This book knocked me out. I could not put it down, and brought it on a 10 day backpack trip in the Sierras, reading every evening. After fairly extensive reading on Reconstruction while writing an academic paper, I discovered a youtube lecture by David Blight on the subject. He was so intelligent, expressive, fair-minded, and able to synthesize and explain diverse materials that I immediately googled him and discovered this book. Race and Reunion treats what happened after Reconstruction - in a nutshell (forgive me Professor!) in order to reunify the north and south, blacks were forgotten/ignored, allowing the country to be stitched back together, in a fashion. Had the North required the South to honor the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment, unification would have been very difficult or impossible. But the North was exhausted by the war and distracted by other pressing matters, Lincoln was gone and had no comparable substitute, and the South was determined to continue to treat blacks as secondary citizens. In a delicate dance, separate memorial days gradually became joint memorial days, as white veterans from both sides began sharing tales of courage, honor, and battle together, and mutual forgiveness evolved. This required the north to look the other way as the South enacted and enforced Jim Crow laws. The book is meticulously researched, and approaches the problems from multiple different points of view, using a wide variety of evidence (such as popular literature of the time). It is clear and readable. This book made me wish that I had become a historian.
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 after the Emancipation Proclamation. That story stayed in place until the civil rights movement in the second half of the 20th century, which is a long run for a narrative far removed from what is suggested by the actual evidence about the causes of the war and about racial developments after the war.
Blight shows how, after the war, various groups competed to have their story about the war take over as the dominant narrative. African Americans focussed on what it meant for them -- the end of slavery -- and expected freedom and citizenship to lead to full participation in society. Many Southerners, however, almost immediately began to push for as much of a return to the old social order was was possible. In this effort, the construction of "The Lost Cause" myth gave a post-war focus to regional patriotism (the war was only lost because of the crushing numerical and material superiority of the North). At the same time, focussing on states' rights as a cause of the war rather than on slavery gave southerners an acceptable reason to have fought. As to the Northern story, Blight suggests that there wasn't much of one. During the war, saving the union and freeing the slaves were both major motivations for Northerners, but as the war slipped into the past, Northern interest in maintaining the rights of black people faded. In time, race relations in the South became the province of state and local governments, with the North implicitly accepting the abandonment of black rights as the price of national reunion.
Blight shows how this happened in very concrete detail: the emergence of a literature of the Lost Cause, the appearance of history and veteran's magazines and organizations advancing the southern view, the building of monuments in the South, the choosing of textbooks, the "reconciliationist" push for Blue/Grey reunions, etc. etc. etc. This was a highly organized and very successful effort to take control of the memory of the Civil War, a process which helped Southern states make race a local issue, not a national one. That, of course, had terrible implications for African Americans.
More broadly, this book vividly illustrates how much of the "history" we learn in school and from the culture around us is really a version of history, selected and shaped to bolster patriotism and a sense of group identity. That's not just true of the American South, of course -- every society has its national myth, which forms the basis of its official version of history, including America as a whole. But the sucdess of the Southern story in taking over the national view and national politics -- especially national politics about race -- was remarkable. Clearly, history isn't always written by the victors.
Note for those interested in the Civil War -- David Blight, the author of "Race and Reunion", has an EXCELLENT series of podcasts on "The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877" which is available free at I Tunes U at the ITunes store. It comprises 27 lectures, each about 50 minutes long, of which about a third are on pre-war developments, a third on the war itself, and a third on reconstruction. If this series were a book, it would be one of the best I have ever read on the Civil War. It isn't a book, but it is a great listen.