Obituaries of Grinnell Civil War Veterans: Value Race and Identity in Small Town Iowa

Our project examines how Grinnell, Iowa remembered its Civil War veterans, specifically through the content and language of obituaries written in one of Poweshiek County’s most widely read newspapers, the Grinnell Herald. Through critical examination and content analysis of these obituaries, we can discern, through the public nature of this type of commemoration, the process of mourning in Grinnell, what kind of model life and values were conveyed and what about the war was deemed worthy of being remembered or forgotten. In short, we can determine what particular value was placed on each of these men’s lives. Situated within processes of mourning and remembrance occurring nationwide (in particular touching on the scholarly debate between David Blight and Caroline Janney over how reunion and reconciliation transpired along racial lines), this analysis seeks to establish the way conceptions of value, race, and identity were formulated in Civil War veteran memory and perpetuated on a local level. Although Grinnell’s memory of the Civil War strongly vindicates the Union cause and cherishes the legacy of emancipation, the obituaries use veteran status in a way that supports white supremacy by conceding to a racial conception of citizenship and value in society, a conception that was used to unite the town in times of trouble and upheaval yet carried a racial cost. Grinnell’s experience offers insights into how memory played out elsewhere, demonstrating that even in the context of a strong emancipationist memory, the accommodation of white hegemony can contribute to racial erasure.
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