The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

By Alice Fahs; Joan Waugh | Go to book overview
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The Election of 1896 and the
Restructuring of Civil War Memory

Patrick J. Kelly

Gilded Age Republicans were notorious for attacking their Democratic opponents by waving the bloody shirt, a campaign tactic designed to activate the historical remembrance of the Civil War among Northern voters. Carefully selected, the wartime memories used by bloody-shirt Republicans became as familiar as the Scriptures: Lincoln's party held firm in the face of secession while the treasonous wartime Democratic Party was hijacked by Southern fire-eaters during the secession crisis and closely associated with Northern Copperheads during the fighting itself. They also dramatically recalled the suffering of Union soldiers, especially prisoners of war, in the struggle to save the nation. Speaking directly to the North's enormous cohort of Union veterans, GOP candidates exhorted, "Vote as you shot." The tactic of waving the bloody shirt, always controversial within the party—many thought its heated rhetoric needlessly inflamed sectional tensions—became even more contested in the 1880s when the rhetorical focus shifted toward memories of the GOP's role in emancipation and in securing African Americans the right to vote. The last stand of bloody-shirt Republicans came in January 1891 with the defeat in Congress of the Force Bill, legislation designed to use U.S. military power to enforce black suffrage in the South. By 1896, then, the time when Republican Party candidates could marshal remembrance of the Civil War to win elections seemingly had ended.1

Yet a striking feature of the momentous 1896 presidential campaign was the role that Civil War-era memory played in the successful effort of William McKinley to defeat William Jennings Bryan. By the mid-1890s the GOP was led by a new generation intimately associated with the emergent corporate capitalist elite—most notably Mark Hanna, a successful Cleveland industrialist, McKinley's closest advisor, and his presidential campaign manager—and its political language had shifted away from the racial commitments of the previous generation of party leaders. Stunned by Bryan's nomination and alarmed by his appeals to both rural and working


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