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

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