Andrew C. Butler


Associate Professor of Education, Associate Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Department of Education, Arts & Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

ABSTRACT | Collective Memories of the U.S. Civil War in Northerners and Southerners

A collective memory is a representation of the past that is shared by members of a sociocultural group. The concept of collective memory has been investigated in a host of different disciplines, including history, sociology, literary analysis, and psychology. The present research applied theory and methods from cognitive psychology to investigate how the national identities of “Northerners” and “Southerners” shape their memories for the U.S. Civil War and World War II. Fifty-four undergraduate students participated in the study – half of whom grew up in the North of the U.S. and the other half who grew up in the South of the U.S. For each of the two wars, students were asked to generate the ten most important events, write a narrative about the war, and then rate a set of pre-selected events on several dimensions. Analysis of the data showed substantial overlap between the two groups in their memories of both wars (e.g., timing of events in the war, types of events remembered), but also substantial differences in terms of their respective memories of the U.S. Civil War (e.g., relative importance of certain events, errors in remembering “non-events”). Overall, this research contributes new ideas and methods of analysis to the collective memory literature while also offering fresh insights into how the national identity of a sociocultural group shapes individual memory for historical events.