March 4, 2001 New York Times Book Review
A historian studies how Reconstruction influenced the legacy of the Civil War in America.
By ERIC FONER
RACE AND REUNION
The Civil War in American Memory.
By David W. Blight.
Illustrated. 512 pp. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press. $29.95.
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.
In ''Race and Reunion,'' David W. Blight demonstrates that as soon as 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.
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 50 years after
Appomattox exemplifies these themes. It 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,'' 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, who teaches
history and black studies at Amherst College, 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 19th century, in a segregated
society where blacks' subordination was taken for granted in the North and South,
''the forces of reconciliation'' had ''overwhelmed the emancipationist vision.''
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, 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'' and return control of the South to its ''best men'' (that
is, the former slaveholders). Despite his defeat, Greeley's campaign persuaded
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 newspaper editor
Edward A. Pollard called ''the war of ideas.'' During the 1870's, 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 blacks who
fled 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 1880's, 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.'' Ironies abound 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, whose origin
lay in 1865 when thousands of black South Carolinians placed flowers on the
graves of Union soldiers, soon became an occasion for expressions of white nationalism
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 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. No monuments
to Longstreet graced the Southern landscape; indeed, not until 1998 was a statue
erected at Gettysburg, where he served under Robert E. Lee.
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's magnificent monument to the black soldiers of the 54th and 55th
Massachusetts Regiment for a time rekindled a more inclusive memory of the war.
The most unusual dissenter discussed by Blight was the former cavalry officer
Col. 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.''
Blight begins and ends with the Gettysburg reunion in 1913, a ''festival of
national reconciliation'' attended by more than 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 remainder. Three years later, he invited D. W. Griffith to show his film
''The 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.''
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 over all 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 the United States. As
current controversies reveal, however, the reconciliationist vision of the war
retains a powerful hold on many Americans' imaginations. Ken Burns concluded
his documentary on the war 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.
''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.''