Review: Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
Throughout Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, historian David W. Blight analyzes the period of Reconstruction and the following years during which such events as the Compromise of 1877 (138), the election of Rutherford B. Hayes (237), and the withdrawal of Union troops from the former confederacy; which Blight asserts left the freedmen to live amongst southern whites who still retained an ideology of racial supremacy and racially based social hierarchy (252). Blight uses primary source documentation to validate his thesis, providing a thematically organized synthesis of the means through which African Americans “had become alienated from the national community’s remembrance of its most defining event” (380).
According to Blight’s thesis, in the years following the Civil War, white Americans emphasized the triumph of a culture of reunion, minimizing the attention to sectional divisions to enable a sense of increased solidarity between whites of the north and the former Confederacy (59). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory is a densely detailed history of how the unity of white America was achieved through the increasing segregation of black and white memory of the Civil War (481) amidst a national culture in which the moral dilemma of slavery that preceded the war, the presence and participation of African Americans throughout the Civil War, as well as the emancipation of slaves (371).
Blight analyzes such occurrences as the unveiling of Richmond Virginia’s monument to Robert E. Lee in the 1890s as the basis of the entry of the “Lost Cause” ideology into acceptance by the American public (258-264) as images of "loving Mammies" and "faithful slaves" became the foundation of Southern assertions that "emancipation had ruined an ideal in race relations" (286-287). Juxtaposing the writings of Ambrose Bierce and W. E. B. Du Bois, Blight asserts that Bierce's work was conflicted regarding the results of the war and the emancipation of slaves, and it was “tinged with admiration for the Confederate foe,” whereas Du Bois, on the other hand, focused on the tragic fate of "the nameless freed people, liberated and self liberated in a terrible war” (68).
In a synthesis of vast amounts of documents for a broad audience, Blight analyzes the African American view of the Civil War. Using the actions of such African Americans as Frederick Douglass (317), Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (310), Alexander Crummell (317), Francis E. W. Harper (318), Edward Blyden (301), and Booker T. Washington (342-343), Blight provides an overview of African American reactions to reconstruction, emphasizing the increasing loss of hope as circumstances failed to improve as formerly expected by freedmen (345). Blight states that as a result of the Civil War, “the civil and political liberties of African Americans were slowly becoming sacrificial offerings on the altar of reunion" (139).
Blight analyzes the memories of white veterans of the Union and the Confederacy to successfully contend that both sides were linked by a sense of solidarity due to the shared experience of the violence and struggles of participation in the Civil War, as the veterans understood their experiences in the war to have been a struggle for white manhood in a culture of masculinity (208-209). According to Blight, this monograph is “a history of how Americans remembered their most divisive and tragic experience during the fifty year period after the civil war” through the lenses of race and reunion, in an intriguing analysis of the clash of perspectives surrounding reconstruction and reunion in public memory (1).
Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001.