Essay about Race and Reunion

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“David W. Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory examines the collective memory of the American Civil War during the period from 1863 to 1915, interpreting the cultural and societal impact of political memory. Blight summarizes three visions of Civil War memory in the late nineteenth century. A reconciliationist vision narrated the devotion of Union and Confederate fighters whereas avoiding the cause of the war. A white supremacist vision underplayed the cause of slavery and asserted a moral defense of the Southern social order. An emancipationist vision asserted the reinvent the republic and citizenship and equality of black people. Blight’s thesis is that social healing and reconciliation defined the meaning of the Civil War memory and marginalized racial justice.

Led by Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Booker T. Washington, the reconciliationist vision privileged the reunion of the nation. Greeley advocated national reconciliation based on political rights for freedmen, amnesty for Southerners, and forgetting the unpleasant past. The 1877Compromise symbolized the end of Reconstruction and a political coalition between Southern Redeemers and Northern Republicans, resulting in the election of Rutherford Hayes and the withdrawal of Union troops from the South. By the 1880s, military sacrifice had become the theme in public ceremonies; white Americans of North and South had reconciled to each other. Rather than real healing, the key element in the reconciliationist vision was the Lost Cause mythology, which insisted on Confederate valor and white supremacy. The reconciliationist vision became public memory by the 1890s, resulting in Jim Crow segregation and continued oppression of black. The civil rights of African Americans became sacrifice to the reunion.

The white supremacist vision insisted that healing required racial order. Thomas Nelson Page, who led the Plantation School, depicted the orderly plantations with faithful slaves and kindly masters, seeing emancipation as a mistake. White supremacists shared common memories of slavery as benevolent, the Civil War and Reconstruction as mistakes, the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, and Jim Crow as justified. The Lost Cause imbued Southern defeat with nobility by promoting the valor of Confederate soldiers, the lineage to the American Revolution, and benign institution of slavery. Such was the spirit that Margaret Mitchell infused into Gone with the Wind. By the 1880s, the South had become America’s lost, fascinating civilization (p. 284, 219). The popularity of D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation of 1915 showed the white supremist mainstream in Jim Crow era. Historians depicted that emancipation had ruined an ideal race relation. Ultimately, the visions of reconciliation and white supremacy combined together by the early twentieth century. The freed people, emancipated and granted citizenship by 1870, became disfranchised and segregated in Jim Crow era. Blight argues that racial justice was sacrificed to reunion.

The emancipationist vision described the war as “rebirth of freedom” (p. 2). Frederick Douglass, Albion Tourgee, and W. E. B. Du Bios were the influencing emancipationists, who transcended the war’s purpose from preservation of the Union into emancipation of slaves (p. 15). Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation marked the moment of black Americans’ freedom. Douglass proclaimed that the war could not end until the black men were admitted into the body politic of America (p. 16). The emancipationists rejected reminiscences about the valor of white soldiers which ignored blacks’ enlistment. Douglass declared that patriotism should remember, with equal admiration, those who save the nation and fought for liberty and justice. Blight shows a steady retreat of the emancipationist vision. In May 1867, Gerrit Smith, who was once a radical abolitionist and funded John Brown’s raid, posted bail for ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Smith offered a reconciliation to slavery (p. 57-59). Releasing Jefferson Davis from prison preluded sectional reconciliation. The emancipationist vision was submerged beneath the nostalgic theme of reunion, in which the Civil War was a mutual victory (p. 386). By the late nineteenth century, although Du Bois offered the great challenge to Lost Cause and sectional reconciliation, the emancipationist vision was vanished from the public discourse. Yet, the emancipationist vision never died. Blight mentions that the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century would alter the politics of Civil War memory.

Blight discusses the memories of white soldiers about the war and their sense of reconciliation. During the 1872 election campaign, Senator Charles Sumner called for “abolishing the hate” (p. 128). As the bitterness of the war experience faded after 1880, the Grand Army of the Republic grew to celebrate the heroic white man’s war. In Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant of 1886, Grant declared that soldiers of both sides had shared grief, and emphasized his respect for the sincerity of the Southerners to their cause. Male courage promoted the cults for Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in the South. Blight argues that the 1890 unveiling of the Richmond monument to Robert E. Lee marked the entry of the Lost Cause into mainstream America (p. 105). So long as all soldiers kept what Holmes had called the soldier’s faith, then all could be honored, regardless of the causes for which they had fought (p. 171).

African American approaches to the past were complex, especially in the years when white retreated from the emancipatory narrative. For African Americans, memories of the war began with the Emancipation Proclamation in black churches and at public places. Blacks were the first to celebrated Decoration Day on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, honoring the Union dead (p. 70-71, 114). The national Memorial Days nevertheless followed, largely ignoring emancipation. Douglass insisted that black soldiers and emancipation ought to be at the center of the national history. In Atlanta Compromise of 1895, Booker T. Washington tried to fold the African American memory into the reunion through paeans to industrialization and the progress of the race. Henry McNeal Turner saw black suffering as one stage in Christian development. Du Bois challenged racism and reconciliation in his Star of Ethiopia pageant in 1913. These thinkers demonstrated their difficult choices between patriotism and resistance, and between integration and segregation. Across the country, African Americans protested Birth of a Nation, as they had struggled for five decades against distortions of history and the collective memory.

Blight concludes that Southerners lost the battlefield but won the memory. The fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1913, represented the collective memory of the Civil War as a tragedy that forged the soldiers to sacrifice and save the Union, not as a crisis over slavery nor the future of westward territories. President Wilson declared the reunion of the nation with an official national amnesia (p.11). Although almost 200,000 black soldiers fought for the Union, the veterans at the ceremony were all white; the cooks, carpenters, and other skilled workers who served the veterans were almost all black (p. 385-86). Blight argues that racism become rooted in America (p. 391).

Forcefully argued, Race and Reunion contributes to our understanding of the Civil War memory in its aftermath. Deploying cultural history methodology, Blight provides a wide-ranging source in public ceremonies, literature, memoirs, and professional discourse to demonstrate the web of meaning of race and reunion. Blight examines the formation of Civil War memory in a variety of contingent events. Frederick Douglass is historical agency, so are Albion Tourgee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Thomas Nelson Page, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and thousands of memorialists who decorated veterans’ graves, protested Birth of a Nation, or joined the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Blight offers an insightful context in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. Blight demonstrates that history is a negotiation between remembering and forgetting. Healing and reconciliation with the Civil War rests in the truth telling of the cause and outcome of the war.”

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