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.
Race and Reunion was published in early 2001. Reviewing it in the New York Times Book Review, the historian Eric Foner noted the timeliness of the topic: controversies over flying the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and recognizing slavery at National Park Service battlefield sites had highlighted the gap between the historians who understood slavery as the root cause of the Civil War and emancipation as its central consequence, and a public fascinated by the romance of reconciliation. Over the last twelve years, and especially during the current sesquicentennial commemorations of the war, Race and Reunion has helped to close that gap. Along with Blight’s American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (2001), and many others books published by HUP, Race and Reunion has highlighted for a broader public an emancipationist interpretation of the war’s meaning, from the pages of The Atlantic to the passionate debate over Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln.
Yet the terror attacks of September 2001, coming just months after the book’s publication, gave Race and Reunion another sort of relevance. The attacks inaugurated a decade in which the politics of trauma and memory were at the forefront of the national conversation; Blight lent his expertise to the National September 11 Memorial Museum, and drew on the lessons of the Civil War in contemplating the balance between “the urge to repair and commemorate” and the urgent need “to think in historical time.” In the aftermath of 9/11, amid attacks on Arab- and Muslim-Americans and the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, questions of war and peace, of tragedy and healing, and of race and citizenship were once again deeply entangled. When I first read Race and Reunion in the fall of 2006, mounting casualties in Iraq and the government’s fatally ineffectual response to Hurricane Katrina were about to return Democrats to power in Congress. Senator Barack Obama, buoyed by his early opposition to the Iraq war, was just months away from launching a presidential campaign that would draw heavily on the language and symbolism of Lincoln and the Civil War era. Obama’s campaign and his presidency would revive ongoing debates about America’s racial past—what Obama called in his 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech “the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through.”
We now mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in a time dominated by the knotty politics of trauma, war, race, and history. For me, and I expect for many others, the insights of Race and Reunion—regarding the challenges of reckoning accurately with the past, the understandable yet often destructive temptations of healing through myth and sentiment, and America’s long history of remembering and forgetting selectively in service of political ends—have been deeply resonant. Sentiment and politics seem certain to shape the stories of our time that will be told of by those Frederick Douglass called, in his 1878 Decoration Day address, “after-coming generations.”
It’s fitting to return to that oration on this Memorial Day. After praising Lincoln and celebrating the bravery of those who had preserved the Union and won freedom for the “emancipated millions,” Douglass reminded his listeners that “the great work” of Emancipation and Reconstruction was “still incomplete.” Former slave-owners and Confederate leaders were returning to power within the federal government and across the South, often through violence and fraud. At a time when “the portents upon our national horizon are dark and sinister,” Douglass sought to reframe his audience’s understanding of the war and the ways they commemorated it:
[The Civil War] was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other: a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold, and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.
Good, wise, and generous men at the North … doubt the wisdom of observing this memorial day, and would have us forget and forgive, strew flowers alike and lovingly, on rebel and loyal grave. This sentiment is noble and generous, worthy of all honor as such; but it is only a sentiment after all, and must submit to its own rational limitations. There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget[.]
Like the ordinary and extraordinary African Americans—from Douglass to W.E.B. Du Bois, from the black citizens of Charleston to the participants in the semicentennial emancipation exhibitions—who kept alive the promise of human rights and racial equality they saw at the heart of the Civil War’s meaning, Blight in Race and Reunion commands what Douglass called “a clearness of vision to discern the right.” As in the best works of history, a keen awareness of the past’s complexity coexists in its pages with a moral vision. It reminds us that the former is essential to the latter, and that both are essential to us as we observe this memorial day.