Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

By Andrew, Rob, Jr. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory


Andrew, Rob, Jr., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. By David W. Blight. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 512; $29.95, cloth.)

David W. Blight's Race and Reunion explains that two irreconcilable narratives or "visions" have defined American collective memory of the Civil War. The two were in conflict by the 1870s. One, the "reconciliationist" (p. 2) vision, celebrated the martial valor of Confederate and (white) Union soldiers, glossing over the central issue of race and refusing to assign moral blame. Other than the real desire for healing by Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, the key ingredient in the reconciliationist vision was Lost Cause mythology, which insisted on acknowledgement of Confederate valor, the pure motives of white southerners, and, most importantly, the assumptions, doctrines and politics of white supremacy. Additionally, sectional harmony was good for business, fostering economic ties between North and South.

The other vision was the "emancipationist" (p. 2) vision, which described the war in terms of black freedom, black achievement, and as the catalyst for a "rebirth of freedom" (p. 14 ). With Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois, and a post-1862 Abraham Lincoln as its most important spokesmen, the emancipationist vision rejected conciliatory, sentimental reminiscences about both sides' soldierly valor and white southern virtue when those interpretations ignored the lack of racial justice in the present. The reconciliationist vision, however, dominated politics and popular culture by the 1890s, and the result for America was Jim Crow segregation, continued oppression of blacks, failure to recognize fully the achievements of black veterans, and a national collective memory and political culture that emphasized sectional harmony at the expense of justice.

Others have noted this process of collective amnesia before, but Blight ably builds on their work with his own primary research and provides the most comprehensive description of it thus far. Though Blight admits that his book pays little attention to gender or economic developments, he skillfully connects postwar Memorial Day rituals, Reconstruction politics, the Lost Cause, postwar popular literature, and the black response to the dominant themes of postwar popular memory. …

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