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Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory [Paperback]

David W. Blight
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 31, 2002 0674008197 978-0674008199 New Ed
No historical event has left as deep an imprint on America's collective memory as the Civil War. In the war's aftermath, Americans had to embrace and cast off a traumatic past. David Blight explores the perilous path of remembering and forgetting, and reveals its tragic costs to race relations and America's national reunion.In 1865, confronted with a ravaged landscape and a torn America, the North and South began a slow and painful process of reconciliation. The ensuing decades witnessed the triumph of a culture of reunion, which downplayed sectional division and emphasized the heroics of a battle between noble men of the Blue and the Gray. Nearly lost in national culture were the moral crusades over slavery that ignited the war, the presence and participation of African Americans throughout the war, and the promise of emancipation that emerged from the war. Race and Reunion is a history of how the unity of white America was purchased through the increasing segregation of black and white memory of the Civil War. Blight delves deeply into the shifting meanings of death and sacrifice, Reconstruction, the romanticized South of literature, soldiers' reminiscences of battle, the idea of the Lost Cause, and the ritual of Memorial Day. He resurrects the variety of African-American voices and memories of the war and the efforts to preserve the emancipationist legacy in the midst of a culture built on its denial.

Blight's sweeping narrative of triumph and tragedy, romance and realism, is a compelling tale of the politics of memory, of how a nation healed from civil war without justice. By the early twentieth century, the problems of race and reunion were locked in mutual dependence, a painful legacy that continues to haunt us today.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Almost all the dominant views of the Civil War and its aftermath, including Reconstruction and "reunion," prevalent in this country until the coming of the civil rights movement, were the direct result of an extensive Southern propaganda war, argues Blight (Amherst College professor of history and black studies), remnants of which are still flourishing in various racist subcultures. As W.E.B. Du Bois noted a century ago, shortly after the war, the North was tacitly willing to accept the South's representation of the conflict in exchange for an opening of new economic frontiers. Blight sets out to prove this thesis, surveying a mass of information (the end notes run to almost 100 pages) clearly and synthetically, detailing the mechanics of mythmaking: how the rebels were recast as not actually rebelling, how the South had been unjustly invaded, and how, most fabulously of all, the South had fought to end slavery which had been imposed upon it by the North. His argument that this "memory war" was conducted on a conscious level is supported by the Reconstruction-era evidence of protest, by blacks and whites alike, that he unearths. Yet these voices failed to dissuade the vast majority of Americans both North and South who internalized some version of the story. This book effectively traces both the growth and development of what became, by the turn of the 20th century and the debut of The Birth of a Nation, the dominant racist representation of the Civil War. A major work of American history, this volume's documentation of the active and exceedingly articulate voices of protest against this inaccurate and unjust imagining of history is just one of its accomplishments. (Feb. 19) Forecast: This book will be the standard for how public perceptions of the Civil War were formed and propagated in a manner directly analogous to today's doublespeak and spin control. It will be a regular on course syllabi, and will be glowingly reviewed, but the wealth and diversity of sources may keep some general readers away.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The year 1913 saw two separate ceremonies commemorating great events 50 years previously: elderly Union and Confederate veterans shook hands at the Gettysburg battlefield, and W.E.B DuBois staged an elaborate "National Emancipation Exposition." Together they struck discordant chords of memory about the Civil War, which Blight examines in this incisive discussion of how the conflict was popularly remembered in the half-century following Appomattox. He closely examines the types of memorializations of the war, such as the creation and observance of Memorial Day, the erection of statues to Robert E. Lee and Robert Gould Shaw, soldiers' reunions, soldiers' memoirs, popular literature, and anniversary orations by such figures as Frederick Douglass. Within these modes of expression Blight recounts the strong tide in the post-war years for "reunion on Southern terms," politically by the overthrow of the Republican Reconstruction governments in the South, and ideologically in "Lost Cause" writings justifying secession and slavery. Freed blacks suffered the consequence of the ascendance of a sentimental view of the war and amnesia about its central issue. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; New Ed edition (March 31, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674008197
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674008199
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,434 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
68 of 72 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How the South Won the Peace April 15, 2001
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
David W. Blight's thorough research, assembled into the seminal book "Race and Reunion" demonstrates how our nation lost the great opportunity created by the Civil War to lay a solid foundation for racial equality and justice.
Professor Blight explains how the desire to reunite the (white components) of the nation in reconciliation and brotherhood pushed the issue of African Americans and their rights to the sidelines. The causes of the Civil War--slavery and the status of African Americans in our society--were de-emphasized, and the virtues and nobility of the fighting man, both North and South was lauded. Neither was right, neither was wrong; both were brave, and their causes just. The idea that we should not judge veterans by the cause they fought lives with us today: this reviewer once participated in a dinner honoring a Russian pilot that fought for North Korea during the Korean War. Why did the Air Force honor a man who killed Americans for what many would consider one of the most evil regimes imaginable? Because he was a great "warrior." Our desire to avoid judging warriors began with the Civil War. It has damaged our moral sensibilities since.
By reducing the Civil War to chivalrous recollections, the essential meaning of the war became lost, and the South was able to build myths of the Lost Cause, the happy slave, and an Antebellum Utopia. Reconstruction went down in US history books as a chapter of regional oppression. Professor Blight demonstrates that this was not by chance: the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and other organizations worked to ensure their views were in textbooks across the nation. They promoted the "faithful slave" image, awarded laudatory reminiscences of the Klan, and erected "Mammy" memorials.
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51 of 58 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars revisionist history May 9, 2001
By A Customer
What one reviewer here refers to as "advocacy" is only good revisionist history, offering correction to more than 100 years of Lost Cause nonsense and reconciliation propaganda that began in earnest within two weeks of the South's loss at Gettysburg. I would only point to other contemporary historians whose work supplements and supports Blight's excellent book and thesis: Carol Reardon, Gary Gallagher,David Glassburg, Eric Foner and James McPherson. This is a contentious subject and the interpretation is unsettling to many (neo-Confederates, in particular) who remain mired in the kind of Ken Burns myth-making that the Civil War was a tragedy with a happy ending, that the war was necessary so the country could be forever united. A happy conclusion, of course, unless you happen to be African American. Highly recommended reading, a tonic to ages of partisan recollection that distorted the meaning of Civil War and allowed most Americans to continue wallowing in nostalgia and ancestor worship while avoiding the issue of slavery and its truly tragic consequences.
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41 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The meaning of the War? September 19, 2001
In Race and Reunion, David Blight argues that white Americans from both the north and south redefined their understanding of the causes and meaning of the Civil War as they attempted to reconstruct the nation. For Blight, the causes of the war were alternately the preservation of the Union or of slavery, and its most important legacy was emancipation. This interpretation was rejected during the post-war era, however, because it stood in the way of reconciliation and renewal. After an initial period of deep hostility between the sections while wartime atrocities were still fresh in their minds, Americans began to remember the war by focusing upon the shared experiences of both sides, thereby reducing their focus on their initial differences. For many, it no longer mattered which side had been right, only that all had fought for deeply held beliefs with honor and glory. As demonstrated in the massive amount of evidence Blight has gathered from popularized histories, magazines, and fiction, the war and its participants were romanticized in a way that served to erase both its tragedy and its causes.
The centrality of race and slavery in the conflict were thereby forgotten by most, eventually to the point that southern apologists could even maintain that they had been right in preserving slavery, and few but black Americans would argue. Indeed, in the memories of former slaves and their descendents, the importance of emancipation was central to their understanding of the war, and the rejection of that interpretation by whites was a huge betrayal. Most whites however were exhausted by acrimony; they wanted to rebuild the nation and move forward, and could only do so by ceasing to argue a cause they felt the war had settled.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging Memory December 14, 2002
David W. Blight has written a monumental study about the central place of memory in American life. While Race and Reunion specifically deals with the end of the Civil War to 1913 (the fiftieth reunion of Gettysburg), it is a powerful reminder that how we think about our past defines our present and shapes our future.
Blight's book is a necessary antidote for the easy nostalgia that too many Americans feel for ugly periods of our history. Indeed, the recent comments by Senator Trent Lott show that we have not fully learned the lessons that are so evident in this book.
As Bernard Malamud wrote in The Fixer: "There's something cursed, it seems to me, about a country where men have owned men as property. The stink of that corruption never escapes the soul, and it is the stink of future evil."
Race and Reunion tells how slavery went from being seen as corrupt to being remembered as an integral part of a respectable lifestyle. It also explains how the myths of the Lost Cause were told and retold throughout the nation until most of them became part of our accepted history.
Blight uses extensive citations in his reconstruction of the campaign to legitimize the Confederate cause, the honor of rebel soldiers, and the belief that slavery was a mostly benign practice. The success of those wishing to rehabilitate the Old South was astonishing. Blight details a fact that I had never known, and one that is among the most outrageous in our history. In 1923, the United States Senate appropriated $200,000 for a memorial to beloved and faithful mammies. This monument would have been located on Massachusetts Avenue and would have been the only national monument depicting African American "heroes." Thankfully, the bill died in the House.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Race and Reunion -DavidBlight
Excellent contribution to the history of ideas which shaped American attitudes toward Reconstruction. Recommend to all with an interest in the Civil War era.
Published 1 month ago by John F. Sutherland
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most important books ever written
Blight perfectly captures how the fallacy of the Civil War which is still taught in many schools was developed and how Reconstruction was effectively and tragically demonized by... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Brendan Thomas
5.0 out of 5 stars Versions of History Have Political Meaning
Compellingly written and impressively researched, this book shows how the Southern story about the Civil War and its aftermath took over as the national story in the half-century... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Anne Mills
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful but selective history mixed with advocacy
The core thesis of this book is that after the Civil War, the nation's memory of the war, the ante-bellum South, and Reconstruction, was distorted into a fairy-tale in order to... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Wilburn Sprayberry
5.0 out of 5 stars A Modern Classic on the Memory of the Civil War
The end of the combat of arms in April 1865 began the combat of memory over the meanings of the American Civil War. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Patrick Young
1.0 out of 5 stars A Political Tome Posing as History
In order to understand The Civil War, a war in which an extraordinary proportion of one nation's adult male population became casualties, one must have a feeling for those who... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Pelaro
3.0 out of 5 stars Social history only
This book was well-written, and clearly well-researched by the author. But to my mind, it did not tell the entire story about successes and failures in reconciliation after the... Read more
Published on December 30, 2011 by todd1049
5.0 out of 5 stars Eloquent and Convincing
A very eloquently written book on the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States. The author's conclusions, backed by facts, are that reunion (reconciliation) of North and... Read more
Published on October 17, 2011 by Mike B
5.0 out of 5 stars What we un-learned and its consequences
I was raised in California, U.S.A. We mistakenly believe that we
missed out on this kind of extensively distorted history. Read more
Published on June 23, 2010 by Dave Kuhlman
5.0 out of 5 stars Going far beyond what a history textbook provides
I hated history of all kinds when I was a student, but now many years later am driven to go beyond the "who did what" and "when they did it" of typical high school history classes. Read more
Published on June 16, 2010 by DCSeymour
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