Regular readers of this blog shouldn’t be surprised to learn that we’ve chosen David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory as one of the 100 significant books we’re highlighting during this year of our centennial. In addition to posting brief excerpts to our centennial site—where you can read a selection from Race and Reunion—throughout the year we’ve been using this space to look more deeply at some of these titles from our past. Below, HUP Assistant Editor Brian Distelberg recounts Race and Reunion’s tracing of the origins and evolution of the holiday that became our Memorial Day, and considers Blight’s role in advancing our understanding of the dynamics of public memory.
On Decoration Day in New York City in 1877, black and white Civil War veterans gathered near the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manhattan’s Union Square. There, they heard an orator praise as “a purely American emancipation” the political compromise that had resolved the disputed presidential election of 1876 and brought the effective end of Reconstruction. Soldiers’ graves were decorated with flowers in the cemeteries of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, including Calvary Cemetery, where a palmetto tree had recently been planted at the grave of a Confederate veteran from South Carolina. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the former Confederate general Roger A. Pryor, now a local Democratic politician, delivered an oration that described the Civil War as a needless mistake that had nothing to do with slavery, hailed the soldiers on both sides as men of honor, and decried Reconstruction as a “dismal period” that was “devised to balk the ambition of the white race” but was now, thankfully, “fallen like Lucifer never to hope again.” The former Union general who followed him cheered slavery’s abolition, but also asked, “Is this not enough? Is it not enough that we are all American citizens, that our country is saved, that our country is one?” Throughout New York City’s 1877 commemorations, historian David Blight writes, “Political necessity combined with deep cultural need to produce an almost irresistible Decoration Day spirit of reunion.”
Speaking a year later at the same Union Square statue of Lincoln, Frederick Douglass sought to trouble this spirit, arguing that his listeners must remember the “moral character of the war,” the righteous struggle that the Union veterans in attendance had waged for the cause of black freedom and national renewal. “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war,” he declared. But Douglass’s was an increasingly lonely public voice for this “emancipationist” vision of the Civil War, one increasingly drowned out by the chorus of reunion.
“Decoration Days,” the third chapter of Blight’s book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, traces the evolution of the holiday that became our Memorial Day. First celebrated in 1861 with parades and the decoration of Union soldiers’ graves by black residents in Charleston, South Carolina, by the 1880s it had become largely a day for “Blue-Gray reconciliation,” celebrating the heroism of fallen Union and Confederate soldiers alike, with little heed to the causes for which they fought. As went the first two decades of Memorial Day, Blight argues in Race and Reunion, so too the first half century of public memory of the Civil War. Visions of reconciliation and white supremacy entwined and triumphed. Most white Americans came to embrace romantic, sentimental narratives of the war that emphasized the shared nobility of both sides. Reunion between North and South was attained at the expense of racial equality, and by means of racial oppression. And yet, the “emancipationist” understanding of the war that Douglass promoted that late-May day in 1878 never fully retreated. This competing vision was “embodied in African Americans’ complex remembrance of their own freedom, in the politics of radical Reconstruction, and in conceptions of the war as the reinvention of the republic and the liberation of blacks to citizenship and Constitutional equality.” Throughout Race and Reunion, Blight gives voice to those who kept this faith, suggesting in his final pages that they constituted an ideological advance guard for the civil rights revolution of the twentieth century.