Saturday, November 20, 2021

Booknotes: Gettysburg 1963

New Arrival:
Gettysburg 1963: Civil Rights, Cold War Politics, and Historical Memory in America's Most Famous Small Town by Jill Ogline Titus (UNC Press, 2021).

During the middle year of the Civil War Centennial, "(c)ommemorative events centered on Gettysburg, site of the best-known, bloodiest, and most symbolically charged battle of the conflict. Inevitably, the centennial of Lincoln's iconic Gettysburg Address received special focus, pressed into service to help the nation understand its present and define its future--a future that would ironically include another tragic event days later with the assassination of another American president."

In seeking to contextualize the period and its meaning, much of the Centennial scholarship focuses most closely on the concurrent Civil Rights movement but Jill Titus's Gettysburg 1963: Civil Rights, Cold War Politics, and Historical Memory in America's Most Famous Small Town also brings interrelated Cold War social and political tensions to the fore.

Titus sees three major narratives (all "rooted in the anniversary's Cold War context") that came out of 1963 attempts by those in government "to harness the symbolic power of Gettysburg to connect the battle to contemporary struggles to define America's place in the world and the future of black citizenship in the United States." "The first was a states' rights interpretation of the war that branded the intensifying black freedom struggle as a frontal attack on the liberties of white Americans and the political ideals of the nation; the second a conviction that the best way to honor those fallen at Gettysburg was to work for racial justice in the present; and the third a Cold War-themed call to embrace a consensus version of the Civil War past that could help spread American democracy, capitalism, and technology around the world."

More from the description: By studying "the experiences of political leaders, civil rights activists, preservation-minded Civil War enthusiasts, and local residents," Titus "uses centennial events in Gettysburg to examine the history of political, social, and community change in 1960s America." In the end, different groups would "define the meaning of the battle, the address, and the war in dramatically different ways."

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