Professor to speak on Civil War

Gwen Chamberlain
Dr. Laura Free

On Friday, Feb. 25, Dr. Laura Free of the Hobart William Smith Colleges will give a talk at the Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society entitled  “Bullets, Belles, and Bloated Bodies: The Civil War in American Popular Culture and Memory.”  

The event will take place at the L. Caroline Underwood  Museum, 107 Chapel Penn Yan, and is one in a series of Evenings at the Museum.  

A 6 p.m. reception will be followed by Dr. Free’s presentation at 7.  To make a reservation, please call the YCGHS at 315 536-7318.  A $5 contribution at the door is suggested.

The Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010.  To honor that occasion, the Society decided to launch a five-year observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and its impact on the community and nation.  Dr. Free’s presentation is part of that observance.  

On May 14, the Society will undertake a day-long commemoration of the departure of the first of the more than 2,000 soldiers that Yates County sent to the war.  On July 16, nationally-known musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason will offer a concert of Civil War era music at Keuka College under the Society’s auspices.  Details on these and other events are available at and at the blog,

Why don’t Americans drive around in cars decorated with battle streamers from the War of 1812?  Or re-enact battles from the Spanish-American war in battlefield regalia? What is it about the Civil War that is still so compelling to Americans that it prompts many of us to care passionately about its symbols, its moments, and its legacies?  These are some of the questions Dr. Free will address.  

Dr. Free will discuss the role of returning Civil War soldiers and others in creating the popular memory of that conflict. She will consider some of the many ways that Americans have grappled with the  memory of the Civil War, and in particular, how Americans use the Civil War as fertile ground to explore our culture.

From the veterans’ parades  and public statue dedications of the late 1800s, to the impassioned  debates about the Confederate flag in the late 1900s, to the increasingly popular battle reenactments of today, Americans have  remembered the Civil War in varied ways, and assigned varied meanings to  the conflict, which have profoundly changed over time.

Dr. Free explores these diverse meanings, questions why this particular moment in American history continues to fascinate and enrage Americans, and examines the complicated relationship between American history, memory, and culture.

Laura Free is an assistant professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where she teaches courses in American history, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and women’s history.

She received her Ph.D. from  Cornell University, and is working on a book on gender, race, and changing suffrage rights in the immediate post-Civil War years.