‘Civil War in American Memory’ Seminar Held at Yale University

David W. Blight stands with participants in Grove Street Cemetary
Seminar leader David W. Blight, Class of 1954 Professor of American History and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, leads participants on a tour of Grove Street Cemetery.

After a white nationalist rally opposing the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent a year ago, the debate over Confederate monuments and how to remember the Civil War has intensified and spread from New Orleans to Baltimore and across campuses nationwide. As a result, historians and other faculty members increasingly have been called upon to weigh in as experts on the matter.

Twenty-five CIC faculty members examined these issues during “The Civil War in American Memory,” a week-long seminar held at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, this June. Generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the seminar was led by David W. Blight, Class of 1954 Professor of American History and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Blight has led many CIC/Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History seminars, including the well-received seminars on slave narratives. He is the author of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (2013) and Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2002), as well as the forthcoming Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. He also has been quoted frequently regarding monuments and memory including in the Boston Globe, New York Times, and New Yorker.

The seminar opened with a discussion of Drew Gilpin Faust’s article, “Why We Love the Civil War,” and continued with discussions on why the Civil War, emancipation, and reconstruction retain a hold on the American imagination. Among the many questions the seminar took up, none was more basic or more important than how to determine what a memorial means. Participants questioned to what extent a memorial’s meaning is determined by those who commission and create it versus those who view it. They also considered how a memorial’s meaning changes over time as its cultural, historical, and political contexts change.

New Haven, rich in monuments and memorials related to slavery and the Civil War, provided real-world examples for the seminar group to consider. Blight led participants on a tour of New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery, Yale’s Woolsey Hall Memorial, the Amistad Memorial, and the Connecticut Civil War Monument. Another field trip took participants to the recently restored Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument atop East Rock and then to the 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment Monument in the Fair Haven neighborhood, where participants read passages from the speech Frederick Douglass gave there in 1864 to encourage African American volunteers.

Ian Delahanty, assistant professor at Springfield College (MA), explained, “…the field trips to various monuments in and around New Haven were quite useful. I take my students on field trips to Civil War monuments and other historical sites regularly, and the opportunity to learn from other historians—especially Professor Blight—how to conduct a field trip and link it with assigned readings was invaluable.”

Participants were visited by Nina Silber, professor of history at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book, This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America. Silber addressed the way in which politics and changing attitudes to slavery and Reconstruction were reflected in popular culture in the 1930s and 1940s, including in film classics such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca.

Conversations throughout the week were lively. Participants often brought their own personal experiences to bear, including experiences with memorials about which they had conducted research or cases where they had contributed to public, sometimes controversial, discussion.

“I found sharing my experiences and learning about my colleagues’ experiences in the classroom and public history environments to be very enriching” remarked Dan Fountain, professor of history at Meredith College (NC). “It is nice to hear how others address the content and policy issues we teach. Hearing other perspectives about our profession was eye-opening and helpful.”

CIC and the Gilder Lehrman Institute will cosponsor the next American history seminar in summer 2019.

Group photo with participants standing in front of memorial
Blight (back row, center) and seminar participants visited New Haven’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, which was dedicated in 1887 to honor soldiers and sailors who fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War.

2018 “The Civil War In American Memory” Participants

Agnes Scott College (GA)
Mary Cain
Associate Professor of History

Albion College (MI)
Marcy Sacks
Professor of History

Aurora University (IL)
Gerald Butters
Professor of History

California Baptist University
Kenya Davis-Hayes
Associate Professor of History

Claflin University (SC)
Belinda Wheeler
Associate Professor of English

Fontbonne University (MO)
Corinne Wohlford
Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Assistant Professor of American Studies

Fresno Pacific University (CA)
Darin Lenz
Associate Professor of History

Hillsdale College (MI)
Kelly Franklin
Assistant Professor of English

Huston-Tillotson University (TX)
Theodore Francis
Assistant Professor of History

Loras College (IA)
Kristin Anderson-Bricker
Professor of History

Marietta College (OH)
Brandon Downing
Assistant Professor of History

Meredith College (NC)
Dan Fountain
Associate Professor of History

Mitchell College (CT)
Jeffrey O’Leary
Assistant Professor of History
Randolph College (VA)
John d’Entremont
Professor of History

Randolph-Macon College (VA)
Evie Terrono
Professor of Art History

Sacred Heart University (CT)
David Thomson
Assistant Professor of History

Schreiner University (TX)
Benjamin Montoya
Assistant Professor of History

Siena Heights University (MI)
Matt Barbee
Associate Professor of English

Southern Virginia University
David Cox
Professor of History

Springfield College (MA)
Ian Delahanty
Assistant Professor of History

University of Saint Joseph (CT)
Jennifer Cote
Associate Professor of History and Society

University of Saint Mary (KS)
Kyle Anthony
Assistant Professor of History

Walla Walla University (WA)
Terrie Aamodt
Professor of History

Washington and Lee University (VA)
Barton Myers
Associate Professor of History

Westmont College (CA)
Kaya Mangrum
Assistant Professor of English