Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
By David W. Blight
New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2001
Nearly a century and a half after it ended, the Civil War remains the central event in American history and an enduring source of public controversy. The past few years have witnessed disputes over the flying of the Confederate battle flag above the South Carolina state house, the National Parks Service's decision to devote more attention to slavery at its battlefield sites, and, most recently, statements by newly-appointed cabinet members John Ashcroft and Gail Norton that celebrate the Lost Cause. Clearly, as the historian Barbara Fields trenchantly remarked toward the end of Ken Burns' much-praised television documentary, the Civil War is not over.
In “Race and Reunion,” David Blight demonstrates that as soon the guns fell silent debate over how to remember the Civil War began. In recent years, the study of historical memory has become something of a scholarly cottage industry. The memory of World War I reflected in monuments, novels, and popular culture has been examined by numerous European historians. A book on how New Englanders remembered King Philip's War against local Indians won the Bancroft prize a few years ago.
What unites these studies is the conviction that memory is a product of history. Rather than being straightforward and unproblematic, it is “constructed,” battled over, and in many ways political. Moreover, forgetting some aspects of the past is as much a part of historical understanding as remembering others. Blight's study of how Americans remembered the Civil War in the fifty years after Appomattox exemplifies these themes. “Race and Reunion” is the most comprehensive and insightful study of the memory of the Civil War yet to appear.
Blight touches on a wide range of subjects, including how political battles over Reconstruction contributed to conflicting attitudes toward the war's legacy, the origins of Memorial Day, and the rise of the “reminiscence industry” (173) through which published memoirs by former soldiers helped lay the groundwork for sectional reconciliation. He gives black Americans a voice they are often denied in works on memory, scouring the black press for accounts of emancipation celebrations and articles about the war's meaning. As his title suggests, Blight believes that how we think about the Civil War has everything to do with how we think about race and its history in American life.
Two understandings of how the Civil War should be remembered collided in post-bellum America. One was the “emancipationist” vision hinted at by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address when he spoke of the war as bringing a rebirth of the republic in the name of freedom and equality. The other was a “reconciliationist” memory that emphasized what the two sides shared in common, particularly the valor of individual soldiers, and suppressed thoughts of the war's causes and the unfinished legacy of emancipation. By the end of the century, in a segregated society where blacks' subordination was taken for granted North and South, “the forces of reconciliation” had “overwhelmed the emancipationist vision.” (2) Another way of putting it is that the Confederacy lost the war on the battlefield but won the war over memory.
The origins of the reconciliationist memory, Blight argues, can be traced to debates during Reconstruction, when Republicans made a commitment to legal and political equality for the former slaves and then abandoned it in the face of violent opposition from the white South and a Northern retreat from the ideal of equality. Horace Greeley's campaign for president in 1872 at the head of a coalition of Democrats and dissident Republicans focused on the need to “clasp hands across the bloody chasm” (126) and return control of the South to its “best men” (that is, the former slaveholders). Despite his defeat, Greeley's campaign convinced many Northerners to view their former enemies more sympathetically and to abandon the idea of federal intervention on behalf of the former slaves.
Meanwhile, Southerners were mobilizing in what the Virginia editor Edward A. Pollard called “the war of ideas.” (51) During the 1870s, Southern publications like The Land We Love and works issued by the new Southern Historical Society promoted a memory of a war in which slavery played no part and blacks participated only as faithful servants who protected their masters' property. Old-time “mammies” and loyal slaves were celebrated in memoirs, tributes, and statues. In this highly selective, not to say grossly misleading, memory, the legions of African-Americans who fled the plantations to seek freedom behind Union lines and the 200,000 who fought for the Union were forgotten. Even today, of the thousands of Civil War monuments throughout the country only a handful contain an image of a black soldier.
By the 1880s, as mass-market magazines like The Century bombarded readers with veterans' reminiscences and the construction of Civil War monuments began in earnest, the nation's memory came to focus more and more on the soldiers' heroism, “immunized,” Blight writes, “from motive.” (96) Ironies abounded in the triumph of the reconciliationist outlook. Gettysburg, site of the greatest Northern victory, was transformed into a shrine to the Confederacy centered on Pickett's charge, the “high tide” of the Southern cause. Even Memorial Day, which had begun in 1865 when thousands of black South Carolinians laid flowers on the graves of Union soldiers, soon became an occasion for expressions of white nationalism and reconciliation.
Rather than the crisis of a nation divided by antagonistic labor systems and ideologies, the war became a tragic conflict that nonetheless accomplished the task of solidifying the nation. With Reconstruction having ended in 1877, another invented memory how the South had suffered under what was called Negro rule was widely accepted among Northern and Southern whites. The abandonment of the nation's commitment to equal rights for the former slaves was the basis on which former white antagonists could unite in the romance of reunion.
Blacks were not the only ones “forgotten” in this story. Confederate general James Longstreet, who had the temerity to support the rights of African-Americans after the war, was excised from the pantheon of Southern heroes. No monuments to Longstreet graced the Southern landscape indeed not until 1998 was a statue erected at Gettysburg, where he served with distinction.
The reconciliationist vision of the war did not go unchallenged. On the margins of national memory, black communities celebrated the anniversary of emancipation and the service of black troops. The unveiling in Boston in 1897 of Augustus Saint Gaudens' magnificent monument to the black soldiers of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts for a time rekindled a more inclusive memory of the war. The most unusual dissenter discussed by Blight was former cavalry officer John Mosby, the “Gray Ghost” of the Confederacy. Mosby declined invitations to memorial events where speakers claimed that slavery had nothing to do with the conflict. “The South was my country,” Mosby wrote, and he was not ashamed that he had fought to defend it. But, he pointed out with refreshing candor, “the South went to war on account of slavery.” (297-98)
Blight begins and ends with the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, a “festival of national reconciliation” (9) attended by over 53,000 veterans, all of them white. Presiding over the occasion was Woodrow Wilson, the first elected president born in the South since Zachary Taylor. Wilson had recently dismissed many of the black employees of the federal government and imposed rigid segregation on the reminder. Three years later, he would allow the film “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and presented white supremacy as the underpinning of national unity, at the White House. “A segregated society,” Blight comments, “demanded a segregated historical memory.” (361)
Blight tells this story in a lucid style and with an entirely appropriate measure of indignation. He does not explain why, if “reconciliation” triumphed so completely, Northern Republicans long reaped political windfalls by “waving the bloody shirt” -- reminding voters of the war -- during election campaigns. But the book is so persuasive overall that one regrets that Blight did not try to bring it up to the present.
Today, nearly all historians view slavery as the war's fundamental cause, emancipation as central to its meaning and consequences, and Reconstruction as a praiseworthy effort to establish the principle of racial justice in America. As current controversies reveal, however, the reconciliationist vision of the war retains a powerful hold on many Americans' imaginations. Burns concluded his series with a loving depiction of the Gettysburg reunion as a moment of brotherly forgiveness, while failing to note that the betrayal of the dream of racial justice was essential to the process of white reconciliation. Even though it stops in 1913, “Race and Reunion” demonstrates forcefully that in the year 2001, it still matters very much how we remember the Civil War.
Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of “The Story of American Freedom” (W. W. Norton).