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A House Divided
Posted at 08:45 PM ET, 05/02/2011

Harvard University president to tell war stories tonight

Harvard University President and Civil War scholar Drew Gilpin Faust is giving the 40th annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities tonight which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and is the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

In her lecture at the Kennedy Center, titled, “Telling War Stories: reflections of a Civil war Historian,” she uses her childhood experience of viewing reenactments during the war’s centennial to speak about the changed perception of the war 50 years later. Then it was a celebration not of remembrance but of erasure, an attempt to suppress the war’s causes and consequences, she said in an advance copy of her speech.

She said that five decades of “pathbreaking scholarship and writing” hasn’t diminished the persistence of differences in opinion about the war, why it was fought and its consequences. Fifty years ago, there were many who said slavery was not the cause of the war and today, there are still many who would agree with that statement. As an example, she points to the widespread resistance that National Park Service chief historian Robert Sutton has encountered this year when he insisted national Civil War sites, such as the battlefield parks, emphasize that “slavery is the principle cause” of the war.

She goes on to talk about war in general and the difficulty, but also the necessity, of writing about it. She has many quotes from Civil War soldiers who were unable to communicate what they have seen and experienced but still they tried.

“We write about war because it is so hard to write about war, because its contradictions demand attention, if not resolution, because its chaos demands some imposition of meaning and order,” she said. “The search for understanding compels language even as it rejects it.”

In two months, Americans will again view a reenactment of First Manassas, just as Faust did as a child. She expects that this time, the re-enactors will have every detail of their costume perfect, as is now the fashion, and they will also be well-read on the subject of that battle. But she wonders, “If the celebratory mood and mode will acknowledge what Frederick Douglass declared he would never forget: ‘the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.’”

By Linda Wheeler  |  08:45 PM ET, 05/02/2011

Categories:  150th anniversary, A House Divided

 
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