Posted: April 12, 2011
t has become something of a cliché to observe that the Civil War remains the central event in American history, a cataclysm that casts a long shadow over the United States even today. But the meaning of the Civil War depends a great deal upon how it is remembered. Recent debates over such issues as whether Virginia should celebrate April as "Confederate History Month," whether the city of Richmond should include a mural of Robert E. Lee as part of its Canal Walk along the James River, or whether the Confederate battle flag should fly over the South Carolina Capitol or even on its grounds, indicate that there is substantial disagreement over the war's enduring significance.
How we remember the Civil War is the subject of David Blight's excellent Race and Reunion. In this wide-ranging cultural history of the half-century following the war, Blight examines Reconstruction, the soldiers' reminiscences of battle, the emergence of a romanticized South in the popular literature of the day, competing African-American memories of slavery and the war, and the ritual of Memorial Day.
According to Blight, the post-war era engendered three competing memories of the conflict. One, arising out of the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln's Second Inaugural, remembered the war as a struggle for freedom, a rebirth of the Republic that led to the liberation of blacks and their elevation to citizenship and constitutional equality.
A second, the "Blue-Gray reconciliationist" view, developed out of the necessity for both sides to deal with so many battlefields and so many dead. It focused almost exclusively on the sacrifices of the soldiers, avoiding questions of culpability or the right and wrong of the causes. In this view, the war was the nation's test of manhood. There was nobility on both sides. The essence of this view was captured by Lew Wallace, a Union general who wrote Ben Hur: "Remembrance! Of what? Not the cause, but the heroism it evoked."
The reminiscences of the soldiers who fought the war lay at the heart of this view. Most symbolic of this memory were the Blue-Gray reunions in which soldiers of both sides gathered for "fraternalism and forgetfulness." The soldiers, writes Blight, sought to "reassemble the chaos and loss inherent to war into an order they could now control. While doing so, they cleaned up the battles and campaigns of the real war, rendered it exciting and normal all at once, and made it difficult to face the extended political meanings of the war."
The third memory was the white supremacist vision arising in part from the Democratic Party's counterrevolution against radical Reconstruction. The South may have lost the war, according to this view, but it triumphed over Reconstruction and the radical Republican legacy of corrupt, carpetbagger government and the anarchy of Negro rule. It restored labor discipline and economic dependency among blacks, thereby saving white civilization.
The white supremacist view was reinforced by the "Lost Cause" account of the Civil War. As Edward A. Pollard wrote in the 1867 book that gave this interpretation its name, "all that is left the South is the war of ideas." The essence of the Lost Cause thesis was (and remains) that the war was not about slavery, but "states' rights." It is neatly summarized in an 1893 speech by a former Confederate officer, Col. Richard Henry Lee. "As a Confederate soldier and as a Virginian, I deny the charge [that the Confederates were rebels] and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels, we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes."
The Lost Cause interpretation of the war was the South's response to physical destruction and the psychological trauma of defeat. In this view, the Old South was a racial utopia, an organic society composed of loyal slaves and benevolent masters. The war pitted this "slave democracy" against the "free mobocracy" of the North, and the noble side lost. The matchless bravery of the Confederate soldier succumbed to the "juggernaut of superior numbers and merciless power." As Robert Penn Warren once wrote, "in the moment of its death, the Confederacy entered upon its immortality."
The argument of Race and Reunion is that the imperative of regional reconciliation in the name of national unity led to the emancipationist view's eclipse by an alliance of the reconciliationist and white supremacist views, because the South would permit reconciliation only on its own terms. Its own racism led the North to acquiesce in this bargain. In the words of one writer cited by Blight, "Boston...and Ohio hold the coat of Georgia and Mississippi, while they slay the common victim of Northern prejudice and Southern hate." Accordingly, while the nation healed its wounds, it did so at the expense of justice.
Race and Reunion begins with the 1915 visit of President Woodrow Wilson to the Blue-Gray encampment at Gettysburg on the anniversary of the great battle. This encampment was the great symbol of the extent to which reconciliation had progressed. Wilson's appearance was particularly important, as he was the first Southern president since before the Civil War. The United States stood on the verge of entering a world war, and it was critically important that the scars of the Civil War not prevent America's emergence as a world power. But reconciliation came at a cost. The divide between white Americans in the North and the South had been bridged at the expense of African-Americans.
In the war's immediate aftermath, the emancipationist view had been ascendant in the North. Northern politicians frequently "waved the bloody shirt" of treason and rebellion, and there was a strong consensus that the South should be punished for starting the conflagration. In the words of Gov. Oliver Morton of Indiana, "the rebellion, the offspring of slavery, murdered its unnatural parent, and the perfect reign of liberty is at hand." After the failure of presidential Reconstruction, the radical Republicans in Congress imposed their own version. But the South was defiant and raised Reconstruction's cost, and the North did not possess the will to see it through.
As Southerners embraced the Lost Cause rationale for the war and Northerners tired of Reconstruction, both sides seemed willing to heed Horace Greeley's admonition to "clasp hands across the bloody divide." The danger of this bargain was apparent to Frederick Douglass, who, on the centennial of American independence, wondered "if war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring...? In what position will this stupendous reconciliation leave the colored people?"
Douglass's fears were well-founded. The United States had become a society committed to sectional reconciliation, at the cost of forgetting the African-Americans—especially the black soldiers who had swelled the ranks of the Union army—and their claims to citizenship and political equality. The trend was apparent in both popular literature and politics. As reconciliation à la the Lost Cause progressed, blacks were, in the words of one contemporary writer, reduced in popular literature to two roles: "the devoted slave who served and sacrificed for his master and mistress, or the 'poor nigger' to whom liberty brings only misfortune." The actual African-American experience of slavery and war was pushed aside by the romanticized South created by such popular "dialect writers" as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, creator of the Uncle Remus tales. In politics, the Supreme Court in 1883 struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, paving the way for Jim Crow.
As reconciliation pushed the emancipationist view aside, the result was what Blight calls the "collective victory narrative." According to this, the Civil War was a noble test of national vigor between two adversaries who believed firmly in their respective causes. The war was followed by an interlude of bitterness and wrong-headed policy during Reconstruction. The war was an heroic crisis that the United States survived and a source of pride, proving Americans could solve their own problems and redeem themselves in unity. The Civil War was the original "good war," a necessary sacrifice, a noble mutual experience that in the long run solidified the nation.
This is the view that prevails for the most part among Americans today. It is visible in popular Civil War magazines like Civil War Times Illustrated and Blue and Gray. It is visible in Civil War art by such artists as Morton Kunstler and Don Troiani. As Blight explains, such popular history and art reflect a longing for some transplanted, heroic place in the 19th century in which the troubling issues of race and slavery are banished from the discussion.
But this vision is a myth. Blight cites Roland Barthes on myth: it strives to "organize a world which is without contradiction, because it is without depth, a world...[of] blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves." Today, of course, this comfortable myth of the war is under attack, as illustrated by the debates I mentioned at the outset.
The most sustained attack today comes from the multiculturalists of the Left, who seek to expose what they charge is the systemic racism that lies at the very heart of America. This accounts in part for the fervent defense of the South by many conservatives. But the leftist charges are slanderous, as more and more Civil War historians are pointing out.
Yet how does one attack the myth without aiding the cause of the multiculturalist critics of America? As readers of theClaremont Review of Books know, the most consistent restatement of the emancipationist account has been advanced by Harry V. Jaffa. In his account of Lincoln and the Civil War, Jaffa has sought to reconcile the outcome of the war—"a new birth of freedom"—with the principles of the American Founding. For Jaffa, as for Frederick Douglass, the Civil War must be understood as a moral drama. As Douglass remarked, "there was a right and a wrong side in the late war that no sentiment ought to cause us to forget." This is the most fruitful way to reinvigorate the emancipationist view without giving aid and comfort to the multiculturalists.
Blight shows that the great tragedy of Civil War memory is that the emancipationist account of the war was sacrificed to reconciliation in alliance with white supremacy. The challenge is to link emancipation with reconciliation. Jaffa's A New Birth of Freedom is the antidote for the ills so skillfully diagnosed by David W. Blight in Race and Reunion.