Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Book Review-"Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory" by David W. Blight

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001). 397 pp. Notes, Acknowledgements, Index.

The American Civil War brought with it the hardships of war itself and the destructive aftermath of Reconstruction. There is, however, a looming problem concerning what the war was fought over. David W. Blight, professor of History at Yale University has sought to bring to light the reasons the Civil War was fought in his book Race and Reunion. Blight sheds new light on how something such as “reconciliation” could bring about a total social and ideological change that can affect the very outcome of a War.

Blight’s work has ten chapters with both a prologue and an epilogue all containing a fairly common theme, that the war had two competing view points as to the meaning of war. The view points were that of reconciliation and freedom, or emancipation. Blight argues that these competing viewpoints did not coexist and that eventually the view of reconciliation took center stage. To that end the viewpoints of the Confederacy eventually won in terms regarding the meaning of the Civil War. Blight argued that the emancipationist view was wiped completely from the national memory, not just isolated in the South.

In his book, Blight pays particular attention to the evolution of Civil War memory in line with the Decoration Days events, African-American celebration of progress and freedom obtained from the war. Blight argues that African-Americans still only occupy marginal spaces in the history of the conflict however. Blight brings to light that African-Americans had competing views amongst themselves of what exactly their memory of the conflict should be. Booker T. Washington’s viewpoint of conciliation and working towards progress was widely popular, more so than W.E.B. Dubois’s rhetoric or that of Frederick Douglas, the famous abolitionist. These passages, found largely in the chapter “Black Memory and Progress of the Race”, help to illustrate the dilemma that African-Americans faced of coping with a horrific past, and attempting to remember it.

The author recognizes that the celebrations of the “Lost Cause,” and viewpoints of “states’ rights,” would suppress the former view point. Reinforced by histories written by southern academics, and novels of happy slaves, the issue or cause of slavery rather, began to disappear from public memory in regards to the Civil War. All of these viewpoints were reinforced by the North out of fear of the consequences that might arise out of Reconstruction and support of black suffrage.

Blight argues that the reconciliation viewpoint was furthered by a swarm of regimental histories and soldiers memoirs that all pointed to a sentimental reconciliation and that those of black soldiers were suppressed. Post war groups such as the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) and Confederate Veterans also worked towards reconciliation. Though opposition remained, this alternate history was constantly furthered in the mind of the public, bringing about a new history, a white history of the Civil War.

In opening and closing the book, Blight explains the semi-centennial reunion at Gettysburg in 1913 where thousands of dollars of public funds were used to care for, and transport tens of thousands of Confederate and Union veterans to the event. The veterans told stories and reconciled, but they did it without any of the black veterans, who were not invited.

In Race and Reunion, gives a stunning argument on how the white washing of history has occurred in regards to the Civil War. He succeeds in bringing to light these details, making it apparent that poor historiography and scholarship has taken place, altering the very memory and causes of war. The book is a terrific source of information on the issue of slavery during the civil war, and a source of argument against the alternate history or memory that has come about since the war’s end.

North Georgia College and State University

Robert L. Baker


  1. Excellent review, this is a topic that definitely needs some discussing, there are a lot of misconceptions over the origins of the Civil War and what was actually in the minds of the people at the time.

    The "White Washing" of history is definitely an accurate moniker to assign something like this. As someone who was educated in the north it has been particularly interesting to me to see the radical differences in how the Civil War is taught in the south on the high school level (obviously most colleges of any repute generally have their facts straight.

    It's worth exploring the black scholarly opinions too, good to see Dubois and Booker T. mentioned, though I tend to feel Booker T. was a little problematic at times, where as Dubois seemed to have the right idea, but that's debatable I suppose.

  2. I mean it is actually quite an interested study of memory. Most radicals in the South, SCV, DCV, and so on, claim that History is being altered to be mainly about slavery. Where in the North, most schools are teaching the old faction of thought of reconciliation. I want to cry propaganda but fear it may be premature to do so. Blight, makes a great argument on this fact albeit a long winded one.

    Interesting enough Joey, when we discussed this book in closed circles, I mentioned re-enactments and the psyche of some of the members. The public shows up to get educated and receives this sort of reconciliation history that is so prominent, even in the academic community until about the 1960's. But, at the same time, the ones informing them seemingly without knowing, spread a conspiracy theory that doesn't exist.

  3. American's do enjoy their conspiracy theories a bit too much.

    It's interesting how often you hear the chant of "Slavery wasn't the issue, it's just being used to cover up the real issue" especially among the older generations in the south. I hate to make it sound as if the south is somehow vastly different from the north, but the fact is, in the north the Civil War is a non issue entirely, to the point where northern schools almost spend too little time discussing it.

    As a result it seems that people from the north approach the conversation with too little information and evidence to back up their point of view, where those educated in the south have such an intensive review of the Civil War that they can over whelm most of the northerners when it comes to the debate on this topic. Honestly if you asked the average northern high school student about the Civil War you'd get some vague talk about Abe Lincoln and slavery, maybe someone mentions Lee and Grant, but they can't remember that damn court house. Gettysburg comes up, and black rights. That's about it.

    I feel like this disparity is an issue that needs resolving somewhere down the line.

  4. Very interesting point. I think the ultimate failure comes in most peoples denial that Slavery was "A" issue. They dismiss it entirely. I know there are cases for Tariffs, states' rights, liberty, trade, so on and so forth, but slavery was an issue (capital "I"). That is the main concern that gets overlooked so often.

    Mentions of slavery are suppressed as Northern Aggression or other conspiracy outcries. Fact is, it was an issue. When you get to that argument, then you have an even harder time of which issue was more important because opinions would vary depending on life styles of subjects at that time.

  5. Yeah that's the key point really. Slavery was a big issue, no it wasn't "THE" issue, but it was certainly one of the more important ones. State's rights came into play but wasn't a powder keg point necessarily. I doubt slavery alone could have started the Civil War, but slavery combined with the other issues sprinkled along side is pretty much the recipe for conflict.

  6. A little off the subject, but a question to the both of you:

    Do you think that had Reconstruction been harsher, that African-Americans today would be less a part of the margins of society? Do you think the culture would be different, in the South especially, had the South not been able to go back to a similar system?

    - Isabel

  7. I think that had Reconstruction been harder, that blow back on the African American population would have been worse. A lot of what happened can be traced to resistance against black equality and Democratic Party suppression in the South. The resistance that arose was an attributing factor to reconciliation. So had Reconstruction been harsher, African Americans would be more part of the margins of society. And the culture affected more so. It wasn't a return to post antebellum society. But it was a system short of equality.

  8. I think that had the Confederacy been treated as a conquered territory, and politicians wouldn't have been allowed back as if they hadn't just left the Union...I think it could have been different. I think equality could have been enforced a little bit better. I think public opinion stopped a harsher version of Reconstruction because the "Black" voice wasn't part of it...IDK I definitely am not the expert here - that would be you on this subject. I just think that in any sort of ethnic issue or civil war issue - they only get resolved when someone "wins," and that wasn't really the case here.

  9. That is the key word though, "equality". Equality of races at that time was unheard of nationally not just locally in the case of the South. The South was treated as conquered territory for awhile. Split into military districts and controlled accordingly. It would have been less so had Lincoln lived. However, due to certain hardships, guerrilla fighters did arise as in the case of the original Ku Klux Klan which was part of blow back of a controlled faction.

  10. I definitely think that harsher treatment of the south would have been detrimental. Already there was southern blow back blaming the black communities for their hardships and had the north imposed harsher sanctions and worse treatment it's likely there would be even more animosity than there already is. Really had the south been treated less harshly and welcomed back more warmly it would have probably been better over all.

    I think the real issue is what you touched on, that there was no real black voice in the process for a long time. Considering the massive leaps that occurred as a result of the war though that's not too surprising, upsetting the status quo in such a drastic way is bound to have harsh impacts, that's the price of progress that comes too rapidly. I'm not of course trying to imply that freeing the slaves and bringing equality should've been delayed or anything, just that it did happen rather fast and that tends to cause problems with people being how they are.

  11. We can't go backwards, and it's an interesting "what if," but now on to reality: How do either of you suggest we reach more of an equilibrium when it comes to race relations in this country - especially in this sort of anti-immigrant anti-everyone atmosphere? It seems that even after the Civil Rights movement and the legal and civil milestones we continue to come up with ways to continue the status quo and sort of enforce the racial social class lines...for example: prison systems, war on drugs etc.

  12. There just really is no solution to this right now, I honestly have no proposition to fix it because the problem we're talking about fixing is a people problem. The laws are in place, you can't really make them any more strict than they already are without starting to breach other liberties by forcing people to do so much, What it comes down to is the best we can hope is that through education each younger generation will be a little more accepting and little less discriminatory.

    As for the prison system and the war on drugs, the drug war needs to be discontinued, it helps no one and does nothing but damage and waste money. No violent drug offenders should stop being imprisoned, and drug laws themselves should be lifted, and they should be treated like alcohol and cigarettes, the fact is people get them no matter what and we shouldn't be in the business of policing peoples personal choices.

    Beyond that though, there is no way to really make people be more accepting.


Blog Archive

You May Also Like