Why the British Don't Remember Their Civil War and Americans Do Remember Theirs





Ms. Diane Purkiss is a Fellow and Tutor at Keble College, Oxford. She is the author of the highly acclaimed The Witch in History and At the Bottom of the Garden. She holds a B.A. from the University of Queensland and a Ph.D. from Merton College, Oxford. She lives in Oxford, England. Her most recent book is: English Civil War (Basic Books, 2006).

In 1998, eight years ago, I was privileged to visit Gettysburg with my husband. The American Civil War had long fascinated me by its resonances with the more distant conflict on which I worked. The Battlefield Park was astonishing. There was not one single monument, as at Thiepval on the Somme, but hundreds to individual regiments; the New Yorkers had big statues, while the men from Maine were recalled with quiet and modest stones. There were several different kinds of battlefield tour available from the huge Visitor’s Centre; we chose to ask a guide to accompany us in our car, and he proved to be a man with a particular fondness for General Meade and an eagerness to restore a reputation he felt had been unfairly slighted by the bestselling novel by Michael Shaara. We saw every scene; the Devil’s Den, Little Roundtop, vividly brought to life by the guide’s enthusiasm.

A few years later, we pulled into Fredericksburg battlefield car park, having made our way to it through a maze of malls and fast food places. My baby daughter was asleep in the back, and I sat idly by her in the pale late autumn sunshine. I heard a faint thunder of gunfire, and I looked up. Straight ahead of me was the stone wall behind which the Confederates had crouched to wreak their devastation on the Union troops as they struggled up the hill. That evening, plumes of cannon smoke hung in the air. I knew it was a re-enactment – commonsense said so – but there was an uncanny sense that history was almost too near, a sense that increased when we drove on to the Wilderness at dusk, stopping by the monument to Stonewall Jackson. The woods were full of ghosts; the trees rustled just as they must have before Jackson’s men sprang on Joe Hooker’s forces. It might all have happened yesterday.

Why was I so surprised by these sites? Because the same year, my family and I spent an hour and a half fruitlessly hunting for the battlefield at Edgehill, and another hour searching for Naseby. At the site of Naseby fight, where thousands died, a busy road tears by, indifferent lorries filling the air with brusque modernity. The local council has secured some money for a facelift for Naseby, but it will never have the loving resonance of Gettysburg, the little individual monuments put up by those who still remembered the dead as fathers and brothers, sons and lovers. At Edgehill, a nearby pub garden houses a modest panel sketchily explaining what happened. Only Marston Moor has a nineteenth-century monumental pillar and a few plastic signs. Around the pillar, the inscrutable fields stretch blandly away on every side. There are reenactors in England – the Sealed Knot society is the best-known – but they perform as and when, on school playing fields and at fairgrounds. The last Sealed Knot member I met was with a small group of reenactors at Basing House, scene of a famous siege. It was late afternoon, and no-one had been by for hours. The other reenactors wanted to leave, but their leader held firmly on in the hope that some spectators might come out of the twilight to learn about musket and cannonade. Nobody but my son and I appeared, and at last he gave way and headed for home, manifestly embittered.

Yet it is not that Britain can’t do battlefields. Travel down the road to Leicesteshire and you will find a very elaborate recreation dating from 1974 of the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth, in which King Richard III died shouting for a horse. Hastings is equally well commemorated. Both are diligently billed as The Most Important Battles in English History. Yet the far more important civil war battles are not commemorated. The other displays dispose of the idea that the Civil War battles are not commemorated because they are too long ago, or because they were a civil war. Something deeper is at work, a reluctance to acknowledge a difficult past, a dread of reigniting religious hatred, and perhaps above all, a discomfort with the outcome.

Let me expand. To commemorate a war, someone has to want to keep its memory alive. The American Civil War was followed by a determination to remember the fallen, a wish to commemorate the struggle for what came to be seen as human rights for the north, and to recall the moments of military glory to warm the chill of defeat for the south. Both sides evolved a clear if actually oversimplified sense of what the war had been about, and were able to turn that sense into appropriate monuments.

In the English Civil War, by contrast, people’s sense of what the war was about changed radically during the war itself. For the king’s opponents, what had once been a defence of Protestantism and Parliament as its surest safeguard became a critique of the king who had failed to protect true religion – but only for some. For the king’s defenders, an attempt to mop up a rebellion by the usual suspects became a defence of traditional rural life, parties, ceremonial. The idea that the war was about Parliament was immeasurably compromised by Pride’s Purge, which left the Commons a mere group of nodders, and by Cromwell’s dissolution of Barebone’s Parliament and his assumption of direct rule in 1654. The king’s opponents were no longer sure of what they were about. The king’s supporters, on the other hand, had no real reason to run about erecting monuments to battles lost to rebels, and may have shuddered at the idea of doing so much as we might today shun the idea of a memorial to the valour of the SS. Royalists instead endowed churches to Charles the Martyr, and there are many: the seventeenth century alone saw foundations in stoutly royalist Cornwall and Shropshire, in equivocal Plymouth and Kent, and in doubtful Suffolk. Last century, Alabama acquired such a church.

So England has turned its back on its most influential war. We might get additional hints about why from another American response to its civil war, another surprise for me. When I visited Atlanta this year, I was expecting a focus on the battle for Atlanta amounting to preoccupation. But apart form an old diorama, and Stone Mountain (now a theme park) there was nothing at all. The city has firmly turned its back on the past. I asked a few inhabitants why, and they said the past was too divisive to be remembered in an African-American city. Slaves could not celebrate the war that freed them while living alongside the descendants of those who sought to keep them in chains. Perhaps we might say the same. As long as we have a monarchy, it is hard to cheer for parliament.


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Guy Aston - 3/22/2009

I am a brit and a long time interpreter currently focussing on World War One Medical Corps. However, I was interpreting the English Civil War for 25 years to massive crowds of people. The Brits are beginning to remember their battlefields etc. Bosworth was always an exception owing to the coverage Shakespeare gave it; "My kingdom for a horse!"

Every village and town in the UK has memorials to the fallen of the two World Wars and many of the museums/memorials for those wars are manned by Brits.

I think also as a nation we have had so much conflict at home up to the English Civil War period and much aftyer abroad, that the odd battle doesn't have the resonance for the collective psyche as did the Civil War on the States.

Having said that, you do a fantastitic job guys - let's hope we Brits catch up.


Guy Aston - 3/17/2009

I am a brit and a long time interpreter currently focussing on World War One Medical Corps. However, I was interpreting the English Civil War for 25 years to massive crowds of people. The Brits are beginning to remember their battlefields etc. Bosworth was always an exception owing to the coverage Shakespeare gave it; "My kingdom for a horse!"

Every village and town in the UK has memorials to the fallen of the two World Wars and many of the museums/memorials for those wars are manned by Brits.

I think also as a nation we have had so much conflict at home up to the English Civil War period and much aftyer abroad, that the odd battle doesn't have the resonance for the collective psyche as did the Civil War on the States.

Having said that, you do a fantastitic job guys - let's hope we Brits catch up.


Guy Aston - 1/5/2009

I am a brit and a long time interpreter currently focussing on World War One Medical Corps. However, I was interpreting the English Civil War for 25 years to massive crowds of people. The Brits are beginning to remember their battlefields etc. Bosworth was always an exception owing to the coverage Shakespeare gave it; "My kingdom for a horse!"

Every village and town in the UK has memorials to the fallen of the two World Wars and many of the museums/memorials for those wars are manned by Brits.

I think also as a nation we have had so much conflict at home up to the English Civil War period and much aftyer abroad, that the odd battle doesn't have the resonance for the collective psyche as did the Civil War on the States.

Having said that, you do a fantastitic job guys - let's hope we Brits catch up.


John Edward Philips - 8/21/2006

While I would argue that the American conflict, especially in retrospect, was a Civil War, that is still in dispute. Even I have to admit that the war was in part a war between the States, since most of the military units on both sides were state military. The UK has always been a unitary state, while the United States is (or "are" as we used to say before the war in question) a federation in which the right of states to keep their own military forces is not in question.

This means that Americans still have state citizenship, state loyalties, and usually know which side their ancestors fought on. Ironically, many are unaware that their family actually split during the war, because no one has spoken to the other side of the family since the war. None of this is true in the UK.

While the parallels between the wars (Puritans vs. Cavliers etc.) are many and often remarked on, the crucial difference is that the American Civil War was, at least in part, a war between the States. It began over the issue of whether the United States was (or were) a single country, which has been called the only Constitutional question ever settled on the battlefield. That wasn't ever a question in the British Civil War.


John Edward Philips - 8/21/2006

Islamic Puritanism? I wouldn't be the one to have coined the term. It's already well known in some circles, but is too accurate to stir up hatred the way "Islamofascism" does. The parallels are obvious to the point of eerieness: individual interpretation of scripture, representative government, even the idea that women showing their hair is sinful. I wouldn't be surprised to hear about witchburning.


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/19/2006

The answer to the question posed in your title is that the British Civil War was fought two hundred years earlier than the American Civil War. (Call me the Lady from Philadelphia).


Andrew D. Todd - 8/15/2006

I suggest that there are certain conditions to be met for military reenactments to exist. One is that there has to be a sense of technological progress. I believe (subject to correction) that American Civil War re-enacting took off in the age of the assault rifle. Re-enactment involves muzzle-loaders, weapons of obviously obsolete type, and represents little if any threat to public order. A martial display by private parties with credibly modern weapons tends to be viewed as a species of ultimatum. For example, when Hermann Presser marched 400 armed men of his Lehr und Wehr Verein through the streets of Chicago in 1871 (?), it was understood to be a demonstration in force, as part of the Socialist Workers Party's ongoing conflict with the Pinkertons.

I suppose the last gasp of the English Civil War would be the 1745 Highland uprising. By the 1780's, it had become sufficiently distant to be safely nostalgic. On January 12, 1785, the London Times published a letter from one Patrick O'Shiel (Compton Street, Soho, London), avowing himself to be a Jacobite veteran of Culloden, and reproaching Lord George Gordon for railing against the deceased Jacobite Cause. Ireland's next rebellion would of course be Jacobin rather than Jacobite, the "Year of the French," starring Wolfe Tone. The ban on the kilt and the tartan had been lifted in 1782, and that on the bagpipes was removed at about the same time. In a parliamentary debate on August 2, 1784, the speaker [Dundas] expressed concern about emigration from the Scottish Highlands, and the need to restore forfeited estates in order to restore the mechanisms of patronage, and re-incorporate the North Scottish people within the political system (Parliamentary History of England, v. 24).

The oldest class of re-enactments I know of would be the Eglinton Tournament, in 1839, and similar events, perhaps the ultimate ancestor of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/british_galls/audio_tales/eglinton_tourn/
http://www.artoftheprint.com/artistpages/corbould_edward_henry_theballroomateglintoncastle.htm
http://ejmas.com/jmanly/articles/2001/jmanlyart_wolf2_0801.htm

These sort of tournaments were aristocratic. They involved few men, and did not involve anything like organizing a credible army. Nor could anyone seriously believe that the participants would survive an encounter with the Royal Horse Artillery. The knightly mode of war of the tournaments had been obsolete since approximately the early sixteenth century. The weapons with which the English Civil War was fought were substantially the same weapons with which the American Revolution and the Napoleonic wars were fought, and the weapons of the land battles of the American Civil War were only incrementally improved. Gettysburg was very much like Waterloo.

Lord George Gordon, incidentally, is also known as the inadvertent organizer of the Gordon Riots, in 1780. An anti-Catholic demonstration he organized got out of hand, and there were a few days of looting and incendiarism. Here are two other letters to Gordon in The Times

To the Right Hon, Lord George Gordon, London
"Infernal scoundrel!
" Your assurance to traduce the Roman Catholics, in your letter to Mr. Pitt, shall be punished by me as soon as I arrive in London. I will know where your house is. By the sacred God, if your ever attempt a similar instance of bigotry, your head shall be severed from your body.
I am, bloody
bigotted [sic] Gordon
(or will be) your destruction.
Ireland, Dublin, Parliament Street"

To Lord George Gordon, Welbeck Street, London.
" My Lord
"You are going on disturbing the peace and tranquility of our gracious Sovereign, and by God, the next attempt I will come Felton over the Prince of Wales, you, and Charles Fox; if I do not, I will be dammed. His Majesty has poor but honest friends that will see him righted, so take it right and be advised by,
His Majesties friend,
A damm'd determined Fellow
" If you are wise take this caution from a poor but honest man; if not, by God you will feel me soon, stabbing your heart thro' and thro'."

The editor of the Times dismissed these as demented bravado (18 may 1785, p2)

One of the obvious long-established reenactments of the larger English Civil War that I can think of is the Londonderry Apprentices March, the anniversary of the battle of the Boyne in 1690, otherwise known as "kick the papishes day," and by extension, the whole business of the Orange Order. Commemoration was not a particularly safe business. It shaded over into "incitement to riot."

I'm not altogether sure what to make of Lord George Gordon. Apart from being generally reputed to be crazy, he seems to have been at a dividing point, between roads which would have led, on the one hand to John Frost, the Welsh Chartist revolutionary leader, and on the other to Ian Paisley.

I would suggest that probably the major formative event of modern England was the emigrations, or rather, the combination of emigration and industrialization. At a guess, something like half the population eventually emigrated, either to the United States, or to one of the Dominions. For a couple of hundred years, all kinds of malcontents, religious, political, economic, and otherwise, systematically departed. There was an emigration destination for just about every conceivable tendency. The English are the people who did not emigrate, who stayed put, who did not let their quarrels rise to epic dimensions. There is a sort of recurrent trope in English literature and popular culture, about agonizing over whether to emigrate. One example might be Monty Python's "I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK" skit, but there are others. At the other end of the social scale, John Mortimer's fictional persona, Horace Rumpole (Rumpole of the Bailey), has a son who has become part of the brain-drain.

-----------------------------------------

The American Civil War had a similar longevity. The South did not go away in 1865. One can make a very good case that the Civil War continued into the 1970's. Not the 1870's but the 1970's. There's a picture (I believe it was published in Life) of a South Boston Irishman, circa 1975, using a flag and flagpole to bayonet an African-American lawyer. So in a very real sense, the Civil War is still within living memory. One could do a paper analyzing, say, Michael Sharra's Joshua Chamberlain, working out how much of him is the historical Chamberlain, and how much is a generalized 1960's freedom rider.

There are other possibilities. For example, Richard Maxwell Brown has analyzed western gunslingers in Federal/Confederate terms. Presumably, it would be possible to do a similar analysis of Civil War reenactors, dealing with the whole range of class, ethnicity, and regional origin.

The beginning of commemoration of the Civil War took the form of the two great veterans' organizations. The Grand Army of the Republic held annual encampments, preferably in conjunction with some kind of militia unit.

http://www.archives.nysed.gov/a/researchroom/rr_mi_GAR_guide.shtml
http://suvcw.org/gar.htm
http://www.suvcw.org/

Given its membership requirements, the GAR eventually died out, but its place was assumed by a quasi-descendent's organization, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, , which seems to be small, and primarily interested in tracing descent. It is not, however, quite so formally exclusive as, say, the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The corresponding confederate organization, The United Confederate Veterans, was organized two decades later, in 1889, when the participants were obviously too old for renewed war service.

http://www.civilwarhome.com/confederateveterans.htm

This, too, has a successor organization, the Sons of Confederate Veterans,

http://www.scv.org/

and this organization _is_ socially exclusive. You probably can't join if your name is Kowalski, or Chung, or the like. The veterans seem to have had no great interest in re-enactment. They had "been there, done that." This carries over to the successor organizations. The Sons of Union Veterans seems to be more interested in listing the number of its members presently serving in the Middle East, rather than talking about reenactors.

The one big difference between the English pattern of memory and the American pattern was that the weapons which had been current from the sixteenth century to 1865, with only minor modifications, suddenly became obsolete after 1865. The Wagon Box fight and the Hayfield Fight in Wyoming and Montana in 1866 are of the same essential pattern as the Boer War and the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914-- the pattern of the repeating rifle.

Civil War re-enactment seems to have started about 1960, give or take ten years, and to have really taken off, circa 1980.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Civil_War_reenactment
http://www.nsalliance.org/
http://wesclark.com/jw/
http://wesclark.com/jw/forigin.html
http://wesclark.com/jw/talk_of_the_nation.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Civil_War_reenactment

Reenactment took off at a time when the American Civil War was still within popular remembrance, but no longer had real stakes. The weapons needed to reenact the civil war would have been ludicrously unsuitable for assassinating Martin Luther King or Medgar Evers. The Confederate reenactors were not putting themselves at risk of being mistaken for Klansmen.


David Corbett - 8/15/2006

In my opinion the reasons the English Civil War is not commemorated are two fold :
1. The Royals do not wish to remind the public of the depotism of monarchy .
2. Religion was of primary importance in the seventeenth century ; today in Britain it is practically obsolete and thus remebering this age is emabarrassing.
In closing one must remember that British Army regiments do not even award battle honours for the victories won in the American War of Independence. Selective memory and not quite sporting , one might say.


Guy Aston - 8/15/2006

I am a brit and a long time interpreter currently focussing on World War One Medical Corps. However, I was interpreting the English Civil War for 25 years to massive crowds of people. The Brits are beginning to remember their battlefields etc. Bosworth was always an exception owing to the coverage Shakespeare gave it; "My kingdom for a horse!"

Every village and town in the UK has memorials to the fallen of the two World Wars and many of the museums/memorials for those wars are manned by Brits.

I think also as a nation we have had so much conflict at home up to the English Civil War period and much aftyer abroad, that the odd battle doesn't have the resonance for the collective psyche as did the Civil War on the States.

Having said that, you do a fantastitic job guys - let's hope we Brits catch up.


Mark Brady - 8/15/2006

The commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg came out of the American Civil War. The commemoration of the Battles of Hastings and Bosworth that Diane Purkiss describes began many hundreds of years later than the events described. Diane Purkiss' account does not seem to recognize this crucial difference.

It's sad that there is so little commemoration of the English, more properly, British Civil War. That said, I don't see why her analysis would explain why Edgehill and Naseby are scarcely commemorated and Hastings and Bosworth are.


Samuel Wilbur Condon - 8/14/2006

There's a kind of strange and distorted reflection of the current struggle in that ancient one. One would have thought that the divisiveness of the "public vs the beast" struggle that ended with a more moderate and limitted monarchy and a less severe deference (if not the institutionalization of <em>noblesse oblige</em>) would have softened attitudes about the war. That is, unless the war was partly about something else that's barely discussed or recalled.

It's my theory that the radical form of Protestantism, that might have used the glue of predestination to found a warrior cult (which is what happened in Islam), had not been profoundly re-directed by Cromwell's defeat. The legacy of that defeat was a Calvinism that focussed it's aspirations on elect status in the next world, by producing a sign in the form of the rational accumulation of wealth. These replaced, or substituted, for the idea of Providence that would have remade the world through intervention and a conviction of invincibility. The Fifth Monarchists are an example of this alternative. And it's ironic that the form of Christian religious fascism that finally manifested was the Catholic Phalange.

But in the case of the Protestants, they were actually reformed and domesticated by the Reformation... by defeat as much as victory. Perhaps the nightmare of a fascistic religious ideology ruling by force of arms came close enough to give us a shudder. I wonder if the monuments to Franco are disappearing?


Ronald Dale Karr - 8/14/2006

"the Battle of Bosworth, in which King Richard III died shouting for a horse."

Shakespeare's pro-Tudor account is rejected by most historians of the battle, who portray Richard dying in a heroic if foolish downhill charge directly at Henry Tudor.

Let's hope her account of the civil wars is better informed.

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