The American Civil War is one of the formative events underpinning the U.S. collective consciousness. Its legacy can be felt in contemporary American politics, culture, and identity, and yet citizens from across the U.S. and beyond often struggle to find adequate ways of addressing the meaning of Emancipation or remembering the human cost of its achievement.
This can be seen in the monuments created after the war. While some convey optimism about the Union victory, others glorify the Confederacy, and even refuse to accept the outcome of the conflict.
The School of English has a research focus on war and conflict that involves innovative cross-period approaches, interdisciplinary collaboration, and engagements with digital humanities and oral history. ‘Commemorative Cultures: The American Civil War Monuments Project’ is directed towards public conversations addressing the legacies of historic wars and conflicts. This comprehensive, open access resource on American Civil War monuments was established by Dr Kristen Treen as an ongoing collaboration with the School of Computer Science. Its ‘Commemorative Cultures’ database has already mapped the locations of nearly 1700 monuments both in the States and in the UK, and is working to bring together evaluative contributions from academics, early career researchers, and graduate students from the U.S. and UK.
The project was begun by Dr Treen in collaboration with Dr Jillian Caddell from the University of Kent and Dr Alan Miller from the School of Computer Science at St Andrews. Each monument entry is enriched with basic information such as location, artist, and date of creation. The team has also begun to explore creating virtual tours of particular monuments, with the aim of drawing attention to the spatial dynamics of these commemorative objects, how they exist today, and how they might have changed over time. However, the project’s biggest undertaking is an array of interpretive essays that contextualise the monuments, evaluate the motives behind their construction and chart the criticism and controversy that many have since faced. Researchers from around the world are invited to contribute their own writing, adding to the diversity of perspective that such a nuanced topic requires.
‘Commemorative Cultures’ also works to expand the popular conception of what constitutes a monument. The database incorporates forms of public art and commemoration that might have been previously overlooked by previous studies of Civil War commemoration, including sites of re-enactment, military relics enshrined in memorial halls, and public spaces such as metro stations named after Civil War generals.
The database also includes intangible memorials such as the Emily Dickinson poem, ‘He Gave away his Life’, a response to the death of a close family friend. While its conscious impact on populations is often harder to see, intangible heritage often heavily influences a culture’s recollection of key moments in its history. By including them in the monuments archive, Commemorative Cultures offers a more expansive picture of the legacy of the Civil War.