The American Civil War ended more than 145 years ago, yet it is still fresh in the American consciousness – films about the war are still being produced, authors continue to pen novels such as Cold Mountain, and the reenactment business is alive and well. A few years ago, Assistant Professor of History Laura Free reflected on this interesting phenomenon, and decided that perhaps one of the best ways to study the nation’s continued fascination with the Civil War was to create a senior seminar on the matter.
From the seminar, Free created a lecture, “Bullets, Belles and Broken Bodies,” which she delivered at the Geneva Historical Society to much success. Following the talk, Free was asked to deliver the lecture at another local historical society, and has been traveling the area delivering the talk to historical societies ever since. “The Civil War still resonates today,” says Free. “It was a war of Americans against Americans and that is something that many still have not reconciled; it’s very powerful.”
Free’s talk, which focuses heavily on the way in which Americans recreate the war, the lasting power of symbols such as the Confederate flag, and the big business of reenacting, examines the Civil War as a lasting cultural phenomenon – an event removed from history, preserved and sanctified.
Free will deliver her popular talk at the Yates County Historical Society in Penn Yan on Friday, March 11, and again this August in Auburn, N.Y. On Friday, April 22, Free will give an abbreviated version of her talk as part of the Friday Faulty Lunch Talks series at 12:30 p.m. in the Faculty Dining Room.
Popular culture is a good way to access a war that can be problematic, she says.
“Today we romanticize; we tend to set aside the causes of the war and think about aspects of the war we can get behind. For example, Americans often focus on the fact that the soldiers were brave, rather than on why the country went to war in the first place,” Free explains. “People make pop culture – it is something we participate in, something we create. This brings the war into public life in a more vital way, turning it into something more than just a historical event. By using culture to create an ideal vision of the past, we define ourselves in the present.”