The Power of Memory: How to Remember America’s Most Traumatic Crisis

A review of  Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David Blight (Harvard University Press, 2001).

In Race and Reunion, historian David Blight recounts the first fifty years after the Civil War in order to describe how Americans of all backgrounds remembered the experiences and lessons of the conflict.  He contends that three distinct visions of Civil War memory developed and collided.  Each vision roughly corresponds to one of the three major groups involved in the war: white Northerners, white Southerners, and African-Americans. The vision of white Northerners is referred to by Blight as the “reconciliationist,” that of white Southerners as the “Lost Cause,” and that of African-Americans as the “emancipationist.” Blight traces out how these views developed through the events of Reconstruction and through the reunions, recollections, and writings of soldiers with specific chapters on memorial holidays, literature, the “Lost Cause”, and black memory.  Blight favors the “emancipationist” vision and concludes that “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.” (2)

Blight is Professor of History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is the author of Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee and has edited and introduced two of Frederick Douglass’ works: My Bondage and My Freedom and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. This familiarity with Douglass gives Blight insight into certain African-American experiences of the Civil War. Indeed, Blight’s familiarity with Douglass forms the backbone of his interpretation (the index reveals that Douglass is mentioned more than any other individual – thirty-three times).  Yet, it also leads him to privilege the emancipationist narrative as the correct vision which was only frustrated by powers outside the black community (and to assume that Douglass was representative of all blacks). This creates a blind spot for Blight who reads the events of this fifty-year period (1863 – 1913) through the “emancipationist” lens, causing him to have little sympathy for (or understanding of) white Southerners and to misread the importance of emancipation in the hierarchy of Union war aims for the majority of white Northerners. Blight’s willingness to let African-Americans tell their story on their terms is helpful. This is not enough, however, as Blight claims to “tell the stories of Civil War memory with the divergent voices of North and South, black and white, joined in the same narrative.” (2)

As a result of his contention that the “emancipationist” vision was correct, but was sabotaged by whites, Blight is unable to offer the same fair, understanding, and penetrating analysis that he gives to certain black memories to white (especially Southern) memories.  To Blight, all Southern memories can be filed under the heading of “Lost Cause” mythology and then derided as “a Southern narrative of racial victory” (291) as if there were nothing else to consider. This narrow focus leads Blight to mischaracterize events or to interpret them narrowly. Two prominent examples are his discussions of commemorative events in Chapter Three (Decoration Days) and Reconstruction in Chapter Two (Regeneration and Reconstruction).

In “Decoration Days,” Blight recounts the story of a group of several thousand black former slaves who, on May 1st, 1866 in Charleston, South Carolina took to a nearby burial ground for Union soldiers to decorate their graves with flowers.  While certainly a significant event, Blight calls the event the “First Decoration Day” (69) and emphatically claims that “Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans” (70). He is unable, however, to connect this singular event to the 1868 order by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans’ organization which made graveside ceremonies an annual event.  Blight also neglects to mention other possible origins for Memorial Day services including the decoration of Confederate graves in Columbus, Mississippi by local women on April 25, 1866 or the claims of Waterloo, New York which was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by Congress and President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.[1] In these omissions, Blight’s fixation on the “emancipationist” vision is again revealed.  By omitting the claims of Waterloo (representing the white Northerner and the “reconciliationist” vision) and Columbus (the white Southerner), he again forces the idea that the “emancipationist” experience was the most important, correct, or only experience to the detriment of a fuller understanding of the process of memorialization.

Similarly, in his interpretation of Reconstruction, Blight focuses solely on the question of race, without regard to Northern political and economic aims which included confiscation of property and the development of Republican hegemony in the South.  There is no mention of how these collective policies were received by shocked and bitter Southerners or how these policies contributed to the immense issues of the Reconstruction period.  Instead, he blames President Andrew Johnson and supposedly stiff-necked Southerners for Reconstruction’s problems, noting that the President’s plan “put enormous authority back in the hands of white Southerners, but without any provisions for black civil or political rights.” (45) Likewise, by resisting Reconstruction, white Southerners are considered by Blight to be simply refusing to “face the deeper meanings of emancipation” (45) as though there were not many other facets to their experience including the greed, corruption, and coercion of Reconstruction governments in the wake of having their self-determination violently denied and their society upended. Many Confederates were disenfranchised, while former slaves were given the right to vote solely to prop up the Republican party. The South had been thrown into disorder as a rampaging North destroyed the institutions and organization of Southern society while making no real preparations for emancipation. The consequence was chaos, disorder, and a multitude of suffering (including the suffering of blacks – historian Jim Downs contends that 1,000,000 blacks were struck with illness because of the conditions Northern armies created and that many thousands of them died).

This was a lot for any group of people to process and their reactions go much deeper than a stubbornness to avoid facing “the deeper meanings of emancipation.” Crucially, in his rush to place blame on President Johnson, Blight misses an opportunity to bring more nuanced views to the forefront by examining Abraham Lincoln’s own Reconstruction policy.  Instead, Blight (through the voice of Frederick Douglass) takes aim at the “reconciliationist” vision. When Douglass was invited to speak by the Abraham Lincoln Post of the GAR, Blight recalls how he “rose to the challenge with fire and indignation, offering an alternative, emancipationist memory of the war.” Douglass was “sickened at the increasingly defensive posture of those Northerners who saw the war as a triumph for black freedom and the birth of a new republic.” He “stood before Lincoln’s statue and demanded that his audience ‘not be asked to be ashamed of our part in the war.'” He believed that the “reconciliationists were using memory to send the nation down the wrong road to reunion” (92).

Though using this account to bolster his argument for the “emancipationist” narrative, Blight misses the irony that the very man for whom this GAR post was named, for whom that statue was erected, and in whose honor this speech was given, was himself a “reconciliationist.” In the words of historian Ludwell Johnson, “Lincoln still clung to his preference for a flexible Reconstruction policy, one that would treat each state according to its own special circumstances. He was relieved that Congress was not in session when the war ended…because he intended to act on Reconstruction soon.”[2] How would Lincoln act? Dr. Johnson argues that he would have acted like Andrew Johnson who “on the day he took office…told the cabinet he intended to follow Lincoln’s policy, especially in regard to an early restoration of home rule in the Southern states and a lenient policy respecting pardon and confiscation.”[3]  Clearly, there was more to Reconstruction than a single focus on the “emancipationist” vision can tell us and Blight’s answers fall short when further evidence uncovers the strength of the “reconciliationist” vision from the very start of the war, as well as all-but-forgotten Southern views which Blight writes off entirely as the “tragic legend of Reconstruction” (131) and “the myth of carpetbag rule” (132) without sympathy or supporting evidence.

While Blight makes an interesting argument that the triumph of the “reconciliationist” vision was intentionally pursued by whites in both sections, he often makes this seem an unnatural, or even nefarious, betrayal of the “true” vision – the “emancipationist” vision.  In doing so, Blight ignores that for the majority of Northern whites, reconciliation was not only seen as the natural and needed course, but one that grew out of its prioritization in the Union’s very war aims.  While emancipation became a part of the war effort (as a military strategy) by 1863, those who championed the rights of black slaves were always a minority within the Union government, military leadership, and rank and file.  For most of these men, the cause remained the “preservation of the Union” from the beginning of the war until its end.  It should come as no surprise then that after the war, with the Union “preserved” (by Northern standards), that most of these men who fought for that purpose first or that purpose alone would seek to see all parts of that Union reconciled without reference to black political rights.

Ultimately, as an explication of certain African-American experiences and memories, Blight’s work is useful.  Yet, the book is not sub-titled “the Civil War in African-American Memory”, but more generally, “the Civil War in American Memory”.  As such, it must treat the experiences and memories of white Northerners and white Southerners with equal nuance, care, and depth of understanding. The book fails to understand the motivations and circumstances of either group and thus distorts the words and actions of both.  As a result, the book fails to live up to its title.

[1] “Memorial Day History,” Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, accessed September 27, 2017,

https://www.va.gov/opa/speceven/memday/history.asp.

[2] Ludwell H. Johnson, North Against South: The American Iliad 1848-1877 (Columbia: Foundation for American Education, 2003), 185.

[3] Johnson, North Against South, 198.

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