Friday, May 19, 2006

Book Review: David Blight/ Race and Reunion

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War Era in
American Memory

The Civil War has imprinted itself on the collective memory of Americans. Even today, the bloodiest war in the nation's history captures popular imagination and is recalled as a watershed event in the young history of the United States. In Race and Reunion, David Blight seeks to investigate the Civil War in memory and attempts to demythologize the event and reveal the cultural trends that shaped, and continue to shape, its national remembrance. He argues that the reunion between white Northerners and white Southerners after reconstruction was realized at the expense of African-Americans. In essence, the hatchet was figuratively buried in the back of the former black slave, whom, according to Blight, had been at the epicenter of the real conflict.

To this end, Blight probes the first fifty years of Civil war memorabilia, ranging from graveside decorations to popular literature. He identifies three primary "visions of Civil War memory": "reconciliationist", "white supremacist", and "emancipationist". He argues that the original war was largely a clash of two competing paradigms. The Confederate worldview was primarily white supremacist and thus justified enslavement of other racial groups. The Union embraced a competing framework of emancipation and challenged the slavery of blacks. Both of these worldviews persist in Civil War memory, but the focus on emancipation, and specifically slavery as a central impetus for conflict, has greatly diminished since reconstruction.

Blight contends that the "emancipationist" vision was largely erased from popular culture as the price for reconciliation. In this way, his study of Civil War memory is as much a study of what people chose to forget. The "reconciliationist vision" paradoxically sought to compromise between white supremacy and emancipation. Reconciliationists wanted to "turn away from the legacy of slavery, and to suspend the judgment of those who defended it." The commonality that was embraced was that those doing the reconciling were white and the compromise was essentially to forget about slavery and move forward. Emaciptionists, "who remembered the war as the rebirth of the republic in the name of racial equality", were sacrificed.

The consequences of this compromise on the future of African-Americans, still fighting for full legal and political rights, were grave. The importance of the Northern victory on the battlefield was downplayed as Southerners gained victories on social, political and economic fronts. So long as African-Americans were not literally enslaved, under this vision, white supremacy was allowed to flourish. The prominence of the reconciliationist project is evident in the Jim Crow laws, which essentially unraveled emancipationist gains during reconstruction.

Indeed, the ability for the culture to selectively remember, and in turn forget, pervades the source material in this work. For example, by the 1890's, "The stock Confederate Memorial Day speech contained four obligatory tributes: to soldiers' valor, women's bravery, slave fidelity, and Southern innocence regarding slavery." According to this vision, all white soldiers of the Civil War were valiant, and the causes, especially on the Union side, were largely forgotten. Not only was the cause of African-American freedom forgotten, but racism was also being reinvented, as new and insidious forms of racial discrimination were institutionalized. According to Blight, "By 1913, racism in America had become a cultural industry, and twisted history a commodity".

While the Union cause was being lost to reunion induced amnesia, the Confederate cause was recalled and often distorted. Rather than a vision of white supremacy, the "Lost Cause" of the south was mythologized as virtuous. Popular books and films, such as Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation, and even influential historians of the day, glorified the south and further propagated this myth.
It is of no surprise that the purveyors of history at the time were primarily wealthy white men. However, Blight does a good job providing an African-American perspective to the narrative and emphasizes that the cause of emancipation was never completely lost. His treatment of the intellectual African-American history of the period is comprehensive, including extensive source material from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. In these thinkers, the emancipationist vision persisted. Blight contends that it was the inability of white America to reconcile a national "imperative for healing" among former enemies with the "imperative of justice" that was so deeply felt by former slaves. To be sure, Blight feels that justice should have trumped national unity, and he argues that in failing to fulfill this obligation race relations were badly damaged. In opting for what was portrayed as healing and national unity, racial hostilities were further fueled and race continued to be a dividing factor in American life. The healing that was supposed to come between the races after the Civil War was short lived.

Blight characterizes this as a tragic development, but still recognizes the Civil War as a "second American Revolution", a fundamental reformulation of national values. He credits this to the fortitude of African-Americans and others who carried on the emancipationist vision. The civil rights movement was the culmination, and in part the realization, of this larger quest for African American freedom and racial equality in the United States.
Blight's narrative begins and ends an account of the Blue-Gray Reunion at Gettysburg in 1913. The event is referred to as "the triumph of segregation", as no black veterans were invited to attend. If fifty years after the civil war segregation is deemed triumphant, can it be truly justified? Was it worth the lives of millions of Americans to preserve segregation and inequality? Blight contends that it was. While the emancipationist vision may have been partially extinguished, replaced by a drive towards national reunion, the legitimacy of white supremacy was called into question and it set the stage for future civil rights gains.

Blight recognizes the role of the North in reversing the gains of reconstruction and embracing reunion at the expense of emancipation, but he often underestimates Northern racism. He too often dichotomizes white supremacy as a southern mindset that northerners accommodated in their efforts to reconcile for economic and political purposes. The fact that northern statesmen so quickly cast aside the rights of African-Americans in favor of reconciliation makes one question whether a larger emancipationist agenda was ever considered as a driving force behind the Union war effort. If freedom was so fundamental a motivating factor, than why is it so quickly sold out? Blight partially deals with this concern by emphasizing the role that slaves themselves had in prompting and winning the war, both through slave rebellions and through service in the Union Army, However, the emancipationist vision encompasses more than just the slaves themselves according to Blight. It is the central guiding principal behind the Union effort. While I agree that emancipation was the central accomplishment of the war and its most important legacy, the demonstrated roll-back of African-American rights following reconstruction suggests that perhaps the Northern agenda was more complex.

Regardless, Blight weaves a masterful narrative in this work and keenly illustrates the ways in which a national trend towards reunion came at the expense of the most important principles over which the Civil War was fought. In an age of weapons of mass destruction, it is worth noting that weapons of mass distraction can be just as destructive. Blight brilliantly reveals the power of popular culture and its agents to manipulate opinion, and in effect, memory. Such propaganda was so strong in this case that it purportedly made a nation forget what it had fought a long and bloody war over. In cases like these, the truth is a victim, and the rights of many were deeply impacted.


Blogger Kevin said...

That was a very thoughtful review of Blight's study. Given your review I thought you might be interested in my blog, Civil War Memory. Much of my research is on memory and I've used much of what Blight has published over the past few years. HEre is the URL:

7:06 PM  
Blogger adiloren said...


Thanks for the feedback. I will indeed check out your site.

I'm going to be posting some future history related stuff- I would appreciate your comments.

1:51 PM  
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