What the Civil War Can Teach Us About 9/11 Remembrance

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Over time, our memory of national catastrophes becomes less personal and more nuanced.

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A woman kisses the engraved name of her husband on the wall of the North Pool. (Reuters)

Last week my wife and I made our first trip to Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan to see the new 9/11 Memorial. We wanted to see for ourselves how designers planned on maintaining a place of reflection within an environment and ethos that are future-oriented and defined by constant change. Our interest in visiting the site was also motivated by a need to visit the place where my family lost one of its own. My cousin, Alisha Levin, worked as a vice-president for human resources for Fuji Bank, which was located on the 82nd floor of the South Tower. She achieved this position at the young age of 33. Rarely does a day go by that I don't think of her.

To get to the site we had to make our way through large crowds and a number of salesmen. Without tickets, we weren't even sure we could get in. But when I mentioned, in a moment of desperation, that we were related to one of the victims, we were given a personal escort to a room set aside for family members, where we received special passes and a kit to etch Alisha's name from the panels.  

Indeed, the families of the victims are a key component in 9/11 remembrance and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. They are involved in every aspect, from the planning of museum exhibits to the organization of memorial events. Many of the television specials that aired on the 10th anniversary were centered on the stories of family members and survivors. But at some point our collective memory will evolve away from the personal. The events of 9/11 will eventually take their place within early 21st century history and be connected to the complex chains of what came before and after.

We can see this in the evolution of our own collective memory of the American Civil War. For the first few decades, remembrances involved the veterans on both sides of the divide. These men, both the living and the recently deceased, served as a direct link to the past, and remembrance ceremonies were overwhelmingly focused on their heroism and sacrifice. Reunions with former comrades and even with former enemies ensured that the war would be framed around shared personal experiences. 

For white southerners, the celebration of veterans assuaged the pain of battlefield defeat and the end of slavery. Northerners saw their soldiers' sacrifices as necessary for the preservation of the Union. The losses suffered by African American families came to be seen as part of a painful but promising narrative that led them from slavery to full citizenship in a newly restored nation. The sheer number of cemeteries, monuments, and memorials that dot our landscape bears witness to the visceral effects of loss, as well as survivors' need to make sense of it in ways that allowed them to forge ahead.

With the death of the Civil War generation, our collective memory gradually became more detached and academic. Something personal was lost in that transformation, but the new perspective was much more conducive to understanding the war's complexity. Only in the last few decades have Americans been willing to deal with the tough questions of race and slavery and their roles in shaping not only the war but the short- and long-term consequences of the conflict. These explorations would have been unthinkable 50 years ago during the war's centennial celebrations.

At some point, the generation that lived through the events of 9/11 will hand over the burden of remembrance to a new generation of Americans. Their interpretation of the event will be informed by a more remote reading of the historical record, which will inevitably shape new forms of remembrance and commemoration. Contentious subjects such as the cause and consequences of the attacks will be debated in ways they may not be today. 

What will not be lost, however, is the need to remember and honor individual lives and stories. Even today, Americans connect to the Civil War through a sense of shared loss and a need to remember the scale of death and destruction wrought. To truly grasp this dimension of history, we rely on individual stories and personal accounts that help to collapse the distinction between past and present.

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Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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