued to work hard to redeem her husband’s reputation writing several books and going on speaking tours in essence enshrining him into an American Valhalla that now seemed open to include those who died for railroad corporations and gold speculators and, in essence, the American empire itself. Lincoln’s promise originally was probably only intended for a specific moment and a specific place. He issued this promise in the context of unimaginable carnage within a war that was going badly and his reelection was already in serious doubt. It was a promise centered on freedom and designed to convince people that the fight and his leadership had to continue in order that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” It only became ubiquitous years later. Perhaps it was inevitable that “a new birth of freedom” would be turned into a justification of American empire as the United States expanded westward. But Lincoln’s promise now seemed open to anyone, even those who fought for empire in the West, and the question then became, if imperialists could be commemorated by Americans, could Confederates who fought against emancipation also be included? The answer, of course, was yes.