Remembering and Forgetting
Reviewed by Bland Whitley
Vol. 23, No. 2, 2001 pp. 32-34
David W. Bright, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Boston, Harvard University Press, 2001
As recent debates over the continued use of the Confederate battle flag have demonstrated, the legacy of the Civil War remains a prominent feature in the political landscape of the South. In Mississippi and South Carolina the conflict between pro- and anti-flag, forces ignited the kind of impassioned activism that issues such as education, economic development, and electoral reform rarely seem capable of inspiring. Georgia may have avoided these passions by inaugurating a new flag in the smoky corridors of the legislature with little prior warning (although backed by years of proposals), but this remains to be seen. Already, there are rumbles that white rural voters may take their anger out on the legislators who supported changing the state flag as well as on Democratic Governor Roy Barnes. Some observers are even citing the flag issue as the political wedge that Republicans have been seeking in their efforts to seize majorities in the legislature. After all this time the Civil War persists as a vessel into which different constituencies pour their political wishes and frustrations. Why do so many people, particularly conservative white southerners, cling to the war as a defining element in their identities?
David Blight’s masterful work does not set out to answer this question, but it is essential reading for anyone who might wish to wrestle with the issues raised by the war and why they continue to resonate in contemporary America. Covering the fifty years following Appomattox, Blight analyzes how different groups constructed their memories of the Civil War and how these memories took root in the national consciousness or faded into the background. Blight outlines three main forms of Civil War memory, all of which fostered their own master narratives: emancipationist, mainly characteristic of African Americans and their allies; reconciliationist, a largely white northern affair, and white supremacist, the stance of most white southerners. The main thrust of Blight’s account details how reconciliationism accommodated itself to the white supremacist narrative, thereby marginalizing the emancipationist vision. In this regard Civil War memory (and forgetting) paved the way for the marginalization of African Ameri-
cans in other walks of life. By rejecting the more politically charged emancipationist interpretation and by choosing sectional healing over racial justice, northern whites helped helped signal their abdication of southern affairs to their former enemies.
Remembrance of the war began even before the conflict had ended. The Gettysburg Address announced one path that Americans’ collective memory might trod. By reflecting on the causes of the war and on the sacrifices of the soldier, Americans might fashion a new, if familiar, American creed that would finally live up to the egalitarian ideals of the Revolution. Despite, and in some respects because of, white southern intransigence, this ideologically charged interpretation did exert a powerful influence over the public imagination in the immediate postwar era. It helped shore up radical Reconstruction, if only temporarily and fostered widespread resentment of the Confederate cause. The narrative of a reborn nation proved especially compelling for African Americans whose remembrance was spiked by public celebrations of emancipation and of the service of black soldiers. In fact, Blight has unearthed evidence which shows that Memorial Day saw its first incarnation among freed people and their white allies in Charleston shortly after the war’s close.
Yet at its moment of triumph, this emancipationist vision was yielding to the thirst for reconciliation. The central irony running through Blight’s account is the damage that the humane goal of overcoming sectional hatreds did to the possibility for a more egalitarian union. The problem with healing divisions was that it could only be accomplished by stripping war remembrance of any taint of ideology. Soldiers of either side might be honored for the virtues of courage and persistence they all shared, but if issues like war causation or African Americans’ claims on equal citizenship appeared, sectional heat grew too intense. The continued political well-being of blacks depended, in other words, on the enmity of northern and southern whites. As Frederick Douglass summed matters up, “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?” The reconciliationist impulse emerged first among southern patricians and northern conservatives, who urged Americans to put the war’s destruction behind them and come together for the common good. Initially a defensive posture that sought to overcome bitterness of radical Republicans and Confederate die-hards, reconciliation eventually provided a model for how white Americans would choose to remember the war. As Reconstruction collapsed under the weight of southern white violence and as Republicans began to devote themselves more exclusively to greasing the wheels of corporate industrialism, northern whites grew increasingly unwilling to examine the political dynamics of the war and its legacy. Sentimental paeans to soldiers and immersions in the minutiae of battle strategy replaced analyses of the agonizing issues that still confronted American society.
Southern whites were only too happy to participate in these apolitical remembrances. Yet stripping ideology from memory was never part of white southerners strategy. On the contrary, they asserted the righteousness of the Confederate cause, and while acknowledging that slavery’s end might have been a good thing, they discounted slavery as a source of the conflict. Thus was born the states’ rights explanation that continues to work such mischief in American politics and culture. As the attention of northern whites drifted away from the war, southern whites intensified their interest in the recent past. In the sentimental fiction of writers like Thomas Nelson Page, in the commemorative exercises of the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and in burgeoning historical societies, an uncompromising narrative emerged. This narrative subsumed the reconciliationist vision under a white supremacist package with several components: the comity exist-
ing between master and slave in the Old South” the states right defense of secession, the Confederacy’s proud defeat as a result of the superior resources of the North; the suffering of white southerners under Negro and Carpetbagger rule during Reconstruction and the white South’s triumphant return to its rightful place of power. The South may have lost the war, but it had succeeded in preserving white supremacy, thereby providing a model for the North and the rest of the world.
Blight is perhaps not as clear as he needs to be on how and why northern whites came to accept most aspects of the pro-Confederate narrative, but accept it they did. Fascination with the Old South as well as their own racism appear to have been most decisive in this conversion. Equally important, as Blight asserts, was their apolitical sentimentality. The romance of sacrifice, of honoring all those miles of tombstones, and of listening to the sanitized war stories of grizzled veterans became a substitute for ideology. The national regeneration, which Lincoln had urged, became the dissolution of sectional resentments rather than the realization of America’s democratic promise. Thoroughly triangulated, African Americans could do little but fall back in on themselves. Some such as Booker T. Washington and his accomodationist followers, accepted the logic of sectional reconciliation. Other, more radical blacks rejected the emancipationist vision as useless in a society that had proved so unwilling to accept them as equal citizens; only emigration to Africa would allow their regeneration. Douglass’s more hopeful and forceful vision would persist but in virtual subterranean form until the Civil Rights Movement unleashed it back into the American consciousness.
Collective memories, Blight’s relevant work shows, are stubborn entities. They derive from fundamental events and transformations, and they plug into ongoing political debates. They also can become exhausting for those not thoroughly invested in the politics underlying them. In the flag debates the most politicized groups have once again been conservative whites and defenders of egalitarianism, primarily African Americans. By insisting that their particular visions receive widespread public recognition and symbolic display, they have demonstrated the importance of the past. As in the earlier period that Blight has so skillfully analyzed, a third group prefers to forget for the sake of progress. Through the din of the debate have emerged complaints that undue attention to history only distracts people from more important problems. Viewing ideological battles over the past as an obstacle to capital growth, these economic progressives have fought to sanitize public space of controversial symbols. However useful this ahistorical approach has been in the contemporary fight to remove the Confederate battle flag from public images, it can never be more than an unsteady supporter of egalitarian causes and often will work against them. Race and Reunion teaches us that in an earlier time, white supremacists exploited the political apathy of reconciliationists, who spoke a language similar to that of today’s economic progressives, to ensure that their vision of history would gain ascendence in the South’s political culture. The stakes may not be as high today, but the choices are similar. Which histories we choose to remember and honor will continue to shape our political landscape in ways that an ahistorical faith in capitalist progress cannot. Better that those memories help further the goals of democracy rather than prop up the specters of past and present racist agendas.
Bland Whitley is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Florida. He is currently studying historical narratives on Reconstruction in Mississippi.