This year marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, the commemoration of which provides an opportunity to look back on that great tragedy and retrace the conflict. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have convened online panels to do just that, and there are countless other rich resources available for examining the conduct of the war. The Sesquicentennial, though, is also an opportunity for considering the role that the Civil War has played in American culture through these one hundred and fifty years.
About ten years ago we published David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which was recently recognized as one of the dozen best books ever written about the war. The book is about how the Civil War functioned for America in the fifty years after its end, through the immediate efforts to put the country back together, through the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of the Jim Crow system in the South. Blight shows how Americans in both the North and the South, led by the Federal Government, focused on healing the nation at the expense of pursuing justice for the countless Americans impacted by the war, chief among them the four million former slaves.
Later this year we’ll publish a new book from Professor Blight, on four writers who were both shaping and reflecting American memory of the Civil War during the Civil Rights era – James Baldwin, Bruce Catton, Robert Penn Warren, and Edmund Wilson. Working on this new project, which examines the role of the Civil War at its Centennial, led him inevitably to consider its impact today, at the Sesquicentennial, a time when the constitutional questions raised by the Civil War churn as tumultuously as ever.
We caught up with Professor Blight at the American Historical Association meeting in Boston earlier this month, where he was kind enough to join us for a conversation on the Civil War’s importance in America’s past and present. In three parts posted below, Professor Blight addresses the defining role of the Civil War in American culture, the conflicting aims of healing and justice in the years after the conflict, and the role of the historian in contemporary debate.