Gary Gallagher on the Differences Between History and Memory

One of my favorite lectures from renowned Civil War historian and University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher is included in the video above. The bulk of the lecture is dedicated to analyzing the Battle of Gettysburg within the larger context of the Civil War and questioning the common belief that it was a “turning point” that signaled the end of the Confederacy. In the process of questioning these assumptions, Gallagher provides a fine explanation of the differences between history and memory (this explanation starts around the 7:00 minute mark and continues for about ten minutes).

Gallagher points out that history students oftentimes confuse history and memory as being one in the same, and these confusions can lead to questionable interpretations of primary source documents. He argues that in any historical event there’s a certain sequence of complexities and contingencies that shape the outcome of that event (history). But how we remember that event (memory) can be at odds with what actually happened at the time. Gallagher suggests that of the two, memory is oftentimes more important than history to individuals and societies because “it doesn’t matter what happened, it’s what we think happened.” Our memories guide how we engage with and think about history, and they shape how we choose to remember historical events.

Too often, however, our memories can lead us to think of historical events as inevitable. Within the context of the Civil War Gallagher diagnoses this problem as the “Appomattox Syndrome,” where scholars start off with the two great legacies of the war (Union and Emancipation) and then move backwards from these moments of inevitability. It’s easy to for us today to view events from this perspective because we are merely observers of Civil War history, not participants in the making of historical events during that war. But Gallagher says that starting at the end of the story “is the wrong way to do history.” If we want to better understand how things actually happened, then we must start from the beginning (while keeping in mind that defining the “beginning” is a subjective exercise) and move forward, taking account of all complexities and contingencies along the way.

We can compare Gallagher’s differentiation between history and memory to different approaches of understanding a sporting event. Sports pundits oftentimes analyze games following the “Appomattox Syndrome” approach. They already know the outcome of the game and let that influence their analysis of crucial “turning points” and highlights worth showing to their audiences: a fight in the second period of the hockey game is defined as a “turning point” that energizes the home crowd and inevitably pushes that team towards the winning goal; a hitter on a baseball team gets a game-winning hit in the ninth inning, and a pundit argues that he “found his swing” during an earlier at-bat in the sixth inning. And so on. But by looking at sporting events as they happened and moving forward, we might do a better job of understanding the complexities and contingencies that shaped the outcomes of those matches.

Although historians are more apt to trust a primary source document that is created around the time an event took place (a diary written while fighting at Gettysburg) rather than a remembrance (such as a memoir or a newspaper interview forty years later), we should still proceed with caution when looking at primary source documents. All primary source documents are written from a perspective that doesn’t necessarily account for the entire scope of a historical event, and these documents can include their own biases, distortions, and speculations. One soldier at Little Round Top will have a different perspective than the one at Culp’s Hill (and even another soldier at Little Round Top). A Union soldier will have a different view of events than a Confederate. A local resident of Gettysburg might have different desires and concerns than Confederate General Robert E. Lee or U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

Through this mix of perspectives and primary source documents created during and after the course of a historical event, historians attempt to reconstruct things as they actually occur and discover the “truths” of history. But can we really discover the truths of history? I think there are certain times when we can, but there are many times (probably more than we are willing to acknowledge) when we find ourselves in the shoes of my friend and colleague Bob Pollock, shouting “just gimme some truth” and wondering if we can ever pick up all the pieces of the past.



3 thoughts on “Gary Gallagher on the Differences Between History and Memory

  1. Another way to phrase some of this is “contingency:” Events are not inevitable, they are contingent upon many factors. If a contingent event turns out differently, then the larger struggle (a war, a baseball game, whatever) might turn out differently. A great historical example is the so-called “miracle of the House of Brandenburg” during the Seven Years War, when the Czarina died, putting a pro-Prussian successor on the throne and thereby saving Frederick the Great. The search for “turning points” then becomes the search for those “contingent events” which, if they happened differently (which also involves whether they were *likely* to happen differently), would lead to a different larger outcome.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Nick Sacco has an interesting discussion based on a lecture by noted Civil War Historian Gary Gallagher about Gettysburg. Sacco talks about how Gallagher distinguishes between “history” and “memory.” “Memory” tends to color historical events because it often makes them seem inevitable, even if they are not. Sacco states that Gallagher’s discussion explains why historians should always be careful when using primary source documents. Check out Gallagher’s lecture and Sacco’s discussion.

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