Learning and Growing Past the Civil War

by Elisabeth Graham

Looking back at the events in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 13, 2017, all I can feel is hurt. Like a vice grip around my ventricles and a fist in my gut, the feeling is so visceral and raw. I remember thinking: I don’t understand how this could happen, I don’t know how people could be so cruel, I don’t know why we’re making so much fuss over a statue.

Frankly, that doesn’t matter. My thoughts and feelings as a privileged white woman do not matter. What matters is how I can take those feelings, use them to educate myself, and generate positive change.

The Civil War persists in our national memory as if it were a scab that keeps getting picked at. Its effects are lasting, and that is not for nothing. Over the course of 4 years, we lost 2% of our entire population (Faust 266). While our nation may still be reeling from the abysmal amount of loss, we have to reach a point where we stop licking at our wounds and pointing fingers at each other. We have to find a better way to reach a point of understanding. One of the best ways we can do that is through education, and the only way we can educate the masses on the realities of the Civil War is with the help of state and local governments.

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One of the flags with the medallion commemorating a Civil War soldier in Elmwood Cemetery. These medallions and flags serve to honor those who may have been forgotten for their service. Illustration by Elisabeth Graham

In the wake of the war, the United States government made it paramount to chronicle losses and assist the veterans and families who suffered. Since 1862 and throughout the rest of the 19th century, families of the dead and survivors applied for pension benefits via the federal government (Faust 255). Here, it becomes evident that there could never be a future where the government remained separate from its citizens lives. While this can be seen as a point of contention, it should not be. If anything, this system of government taking care of its citizens should be celebrated by the people.

This relationship between the government and its people is further evidenced in the data generated after the war. In This Republic of Suffering, Drew Faust catalogues the methods that Americans used to number the soldiers lost throughout the war. Faust writes, “Americans counted in order to define . . . shared national loss that transcended individual bereavements. They counted to establish the dimensions of the war’s sacrifice and . . . national unity” (Faust 260). This is precisely what I want to highlight: the dimensions that exist behind shared national losses. There is no master narrative behind the Civil War, there is no singular story to tell. However, that should not inhibit us from seeking ways to productively tell those stories. It should inspire us to find innovative ways to do so; we can honor the dead and still educate the living.

If the events at Charlottesville reveal that we cannot tear down Confederate monuments and memorials, then maybe we can give them context. Countless white Americans incensed by the removal of these monuments, calling it “erasing history.” Countless black Americans feel oppressed by their inherent meaning. These monuments without context are meant to glorify a national tragedy, and they are meant to send a message: if you did not side with the Confederacy, you are not welcome here. So how do we reach better points of understanding?

If there is any model for governments (at any level!) to sponsor beneficial education, consider Elmwood Cemetery in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This site proves that not all learning happens in a classroom. By integrating historic tours with the cemetery’s Civil War history, Elmwood provides an experience meant to educate and bring a more complex understanding to the people fighting the wars. Elmwood also provides a space for younger generations to participate in education. An Eagle Scout project featured at the cemetery allowed a young man to map and identify every single veteran buried at Elmwood and mark their graves with a flag and a medallion. Through his research, he found out that some of the Civil War veterans buried at Elmwood had no grave markers at all because they could not afford them. This project allowed the young man and all future visitors of Elmwood to learn about their stories. Furthermore, this project could not have been possible without donations of the flags and medallions via the veterans organizations, and it displays a positive way that the government can assist the continued education of its people, even in seemingly small ways.

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Elmwood Cemetery is part of the “Rural” Cemetery Movement. This encouraged better public health in urban cities and also allows quiet spaces to reflect on the death of loved ones. Illustration by Elisabeth Graham

This is all said at the risk of sounding idealistic, and there is no way that this process can be easy. As Faust puts it, the Civil War caused a “crisis of knowledge and understanding” (Faust 267) that soldiers on today. Contemporary families still feel the generational trauma of losing loved ones; however, that does not permit blindness to the root causes of the Civil War. It is up to us — whether you are a student, a teacher, a lawmaker, a citizen — to take a good, hard look at history and then make a decision. Will you choose to find ways to educate yourselves and others? Will you encourage your local, state, and federal governments to aide programs that encourage learning, growth and development? Or will you stew in your feelings and choose not to act? Believe in your own power to learn, grow, and make change.


Works Cited 

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Elmwood Cemetery Tour on November 8, 2017.

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