The American Civil War: How Does History Remember It?


African Americans ended slavery, made it so that Lincoln had no choice.

In the first days of the war free blacks from North volunteered (Lincoln declined).

In the first weeks of the war 500,000-700,000 fled enslavement to offer services to Union army. 

Ultimately, after Lincoln forced to change military policies by their actions, 200,000 men enlisted, 200,000 non-combat “contraband” support (men?), how many (hundreds of) thousands of women don’t we know about:

Harriet Tubman, 3 years major player, on one of the raids she led (with 2nd SC Volunteers, former slaves themselves) liberated 800 slaves.  Received full military funeral upon her death.

Ellen Bower went undercover as “Ellen Bond” in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ house in Richmond to gather intelligence.

Susie King Taylor published a book about her military service.

Approx 90 black officers, 14 surgeons.

Black soldiers faced exceptional cruelty by Confederate troops and discrimination by Union army.  Mass 54th refused pay for a year rather than accept substandard wages. Exceptional bravery.  23 soldiers and sailors received medals of honor.

Navy was different, less discrimination, long history of black service. 

Robert Smalls, 1st African American captain in U.S. Navy later a U.S. Congressman.

Lincoln acknowledged that it was the black troops that allowed the Union victory, thus ending slavery and saving/creating the United States.  South knew black troops were key too, which is why a few days before the end of the war they too authorized the recruitment of black soldiers.

Historical memory, history, is constructed, it is shaped by political agendas and cultural biases—by conscious and unconscious influences.

Of the thousands of Civil War monuments throughout the country only a handful contain an image of a black soldier.

The true origins of Memorial Day.

The abandonment of the nation's commitment to equal rights for 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. Gen. James Longstreet, the Confederate commander who had the temerity to support the rights of former slaves after the war, was excised from the pantheon of Southern heroes.

The reconciliationist vision of the war did not go unchallenged however the Confederacy lost the war on the battlefield but won the war over memory.

Blight believes how we think about the Civil War has everything to do with how we think about race and its history in American life. 

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 Statehouse and the decision by the National Park Service to devote more attention to slavery at its battlefield sites. Clearly, the Civil War is not over.