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75 of 79 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How the South Won the Peace
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...
Published on April 15, 2001

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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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 achieve reconciliation between North and South. This allowed America to sacrifice its promise of equality to blacks, as it wrote them out of Civil War history, invented a make-believe version of...
Published 12 months ago by Wilburn Sprayberry


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75 of 79 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How the South Won the Peace, April 15, 2001
By A Customer
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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. Their goals were not innocent. One UDC member claimed (page 290) " . . .we can always feel sure that white supremacy is God-given and will last."
Professor Blight's work is thick with primary sources, and his words shows deep knowledge of 19th Century politics, fiction, perceptions and viewpoints. The book is not easily read from cover-to-cover: it is lengthy and divided into chapters where the content is occasionally duplicative. Among the best sections is one describing the struggle within the black community to come to grips with their declining fortunes as Jim Crow and lynchings spread across the South. It is a story not often mentioned, and in great need of study. Another section on racist Plantation Literature revealed a topic completely new to this reader. I owe thanks to Professor Blight for showing how a culture's fictionalized past can warp the present and future.
The author provides some excellent photographs that place the text in time and space. This reviewer would have like a bit more material on the Antebellum South's views, and a perhaps a chart or two to show when organizations began and ended, when events exactly occurred, and the like. I was a bit unsure exactly what reconstruction meant, in real terms, by the text. A clearer explanation would have been helpful. This might be simply a symptom of this reviewer's ignorance, however.
This book is an essential one for those who like to focus upon the combat aspects of the Civil War, in that it explains how one can waste much blood and yet surrender goals for peace. It would also be useful for those individuals working in the contemporary national security apparatus, to help them understand that conflicts do not end when the guns go silent. Military victories must be followed by perception management, sometimes for decades. The text is well footnoted, and has an excellent index.
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56 of 63 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
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Sandra Parke Topolski (New Albany, Indiana United States) - See all my reviews
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. Although Blight fails to address it, it is likely that northern whites came to view southern sentiment more charitably not simply because they were too exhausted by war to fully implement civil rights for former slaves, or because they wanted to make amends with white southerners, but because with the growth of industrialism and its concurrent labor problems, the idea that a slave society had been able to keep social harmony and prevent such conflicts between labor and capital was appealing and believable in and of itself.
Blight persuasively shows that whites "remembered" and redefined the war precisely by forgetting it. However, the book is marred by his failure to use similar evidence that the war ever meant the same things to its participants that it does to him in the first place. Simply saying that northerners went to war to "preserve the union and end slavery" is not enough. Undoubtedly those were important motivations, but the complexities behind them are as deep as those involved in remembrance. Indeed, most northerners did not go to war to end slavery, so it should not surprise us that emancipation and race figured less prominently in their memories of the war than Blight would hope. For southerners, preserving slavery was certainly the primary cause of the war, but Blight fails to see that slavery involved more than just the ownership of blacks. Everything that southerners believed in was shaped by the centrality of slavery to their entire society-we cannot discount their contention that they were fighting for freedom and democracy, or anything else, because their understanding of all those things rested on slavery itself. Nor should we be surprised at their reaction to Reconstruction, for it turned everything they believed or understood about that society upside down. Blight then has succeeded in showing us how the war came to be remembered, but not how that memory differed from its participants' original understanding of it, or how reconciliation could have developed any differently.
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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.
Throughout this book there are other detailed analyses of how emancipation and reconstruction were all but deleted from our nation's collective understanding of the causes and outcomes of the war. The value of Race and Reunion cannot be overstated. Professor Blight's work offers its readers the chance to begin to understand our tragic past and troubled present.
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29 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sad American Story, June 21, 2001
David Blight's tale about how the North betrayed its African American supporters--soldiers and civilians--and the selective memory that made it possible, is sad and also instructive. As far as it goes, it's thoroughly documented, telling how the first order of American business in 1865, the reconciliation of North and South, was enabled by systematic avoidance of the root cause of the Civil War, slavery, and the social problems which resulted from it, that is, how to incorporate a huge number of Black Americans who were in competition with the Whites for land, jobs, and opportunity in general, in a shattered economy. Blight sustains his thesis fully: that by 1915 the job was complete and American memory picked clean as far as White memory ws concerned. A white Northerner, I was schooled in the "Gone with the Wind" era and remember well the tale of rapacious Northern carpetbaggers, their dupes the bewildered Blacks, and the gallant Southerners who saved their glamorous way of life by pacifying the Blacks (who had been happy in slavery, anyway). Blight does, of course, go into the constitutional issues of the war and the fact that they were resolved, on paper, by a series of amendments signed as the war ended. But the North didn't follow up on them, though it was in the North's power to do so. The Reconstruction period is controversial for just this reason; Blight disentangles the issues well. We could at any time have remembered less selectively, and acted more concretely, to ensure that the causes of the war, plus the problems of the years after Appomattox, were solved in fact, as they had been solved on paper.
This was a complex time; and Blight's focus on selective memory and its effects can't go on to the interesting question of "why." What stopped the victors from insisting that our memories produce more concrete justice? Interested readers might like to expand into some other issues of the period 1865-1915, like the need to re-work American thought, in Louis Menand's "The Metaphysical Club"; the widening problem of poverty in the cities, in Joan Waugh's "Unsentimental Reformer"; or the birth and rise of consumerism, in William Leach's "Land of Desire." These are just three of the issues which sidelined a just and concrete Reconstruction.
The resulting avoidance was not merely unjust to the Blacks, it was--and is--tragic for the nation at large because it deprives us all of the gifts they could have bestowed on the community, and of many that they still could. Meanwhile national avoidance, and its setting in selective memory, remain with us. Civil War re-enactors happily volunteer to portray gallant Confederate troops, movies like "Gettysburg" are still produced, Dixie's flag still flies, and Blight's book tells us, unsparingly, just why. Alas, he does us a service.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful work of history, November 16, 2004
This review is from: Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Paperback)
On the canvas of American historical memory, it proved much easier to unite the Blue and the Gray than it has to connect the black with the white. David Blight's brilliant work on the memory of the Civil War argues that in the fifty years following General Lee's surrender, the war's deepest meanings were debated and negotiated, with crucial consequences for the future of the nation. In the end, the need for sectional reunion combined with virulent white supremacy to inculcate a purposeful forgetting of the racial underpinning and egalitarian possibility of the Civil War. The North allowed the South to completely dictate the terms on which the conflict would be remembered, subscribing to a narrative in which the mutual valor of soldiers from both sections was elevated, the blame for slavery eradicated, and African Americans left to fend for themselves in the era of Jim Crow.
Blight's principal contribution, beyond providing the most complete and profound study of historical memory and the Civil War yet attempted, is his suggestion that culture and memory, not politics, were primarily responsible for the nation's failure to remain true to the emancipationist meaning of the war. Tracing the development of the memory of the Civil War in American consciousness from the 1863 Gettysburg Address to the all-white North/South reunion that commemorated the battle of Gettysburg 50 years later, Blight argues that the South, through the work of historical societies, Lost Cause novelists, women's groups, and veterans associations, "forged one of the most highly orchestrated grassroots partisan histories ever conceived," in which both sections shared the blame equally and the racial causes and consequences of the war were conspicuously silent. In its zeal to heal the scars of the war and reconstruction, the North accepted the southern reading of history, choosing reunion over race, and leaving the egalitarian promises of the war unfulfilled. In this cultural context, African American efforts to remember the racial meaning of the war were marginalized as completely as were African Americans themselves.
For all its considerable brilliance, Race and Reunion is slightly tarnished by the feeling of inevitability accorded to the processes described above. While expertly explaining how the South's victory in the realm of historical memory trumped the North's victory on the battlefield, Blight fails to explain how it could have been otherwise. One gets the sense that the North's failure to forcefully impose its own reading of the war immediately after the cessation of hostilities was its downfall - it seems that the emancipationist vision of the Civil War was doomed by 1866, due to the cataclysmic psychological impact of the war, the deep-rooted need for sectional reconciliation, and the greater ideological unity of the South. This slight criticism aside, Blight's work is a monumental achievement and an invaluable contribution to the study of the Civil War which wrests the conflict from the clutches of tweed-clad 19th century historians and re-enactors in blue and gray, placing it squarely in the center of the American experience.
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27 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars profound examination of Civil War and national memory, September 22, 2002
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This review is from: Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Paperback)
As crucial as the pivotal national victory in the American Civil War is how our nation recalled the significance of that watershed event. In Professor David Blight's profoundly stirring history of Civil War memory, "Race and Reunion," how and why the American people committed that event to their historical consciousness looms as significant as the event itself. Professor Blight's study of the fifty-year period following the Civil War will leave those who yearn for racial justice deeply disappointed. It is a cruel irony that deliberate forgetfulness of the past is a central theme of this powerful historical study. For in our nation's purposeful historical amnesia and racist refashioning of the Civil War, a consensus "reconciliationist" view of that pivotal experience sowed the seeds of institutional racism and the deliberate obliteration of the very cause of the Civil War itself. Blight's exhaustive research, presented in stirring, graceful prose, paints a dreary portrait of post-Civil War America; for all intents and purposes, the South may have lost the Civil War but it certainly won the battle in its unapologetic and energetic attempt to have the nation perceive history through the South's eyes.
Professor Blight describes an ongoing battle between two deeply different visions of Civil War memory. The "emancipationist" vision absorbs the notion of the Civil War as a revolutionary event, one which not only abolishes slavery but begins the process by which African-Americans may become full and equal partners in a multi-racial society. Emancipationists point to Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" in their understanding of the centrality of slavery to the Civil War and its eradication as the most noble consequence of that war. On the other hand, "reconciliationists" propose a vision that holds the South as the victim of the Civil War, Reconstruction as an unmitigated disaster and nobility of both Johnny Reb and Billy Yank as mutually heroic soldiers. Completely absent in the "reconciliationist" view are African-Americans, other than as loyal, grateful slaves, willing to please their masters and hurt by any ill-guided attempts at freedom or equality.
Professor Blight is completely convincing in his arguments. Even today, with many American communities celebrating "Civil War Days," Americans feel more comfortable examining battles, proclaiming the mutual valor of both sides and celebrating reunion than examining our national racial past. Emancipationists tend to make people feel uncomfortable; their idealistic commitments to justice and racial equality invariably place second to materialistic concerns. In this sense, we in the early twenty-first century tend to unknowingly mirror Americans of one hundred years ago.
This fine history is not necessarily pessimistic. Looming large is Frederick Douglass, whose passionate commitment to emancipationist views informs his entire public life. He, more than any other character, seems to possess the vision and tenacity to hold steadfastly to the moral purposes of the Civil War. His telling question, asked in 1875, rips to shreds the fatuous emptiness of reconciliationist views: "If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?"
The civil rights years, in which the nation was compelled to make read the promises of emancipation and the Civil War Amendments, proves that any memory is central to a nation's self-image. For nearly one hundred years, our country accepted as dogma the "Magnolia and Moonlight" theory of Soutern society; our national consciousness saw slavery as benign (even beneficent to African-Ameicans), our culture excoriated Reconstruction (how else can we explain the success of "Gone with the Wind" and its predecessor in racist ideology, "Birth of a Nation") and determined to honor both Northern and Southern soldiers as equally devoted and honorable. Only in the past generation have Americans rediscovered the emancipationist vision and been compelled to use that memory as the yardstick to national policy.
Professor David Blight has written a vital and important history. It deserves the largest audience.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reconstruction versus Reconciliation, December 9, 2002
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Following the end of the Civil War, there was a tension between those who favored a strict reconstuction of the governments of the defeated South and those who favored a reconciliationist approach. The reconstructionists, led by the Radical Republicans in Congress wanted to protect,implement, and perhaps expand the rights of the newly freed blacks. The reconciliationists favored putting the Civil War behind the United States and creating a sense of nationalism among sections that, up to 1865, had been bitter enemies.
Professor Blight traces the tension between these two competing visions from 1863, when President Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address, through 1913, which witnessed a reunion of Civil War veterans at Gettysburg and a commemorative speech by the then-President, Woodrow Wilson.
Professor Blight drawns heavily on the work of recent scholars such as Eric Foner (and his predecessors) which has changed the way many historians view the Reconstruction Era. Professors Blight and Foner reject the view that Reconstruction was primarily an era of carpetbaggers, corruption and victimization of the South. The see it instead as a necessary attempt to protect black Americans. Reconstuction was gradually rejected and came to an end in 1876. The end of Reconstruction saw the rise of Jim Crow and segregation in the South with tragic consequences that would not be redressed until the Civil Rights Era of the mid-twentieth Century. The consequences remain with us.
According to Professor Blight, the Reconciliationist picture relegated the treatment of Black Americans to secondary significance. This picture focused instead on the common threads that existed between North and South and particularly between their fighting forces. The militaries of both sides were motivated by patriotism, valor and courage, as they saw it. They fought for what they believed in, with, in the Reconciliatist approach, the cause of the War in slavery carefully omitted or marginalized. The Reconciliationist approach led in time, Professor Blight argues, to the myth of the Lost Cause and to the romanticization of the Old South.
Professor Blight has amassed a great amount of learning and familiarity with primary source material to discuss the Reconstuctionist and Reconciliationist approaches to American History subsequent to the Civil War. He treats in detail much important American literature, including writers such as Walt Whitman, Steven Crane, Joel Chandler Harris, and Ambrose Bierce, among many others. He discusses Civil War writing by battlefiled participants that appeared in great quantity beginning in the late 1870's together with the memoirs of Civil War Generals, particularly Grant and Sherman. He discusses the work of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington and other black leaders. And he discusses works from politicians and apologists in both North and South.
The book is an excellent study of the American experience following the Civil War. I think it is persuasive for the most part. In places, I think Professor Blight creates too much of a dichotomy between the Reconstructionist and Reconciliationist pictures. I think there was and is room for both visions. More importantly, the sources Professor Blight discusses show that there were many competing versions of the Civil War and its meanings, not all of which fall readily into the camp of either Reconstruction and Reconciliation.
Following the Civil War, the United States needed to both secure the Civil Rights of Black Americans and also provide for a new American union and sense of Nationalism. Neither purpose was achieved fully or entirely well. We are working on them both today. Professor Blight has shown the tragedy of the War. He has also shown the serious consequences to our country of the long delay in fully addressing the Civil Rights of all American people. This is a worthwhile, thoughtful study of the legacy of the Civil War, but it does not provide the only word on the subject.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful but selective history mixed with advocacy, December 16, 2013
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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 achieve reconciliation between North and South. This allowed America to sacrifice its promise of equality to blacks, as it wrote them out of Civil War history, invented a make-believe version of slavery in which blacks were happy simpletons, a racist version of Reconstruction in which they were vicious animals, enabled the South to impose a brutal new form white supremacy, and pushed blacks into the shadows of American life.

There is considerable substance to Professor Blight's arguments, but they also lack balance, are selective, and suffer from presentism.

He is most effective in describing how the legend of "The Lost Cause," and the "moonlight and magnolia" version of the slave-holding South, came to dominate popular culture and memory across the nation. It is almost a book by book account of how Northern opinion was gradually conquered by Southern authors, especially Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, whose appealing stories featuring noble plantation owners and happy, loyal slaves were published in countless magazine articles and books read by millions of Yankees. Indeed, it eventually had a strong influence in academic histories about the period.

However, ridiculing these stories, and the Lost Cause, is not the same as debunking them, at least not completely. It's true most of the stories are unrealistic, fantastic, or grossly exaggerated, and they all sound silly to modern ears. But the author admits there were, in fact, loyal slaves who were not figments of literary imagination, or creations of propaganda by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. This doesn't stop him from too easily accusing white Southerners of pathological levels of self-deception in promoting and accepting these stories as reflective of actual conditions during slavery. Certainly, most slaves were not the stereotypes found in "moonlight and magnolia" tales, and the vast majority wanted freedom. However, Dr.Blight never touches the subject of slave dissimulation. As freedmen recorded years later in thousands of slave-narratives, it was in the best interest of slaves to appear contented and loyal, whatever their true feelings. The narratives are full of incidents where slaves "put on a happy face" in the hopes of better treatment, or to avoid worse treatment. It seems reasonable that many stories and memoirs of the "good old days" of slavery are based, not on post-war fantasies, but on ante-bellum misperceptions of blacks by whites.

Dr. Blight is much more convincing in his depiction of black memories of the Civil War, and the struggle of freedmen to preserve what he feels is the true legacy of the Civil War, the emancipationist legacy, and the "unredeemed promises" of equality the nation made to them.

However, there is a problem here. To Professor Blight, the Civil War is all about race - about destroying slavery and bringing blacks into society as equals with whites. He dismisses the post-war assertions of Southerners that they seceded because of states' rights. And he is right. The root cause of the Civil War was slavery.

But a large majority of Northerners did not fight to free the slaves. They fought to preserve the Union. Many Union soldiers were infuriated by the Emancipation Proclamation - several regiments in the Army of the Potomac threatened to go home, declaring they had not enlisted and risked their lives to free blacks (they actually used the N-word ) but to save their country. Only the abolitionists (a small minority in the North's population and in the Army's ranks) cared about freeing the slaves.

But Dr. Blight is a neo-abolitionist historian, and to neo-abolitionists, the only war objective that really mattered was the abolitionist objective. Getting its start during the civil rights era in the 1960s with the work of historians like Kenneth Stampp, and especially Eric Foner, neo-abolitionists have become the most powerful voice in Civil War historiography. To them, the greatest heroes of the Civil War are the black soldiers who fought for the Union and the original abolitionists, above all Frederick Douglass (who some see as a figure equal to Lincoln). Some have even tried to rehabilitate John Brown, the murderous fanatic who probably did more than any one person to cause the war.

Neo-abolitionists have a hard time dealing with the fact that most Northerners wanted nothing to do with blacks after the Civil War, that having freed them after all, and destroyed slavery, whites in the North thought they had done enough. To neos like Dr. Blight, the only explanation is racism. That 350,000+ Union dead might have something to do with it doesn't matter. That even the anti-slavery magazine THE NATION (yes, that one) was so tired of hearing about the plight of the Freedmen that it jubilantly proclaimed, after the Compromise of 1877 withdrew the last Union troops from the South, "We are done with the Negro forever" --- doesn't matter. That Ulysses S. Grant himself, at the end of his presidency, told his cabinet that the 15th amendment giving blacks voting rights (which he had strongly supported) was a mistake --- doesn't matter. All that matters is that blacks were denied full freedom and citizenship because of white racism.

As for the South, it's post-war refusal to accept blame for maintaining the "peculiar institution" of slavery and for causing the war, for remembering the war wrongly, and for re-imposing white supremacy, must be exposed and denounced.

In RACE AND REUNION, it is the distorted memory of the Civil War by both North and South, the "reconciliationist legacy," which turned American society away from racial equality and into a "racial nightmare," which lasted until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s - the 2nd Reconstruction - finally brought a measure of racial justice.

In this view, anyone who does not think the Civil War was all about slavery and race is a (despised) "Lost Causer," and anyone who does not think American history between 1877 and 1968 was a racial nightmare is a racist.

Such attitudes leave no room for context, for nuance, or for debate. This may be good advocacy. It is not good history.

There are other flaws in the book. Dr. Blight's prose is more florid than informative at times. He overstates the role that Freedmen in Charleston played in establishing Memorial Day. It doesn't occur to him that the absence of black veterans from the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg may be because there were no black soldiers in the battle.

Finally, the serious student of this subject should read, along with this book, THE ROAD TO REUNION, by Paul Buck, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. Many academics despise this book today, but in most respects it is superior to RACE AND REUNION.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Civil War in American Memory, October 23, 2005
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This review is from: Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Paperback)
If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?" Fredrick Douglass, an African American and leading abolitionist during the Civil War era, realized the importance of this question at the conclusion of the war. The Confederacy may have been defeated on the battlefield, but how Americans entered the meaning of the war into their historical consciousnesses had major implications for the United States. In his classic essay titled "What is a Nation?" Ernest Renan discussed the concept of memory and how citizens' remembrances of events contribute to nation-building. Furthermore, he asserted that a nation requires a great deal of forgetting. In Race and Reunion, David Blight, a professor of History and black studies at Amherst College, examines three different visions, or memories, that Americans formed in regards to how they interpreted the meaning of the Civil War. These three different memories competed with one another and in the end one memory gained widespread acceptance while the essence of the Civil War was forgotten. As a result of this, the North and South put their differences behind them and reconciled, but at the same time the races divided.

Blight's monograph illustrates that different memories - the reconciliationist, emancipationist, and followers of the "Lost Cause" - were held by different groups of people following the war. The Civil War caused an enormous amount of death and destruction and as a result the government needed to decide if they wanted the country to heal or if they wanted to impose justice on the South. Frederick Douglass believed, "There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war" and wanted the federal government to implement policies that would protect the recently freed slaves and bring them to an equal status with their former masters. For a brief period following the war, the Radical Republicans seemed to have some success with securing rights for the blacks through the federal government. However, as followers of the "Lost Cause" began to promulgate their beliefs, the meaning of the Civil War began to be forgotten and historical amnesia began to set in. Through violence and measures taken to write history to support the Southern cause by placing the blame of the war on the North, the emancipationist vision of the war began to fade.

Blight focuses on examining the reconciliationist vision of the war and how this memory became enmeshed in the minds of most Americans. Albion Tourgée, a literary figure of the time that adopted an emancipationist vision, asserted, "Only fools forget the causes of war." Yet forgetting the meaning of the war is exactly what happened in the fifty years following America's second revolution. Facing the difficulty of securing rights for the emancipated slaves in the South, the Republicans curtailed their commitment to African Americans. No other event signifies this retreat than the Compromise of 1877 in which Samuel Tilden agreed to let Rutherford Hayes take the presidency under the condition that the last remaining Union soldiers would leave the Southern states. This event legitimized allowing the sections to reconcile while the rights of the blacks were denied. This sense of reconciliation can be found amongst the soldiers themselves. Rather than focusing on the causes of the war, past soldiers, both North and South, found commonality in the suffering, bravery, and honor that they experienced during the war. The photo that Blight includes on page 389 illustrates this idea. Taken during the semi-centennial celebration of the battle of Gettysburg in 1913, the photo shows ex-Confederate and Union soldiers clasping hands over the stone wall located on the field where Pickett's charge took place. Clearly, the meaning of the war was gradually forgotten as the nation healed and the sections reconciled at the expense of African Americans.

Blight's greatest contribution is that he shows the importance of the role that memories play in the formation of a nation. Like Renan, he understands that how major events have been remembered, or forgotten, have major implications for a nation. Nation-building is a continuous, ongoing process. The ways in which people choose to remember significant events are directly related to this process. Blight uses various statements from a wide variety of individuals as evidence of how different people interpreted the meaning of the Civil War. For example, Blight includes many statements from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to show how they were dissatisfied with the prevailing memory that the majority of Americans held of the Civil War. Special attention is also given to the contrasts between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. When Blight discusses the memory that was conjured from the followers of the Lost Cause, he mentions the role that Mildred Lewis Rutherford, historian of the United Daughters of the Confederacy from 1911 to 1916, had in writing a history of the war that alleviated the South of any wrongdoing. Central to the "Lost Cause" memory is Nelson Page, a Southern writer who showed, in a twisted sort of history, that slaves actually enjoyed living on the plantation and were happy to serve the owners. Moreover, D. W. Griffith's film Birth of Nation attempted to glorify the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed them as the saviors of a war torn south. Blight discusses these various individuals and shows how each contributed to the formation of the three memories that are central to his monograph. Hindsight has shown that the reconciliationist memory gained the most acceptance following the Civil War. As Blight explains in his prologue, "In the end, this is a story of how the forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture, how the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race." Hence, "The essence of the war was...sacrificed on the altar of reunion."

Although the emancipationist memory faded into the subconsciousness of our nation's memory, it would appear once again a century after the Civil War. W.E.B. Du Bois was so insightful when he postulated, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." In a massive attempt to gain rights for African Americans in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement erupted and delivered the emancipationist vision to the forefront of American thought. Martin Luther King Junior realized what reconciliation had meant for the black race when he stated, "One hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free." Blight's Race and Reunion should be read by everyone. Writing in a clear, flowing pose and using a wide variety of sources including literature, Memorial Day orations, and monuments, he shows that the formation of different memories after the Civil War has had a deep impact on American nation-building. Moreover, and perhaps more significant, he explains the harm that was done to African Americans as the meaning of the Civil War was largely forgotten in the years that followed its conclusion.
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Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David W. Blight (Paperback - March 1, 2002)
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