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Remembering Our Bloodiest War


ISSUE:  Spring 2002

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. By David W. Blight. Harvard. $29.95.


Recently, historians have sought to understand how and why Americans continue to remember their civil war. Memory of the bloodiest conflict on U.S. soil remains fresh in popular imagination, kept alive by legions of Civil War buffs, reenactors, genealogists, and amateur writers, as well as scholars, who declare it to be the “Second American Revolution” or the watershed in our national history. Clearly, it was a significant event, but why does this war still resonate so strongly in our popular culture and national psyche? The answer, or answers, appears to be quite complicated.

David Blight’s Race and Reunion takes readers back to the armed conflict and the onset of communal remembering, tracing the development of different and often divergent interpretations of the war from 1863 (the year he deems to be the war’s turning point) to 1913. Sensitive to the changing social, political, and racial context of the postwar years, Blight identifies three “overall visions of Civil War memory”: “reconcliationist,” “white supremacist,” and “emancipationist.” He finds evidence of all three visions at varying times, but the last, that of the emancipationist, grew dimmer with time, overshadowed by the first two. By 1913, Blight argues, most remembered the war as a uniquely American event in which all white solders were brave, Northern and Southern causes were equally just, and the roles of slavery and blacks in causing and determining the war’s outcome were largely forgotten.

Blight views race as the defining theme in American history and the “central problem in how Americans made choices to remember and forget their civil war.” His focus on race is a necessary corrective to counter present perceptions that slavery had nothing to do with the war, and that the societal and governmental failures of Reconstruction hurt white Southerners more than they harmed ex-slaves and successive generations of black Americans.

Blight synthesizes most of the important scholarship done on memory and the war, although he admits that his book does not attempt to provide an overview of Civil War historiography. He does discuss some of the first historians of the war, including soldiers themselves and influential writers such as James Rhodes and W.E.B. DuBois. He describes the advent of Decoration Day, first promoted by former slaves in Charleston who decorated the graves of dead Union prisoners, and its eventual evolution to Memorial Day. He recounts how postwar Northerners, especially Radical Republicans, waved “the bloody shirt” to stir painful memories to consolidate and keep government power. White Southerners sought to use the war’s memory for their own purposes too, to challenge Northern power, retain racial control, and redefine Confederate defeat. And blacks, whose memory of the war was conflicted and contested, sought to use the war to claim rights to citizenship, counter racist propaganda, and keep hopeful about the future. By the turn of the 20th century, Americans drew on selected and sentimentalized recollections of the war to reunify the nation and reinvigorate a new age of imperialism and white supremacy. Including slavery in this communal memory was too disturbing and troubling to a nation already undergoing transformative and disruptive societal growth. Politics was corrupt, immigrants were crowding cities and industrialism seemed to be dehumanizing everyday life. Americans in the early 1900’s needed a soothing, inspiring memory of their past to calm anxieties about the future. To reunify nationally, white Northerners and white Southerners “required a cessation of talk about [the war’s] causation and consequences, and therefore about race.”

This book covers an impressive scope of issues and aspects of historical memory in nearly 400 pages of text. Blight narrates chronologically and thematically, interweaving the voices of Northerners, Southerners, whites, blacks, men and women. There are the founders of the South’s Lost Cause, the leaders of the Grand Army of the Republic, and outspoken dissenters like Ambrose Bierce, John Mosby and W.E.B. DuBois. African-American memory of the Civil War divided into several overlapping often contradictory strands that included recalling the age of slavery as a dark, painful void; celebrating black involvement in the war to end slavery; and interpreting slavery as part of blacks’ special religious destiny before the ushering in of a new, lasting age of Pan-Africanism. Throughout the text, Blight demonstrates convincingly that remembering the Civil War had many uses and many purposes in American society, some noble, some exploitative, some making good business-sense; but invariably all were loaded with meaning and emotion.

Blight’s sources are also extensive. He uses published recollections and public speeches, newspapers, journals, poems, novels, ex-slaves interviews and prison narratives. He also consults works by psychiatrists, anthropologists, and philosophers, and accounts by Holocaust survivors to try to understand why people remember and how something as traumatic as war affects memory.

Despite the book’s many strengths there are some weaknesses. Blight’s prose is often cliched and he has an annoying tendency of using book titles, or expressions that sound like book titles, to make observations. He sprinkles phrases throughout his text like the “tragedy of reconstruction,” “the road to reunion,” “a usable past.” He gives Walt Whitman’s well-worn phrase about the “real war” never getting into the books a twist by writing: “Some of the real war, and much of an imagined one, was already getting into the books.”

Blight also fails to explore one of the most intriguing aspects of the memorialization phenomenon. Women, especially elite white Southern women, actively involved themselves in creating and promoting the white supremacist and reconciliationist memory of the war. Blight emphasizes these women’s involvement, but he fails to consider why these women would be motivated to promote such an image of the war.

Blight views the Civil War as the “Second American Revolution,” implying that the conflict planted the seeds of lasting and positive political, social, and racial change, although he seems to view the results of these changes not coming to fruition until the latter part of the 20th century. The Civil War and Reconstruction eras were not so revolutionary. Instead, as Blight’s book demonstrates, many Americans anxiously and purposefully sought to stifle and counter any potential changes the war and its aftermath brought to American society.

Race and Reunion ends in 1913 without entirely explaining why Americans today still stay fixated on their Civil War, but Blight hints at answers. Without acknowledging the central role slavery and race played, and plays, in our national memory, Americans keep revisiting the event. Like a traumatic experience that haunts an individual, perhaps the nation too is haunted, and cannot heal and move forward without facing its painful and complicated past. And so, we return, repeatedly, to the war, seeking answers and understanding, but not always asking the right questions. Blight’s book begins to reorient us in the right direction.

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