[I]t is well that we keep in mind the fact that not all of American history is recorded. In some ways we are fortunate that it isn't, for if it were, we might become so chagrined by the discrepancies which exist between our democratic ideals and our social reality that we would soon lose heart. Perhaps this is why we possess two basic versions of American history: one which is written and as neatly stylized as ancient myth, and the other unwritten and as chaotic and full of contradictions, changes of pace and surprises as life itself. Perhaps this is to overstate a bit, but there is no denying the fact that Americans can be notoriously selective in the exercise of historical memory.
--Ralph Ellison, Brown University, 1979 (2)
In his 1979 address at Brown University, "Going to the Territory," Ralph Ellison spoke about Americans' memory of the Civil War, the era of Reconstruction afterwards and then those dark days of the Jim Crow era. In the aftermath of the war, Americans generally had reconciled, in part through a selective memory. As Ellison said, "Having won its victory, the North could be selective in its memory; as well as in its priorities, while leaving it to the South to struggle with the national problems which developed following the end of Reconstruction. And even the South became selective in its memory of the incidents that led to its rebellion and defeat." (3) The victors, the North, left the field, leaving the South and African Americans to deal with the aftermath.
The usual memory of the Civil War in Ellison's youth was that it was the result of a bumbling generation, where abolitionists and proslavery forces brought the rest of the sober and rational Americans to war. Afterwards, corrupt and incompetent Yankees and freed men made a mockery of the rule of law. Then, white Southerners "redeemed" themselves and re-established the rule of law. That vision, promulgated in history textbooks and in popular novels, correlated with a national policy of returning power to Southerners. One might look, for example, to Thomas Dixon's novels The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman (which was later the basis for D.W. Griffith's movie Birth of A Nation) for a sense of the dominant interpretation of the war and reconstruction. Dixon's work has important analogs in the academic literature as well, such as William Archibald Dunning's Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877 and Ulrich Bonnell Phillips' American Negro Slavery, on plantation slavery. This method of interpretation continued through Avery O. Craven's The Coming of Civil War--evidence that although a historical school may be thoroughly rejected, it continues on in books, which have the power to live (and even remain in print) well beyond the time they have otherwise been rejected.
Work of this character continued to appear past the Second World War. Perhaps the best-known of these works is E. Merton Coulter's The South During Reconstruction (1947) and later his Confederate States of America (1952). The South During Reconstruction appeared from the prestigious Louisiana State University Press. (4) By the time the book came out, there had already been decades of historical scholarship that pointed out the unfair--indeed, inaccurate--nature of such histories. W.E.B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880, published in 1935, for instance, provided an important catalog of the biased depictions of Reconstruction. In fact, pieces of this nature continue to appear today, though not from respectable scholarly sources. (5)
Thus, there was a process of selective memory, which historians have thoroughly documented in recent years. (6) The centrality of slavery as a cause of the Civil War was written out of the collective memory of the war. (7) The process by which that happened is significant--and important. It happened through a concerted effort to first forget the causes of the war, then to focus on the war as an effort to protect the homeland. …