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Adding to perceptions about Civil War heritage. . . a speaking tour brings insights

For many years I have been privileged to be a speaker at Indiana meetings: library gatherings, books clubs, I HS events, Civil War organizations like the Sons of Union Veterans and Round tables in southern Indiana, Anderson, Indianapolis—and even White Plains New York and Portland Maine.

The invitations came as a result of interest in my first historical book Gallant Fourteenth: The Story of an Indiana Civil War Regiment. It was praised when it came out in 1980 by its Civil War Times reviewer as one of the two best regimental histories in modern times. Of course there weren’t many at that point; since then many good histories of regiments have come out, but I am happy to say this book, about the human side of the war as well as battlefield strategies, still remains a classic, through six re-printings.

My latest book is A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Civil war in Indiana: Important, Moving, and Sometimes Odd Stories from the Human Side of the War. Why did I focus on the human side: the women and children left behind, the Copperhead agitations, the unsung men from Indiana regiments stuck in the mud and swamps of the Mississippi valley instead of gathering glory at Gettysburg? There were 200,000 Hoosier men who went to the Civil War 1861-’65 and 20,000 didn’t come home. I’m spending time as I talk about the new book on real people, who had to fight that war (all of them), asking for people who hear me to help with heritage preservation for wartime documents and heritage. In a time where schools aren’t teaching much history and when it has been almost seventy years since the last veteran of the Civil War died, the memory of the sacrifices and lessons of the war are quite naturally fading.

My message is that the war achieved an amazing change in American society, a change which isn’t complete—the freeing of the slaves and the incorporation of them and their descendants into American society. The lesson that democracy such as ours needs to be guarded and even fought for by a unified society stood out then and stands out then, to be learned and learned again over and over.

When I spoke a short while ago to the Camp Tippecanoe Civil War Roundtable I found a very thoughtful and well informed group of men and women who listened with respect to readings from my book. They generally agreed with my arguments for collecting letters, diaries and journals which are in private collections in the state into archives, libraries and repositories before we forget what the conflict was all about. Time takes its toll; years pass and people’s care diminishes and dims. Already the new generation is asking “What was that 9/11 thing?”

After the presentation at Purdue University, when we entered into discussion on the subject, some people politely asked, “Why should we be preserving, revering and honoring the memory of the heroes of the Civil War? Theirs was a white society; many Indiana people are from another background and don’t have that same heritage. We are developing a multicultural society and there will be many backgrounds—so glorifying that heritage may not be useful.”

It was a little bit of a new perspective for me at one of these meetings. I was also recommending that a general history from Indiana be put in libraries around the state. It was from the Indiana Historical Society, and I immediately thought of their incentives to preserve the locations and history of the Underground Railroad, so I cited that as an example of preserving non-white history. I could have also mentioned more at I HS:  history of black industries and business leaders in Indiana and groups of freed slaves who settled in the state and colored Civil War units. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art is an active advocate for revering the American Indians in our midst—and in our history.

The point is right: we are getting to be an amalgam of many cultures. In Indianapolis exciting directions are happening, new educational institutions and initiatives, innovation in transportation and artificial intelligence and many different kinds of people, races and cultural groups, are bringing about the changes. Same for much of the rest of Indiana.

I don’t think the Purdue audience was calling for us to suspend the preservation of our Indiana history which, admittedly, has often been the story of white people. They were pointing to the celebration of the histories of all our people: Mexican Cinco De Mayo, African-American community roots and history of the Chinese contingent among us and Indian Hoosiers’ culture. And it isn’t all celebratory; we are still working on honest appraisal of racial antipathies and discrimination in post-Civil War Indiana, up to the present day.

Broad heritage study! Good idea.

By Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne


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