Saturday, July 21, 2012

Location, Location, Memory?

For those in the North, the Civil War ended about 147 years ago. Not so for those in the South. Though the official hostilities had ceased, the process of repairing homes and fields took time, making memories of the war longer lasting. To me, the Civil War was ancient history until I moved south of the Mason-Dixon line. Growing up in Kalamazoo it was easy to wander from day to day oblivious to this part of our nation's past. In the south, depending on where you live, you can drive past reminders of this difficult era daily, every time you pass a battlefield, a river after which a battle was named or even an antebellum plantation house. When you live in a place steeped in history it becomes more difficult to forget that history.

It seems to me that being in a particular location can stir up old memories in ways that few other things can. Have you ever gone back to your childhood home and been flooded with memories? While clearly these remembrances are still present, breathing the air where they were created somehow summons them more readily. You can use this to advantage when pursuing your family history. Try visiting a home or other place important to your family to best elicit memories from an older relative or to jog your own memory.

Sometimes a place can draw out memories that aren't even your own. If your parents have told you stories of their childhoods, visiting the places they inhabited can help you envision those stories for yourself. But even if the memories aren't personal I have found this phenomenon can still occur, which brings me back to the Civil War. After I read the book, “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, I was able to visit Gettysburg. As it was my first visit, I simply had to tour the battlefield. Standing there, gazing over the fields where so many fought and died made the events come alive for me in a way they hadn't before. I remember reading about the fierce fighting in devil's den in the book, but I just didn't get it until I saw the huge stones there, as if a giant had knocked down his block tower at the end of play.

Devil's Den at the Gettysburg battle field.  Copyright by Sonja Hunter, 2001.  All rights reserved.

Some of my relatives marched and fought in the Civil War not far from where I currently live. My mother and I sometimes wonder if they actually walked over some of the same ground that I have myself. That might be fun for me to ponder, partly because my people didn't have to rebuild their lives in the same way as my husband's relatives did. It is much easier to pick up and move on when you can go home to fields untrodden and homes intact. Despite, the soldiers' reunions and GAR meetings held in the north it was likely easier to forget the war when your family didn't have to fix what was broken by soldiers and battles. When your family has to start over, and I'm not even talking about slave holders here, forgetting takes time. In the north, memory of the Civil War was extinguished long ago. But in the south the places touched by war still hold memories for those willing to listen. Remember this the next time you want to evoke memories of times past. Literally put yourself in the place where they came to be and see if that place whispers back to you.

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