- Hardcover: 512 pages
- Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Press (February 9, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674003322
- ISBN-13: 978-0674003323
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 67 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #947,015 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Race and Reunion : The Civil War in American Memory
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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.
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
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White planters knew that if the war was recalled as a revolt by wealthy slave owners against the first modern democracy to preserve black men and women as mere property that they could never again occupy a leading role in the republic they had willingly sacrificed 600,000 lives to destroy.
African Americans knew that their transition from chattel to citizenship depended on the support of a Northern electorate whose anger at the haughty manner in which Southerners had plunged the country into the worst war in American history made them a vengeful ally of the freedmen.
Writing a hundred years after the war, Robert Penn Warren wrote that Civil War memory still penetrated into the consciousness of America. "The Civil War is our felt history-history lived in the national imagination", he wrote during those early years of the Civil Rights Movement. Penn Warren said that all Americans draw lessons from the war. One lesson is that "slavery looms up mountainously" in the American story, but the other is that "when one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten," or as William Dean Howells put it more succinctly, "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending".
African Americans tried to deny a happy ending to the Civil War, or any ending to it at all, before full equality was achieved.
Historian David Blight's important book on the creation of Civil War memory, Race and Reunion, tells the story of how in American culture "romance triumphed over reality, sentimental remembrance won over ideological memory...as a culture, we have preferred [the Civil War's] music and pathos to its enduring challenges." He says that the war "haunts us...but often we do not face it."
Immediately after the war ended, memory favored freed slaves.
Once despised abolitionists were cast as unarmed heroes who had recognized the danger of the Slave Power of the Old South. These abolitionists advanced the theory that the war represented America's march towards equality and full democracy.
Less ideologically determined Northern soldiers' memories saw the blacks as allies of the Union army and as the rescuers of lost soldiers and escapees from the South's notorious prisoner of war camps.
Both memory sources saw the Southern elites as treasonous, anti-democratic, and barbarously violent.
African American leaders like Frederick Douglas worked untiringly to keep these memories alive. They hailed Abraham Lincoln as the bringer of a new birth of freedom to America, insisted that the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of non-whites was central to its meaning, and reminded Northern veterans and their families that nearly 200,000 Southern blacks had volunteered to fight beside them in the Union army to preserve the United States as a haven of freedom.
But, Blight says, "in the half century after the war, as the sections reconciled, by and large, the races divided." This was reflected in popular novels of the time. By the 1890s romantic fiction often involved secret love affairs between the daughter of a Confederate veteran and the son of a Union soldier. The parents at first try to stand in the way of a match that would unite two families that three decades earlier were involved in deadly warfare. When the lovers marry, they bring about a reconciliation of the families, symbolic of the reconciliation of the North and South. There, were, Blight writes, no similar romances of racial reconciliation in which the daughter of a planter marries the son of a freedman as a harbinger of reconciliation between former slave owner and slave.
To emerge as a world power, the United States had to craft a nationalism that had never existed during its first century of independence. A country in which the powerful in the North and the powerful in the South were permanently at odds could never challenge Britain, France, or Germany on the world stage.
Blight writes that "The memory of slavery, emancipation, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments never fit well into a narrative in which the Old and New South were romanticized and welcomed back to a new nationalism". Instead of examining the war's deeper meanings, Northerners gradually accepted the Southern white claim that the war was never about slavery and that the real focus of history should be on the heroism of the young white Americans involved in the war, their loyalty to what they believed to be right, and their devotion to duty.
Southern white interest in maintaining this fiction was so great that state school boards across the South barred the use of textbooks that included a realistic treatment of race in their discussions of the war. National textbook publishers accordingly de-historicized their books to protect the tender sensibilities of the grandchildren of the Confederates.
The extremes to which the Southern white effort to control history were willing to go can be seen in the 1911 response to an essay on the war by an academic historian. Enoch M. Banks taught at the University of Florida. He published an article on the war's Fiftieth Anniversary in which he said that after full study of the issue he had concluded that the "fundamental cause of secession and the Civil War...was the institution of slavery". This essay stirred a firestorm of denunciation across the South where newspapers denounced his "false and dangerous" views. State funding for the university was threatened and Banks resigned his professorship.
As the North accepted the Southern white interpretation of the war, it also embraced its notions of racial segregation, and, Blight says, a "segregated society demanded a segregated historical memory." The new history of the war that emerged in the early 20th Century, essentially wrote blacks out of its narrative. When African Americans tried to assert their freedom as central to the war by holding Emancipation Day celebrations and commemorations of Lincoln's birthday every year, they came to be viewed as distorters of the true meaning of the war. Blight says that for blacks "Lincoln was their icon" and the Emancipation Proclamation their Magna Carta, but whites now took a jaundiced view of "Old Abe" and often seemed to forget the Proclamation entirely.
In 1875 Fredrick Douglas had asked if war among the whites had brought emancipation for Blacks, what would peace bring? During the half century after he uttered that question, peace meant the increasing degradation of blacks and the whitewashing of memory.
The book informed me about so many things that I did not know and left me with an appreciation of the past and ongoing struggle we have in this country around the issue of race and with the hope that as a white person who is now more aware of what the blacks have had to endured in our country will be even more proactive in my stand against racial violence and prejudice.