“Negotiating the Peace: Bowdoin Commemorates the End of the Civil War,” a two-day series of programming in observance of the 150th anniversary of the peace reached on April 9, 1865, is underway.
Standing before a crowd of people gathered in the lobby of Memorial Hall to commemorate the anniversary, government professor Chris Potholm yesterday evening reflected on the significance of war memorials. His remarks launched Bowdoin’s celebration of the end of the Civil War, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
The site of Potholm’s and Pickering’s talks was purposeful. Memorial Hall was built to honor the Bowdoin alumni who fought in the Civil War.
“Monuments and memorials are many, many things,” Bowdoin’s DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Professor of Government said. “They give us statements. They give us information. They develop emotions in us. They admonish us. They make us feel sad. But at the base…they are really Rorschach tests. We bring to the memorial the emotions, information and frameworks that we then reflect onto the memorial.” Read the full text of Potholm’s talk, “Bowdoin At War: Memorials, Monuments and Memory,” here.
Following Potholm’s talk, Ambassador Thomas Pickering ’53, H’84 gave a talk in Pickard Theater titled, “Civil War to Civility: Bowdoin’s Sons and Ending Strife — Then and Now.” Pickering holds the personal rank of career ambassador, the highest in the United States Foreign Service.
In his talk, Pickering addressed the challenges and failure of Reconstruction to move the country forward after the war. He drew upon his vast experience to address the theme of how war does not resolve political issues – diplomacy and politics do. All wars end with political arrangements. He also touched upon current affairs in places such as Iraq and Syria.
Before Pickering’s talk, Potholm brought people’s attention to the large bronze plaques affixed to Memorial Hall’s walls. A plaque displays the names of Bowdoin soldiers who fought for the Union Army, and another contains the names of those who joined the Confederacy. Potholm said he thought the Civil War memorial here was different from other war memorials.
“There is a feeling of comradeship I get when I am here. It doesn’t just have the people who died; it has the people who went to war. It is more inclusive, and that softens it a bit,” he said. The memorial is also inclusive because it remembers soldiers who fought on both sides of the conflict, he added. “That is what makes it a much more powerful monument. The Civil War was over, society was now integrated.”
Potholm also mentioned other memorials on campus, including the World War I Memorial Flagpole on the Quad. Last summer Bowdoin replaced the flag pole and hoisted a larger flag. Potholm joked that the project, in terms of time, engineering and expense, “rivaled the building of the Panama Canal.” But he soberly commended the undertaking because of the importance of remembering the number of American lives — more than 116,000 — lost in the first World War. In contrast, since 1991 — starting with the Gulf War, through the two Iraq wars and the wars in Afghanistan — more than 5,200 Americans have died.
All the war monuments on campus, Potholm said, honor the young men, and now the young women, who decided to put duty, honor and country first. Most years, at least one Bowdoin graduate is inducted into the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marines or Navy, he said. “These are not students who have to go to war,” he said. “There is no draft, no ROTC, no funnel for them. [They are] students who say, ‘we should do something for our country,’ going all the way back to 1828.
“We owe these men and women our special thanks, and our gratitude, for their very special service,” Potholm continued. “Their service is a proud and vibrant, and indeed contemporary, tradition.”