Drew Gilpin Faust on Antietam’s centennial
The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam–the deadliest 24 hours of the Civil War–has ended (just a few minutes ago, as I post this).
Thousands of people journeyed to Sharpsburg, Md., and vicinity over the past three or four days to mark the occasion, walk the fields and woods, hear about some incredible history, and experience the feelings aroused by the battlefield’s beautiful and haunting landscape.
Fifty years ago, a teenage girl visited Antietam with her family for the Civil War’s centennial. It was a different time in American history, and a far different commemoration from today’s.
Last year, that visitor–now the 28th president of Harvard University–penned a powerful and thoughtful reminiscence of her 1962 experience. Drew Gilpin Faust, raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, wrote (in small part): ”The centennial commemoration of Antietam was designed to be less about remembrance than about forgetting. It was a pointed erasure of the war’s causes and consequences …”
She wove her recollection into a brilliant and far-ranging address to the National Endowment for the Humanities, its 2011 Jefferson Lecture.
A deeply respected historian, Faust is author of “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” and ”Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War.”
The former work won the Bancroft Prize in 2009, was a finalist for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and was named one of the “10 Best Books of 2008″ by The New York Times.
Of it, the National Endowment for the Humanities said, “Faust achieved a rare kind of historical writing: unforgettable descriptions of what we have not wanted to see in this story, intertwined with an interpretation of death on such a scale that in its incomprehensibility the Civil War generation experienced a loss of historical innocence from which each generation might learn anew, if only they face it.”
Tonight on PBS, “American Experience” will air a new, two-hour documentary, directed by Ric Burns, based on “This Republic of Suffering.”
I highly commend watching every minute of this insightful and elegiac film, just as Faust’s 2011 lecture deserves a careful reading–or two.
“Death and the Civil War,” fruit of the painstaking collaboration between Burns, Faust and many others at dozens of institutions, is simply unforgettable.