Friday, July 11, 2014

Hallow Ye

The digital copy of Glazier's book is here. 

Who hallows?

The 150th anniversary commemorations for a place like Andersonville last for months. The anniversary dates generally include the events that took place during the time it the prison was open and operating (a fifteen-month stretch), not necessarily the impact of those events that would follow in the months and years after the prison closed.  Our history books provide compact time frames, a "start" and "end" time for these events. Generally, it is easier to wrap our minds around time if it is a focused point.

Fifteen months spans a great deal of time. For folks trying to fit this particular prison story into a grander Civil War narrative, it is often summed up in a sentence or two. What do most people know about the place? Poor living conditions, lots of Union soldiers were there, people died, Providence Spring, the Raiders hung, and Wirz was a scapegoat.* (I am being exceedingly generous here- I am happy to talk to people and they even recognize the name of the place as a part of the American Civil War). Some of these events of that 15-month-long narrative are remembered and told as focal points of the Andersonville story. It helps pinpoint times. It helps make the fifteen months seem conceivable. Events provide means of telling stories (because "we woke up and attempted to survive for the 84th day in a row" doesn't make for an engrossing story).

These "highlights" of a longer narrative become not just places along the timeline to tell stories, but they provide entry points for commemoration to happen. One story gets told and retold, maybe exaggerated, and retold and shared and pronounced and exclaimed and told again! Then it becomes more important than all the other days because people know of it. People know it. Are the events truly significant? Or just memorable? Why do we choose to hallow a place? Or a time?

The landscape in the national cemetery even tells that these six have a story.
Seven score and ten years ago ON THIS DAY six men hung from a roughly-built gallows amongst the crowded prison population at Andersonville. Prisoners watched. Guards watched. One prisoner wrote he could not stomach the sight and hid himself in the crowd. These men were accused of stealing and murder. They were buried in six graves isolated from the rest of the Union graves at the cemetery.

Seven score and ten years ago ON THIS DAY dozens of other men died at Andersonville, too. Disease, starvation, and wounds ultimately ended their lives. Why do six men whose lives ended by way of a rope get remembered and not these other men? The men who rotted to death were not accused criminals. The men who quietly slipped into eternity better represent the 13,000 other souls who perished during their time at Andersonville. Why did soldiers at the prison camp make note of July 11, 1864? It "was a day of unusual excitement," according to Robert H. Kellogg. Soldiers witnessed an event completely out of the ordinary and it stuck in their memories.

Information about the Raiders is still fairly limited, so historians can not just say "the Raiders were guilty" or "they were bad guys" or "this is who they were before the war" or "their deaths were justified" or "they were victims." But the six isolated graves today provoke questions. The unusual excitement of the day echoed loudly into the years following the end of the war. The story of this hanging has evolved into one of the most significant points of the Andersonville narrative.

So we remember the hanging. But they weren't the only ones who lost their lives on July 12th in Camp Sumter at Andersonville. Nor were they the only soldiers punished for their crimes within the camp. We like stories, however. The end of their lives makes for a good story. Their story echoes loudly from the stockade walls that once stood. While their separated burial sites indicate dishonor, they rest in a place people continue to hallow.

Ponder that. Who hallows? Who hallows ground, who hallows people? We make choices in how we frame stories and situations and what we choose to remember. In this case, we don't hallow the Raiders but this is an anniversary date of a widely-told story from they place. So, they are remembered. Do we unintentionally hallow these six men by thinking of them on this anniversary day?

*To paraphrase a friend of mine: every time that somebody says "Wirz was a scapegoat," an historian loses her wings. So just stop it. Want to learn more about Wirz, including the most recent of research? Read this.

**I think the story of the Raiders is far more complex then "bad guys hung" but I am doing research on them. I sometimes forget my own objectivity while researching because so much poor scholarship exists that I want to "make it right." Is this hallowing? I don't know.

***My own opinions. My own time. Like always.

No comments:

Post a Comment