Dec 29, 2010

The 150th Anniversary of Arguing Over the Civil War

Now that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is upon us, there's been lots of talk in the news about the meaning and legacy of the Civil War. I've mentioned some good pieces on the blog already, but here's a selection:

E.J. Dionne arguing that the War was, first and foremost, about ending slavery.
A couple of great posts by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Historians Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts about the political significance of the ways we memorialize the war.

Arguments over the meaning of the Civil War are almost as old as the war itself. Historians call this issue "historical memory," because it has to do with how we, as a society, "remember" events from the past. These memories are always political: they have to do with who wields power in a society and how the powerful use their power. 

David Blight, a history professor at Yale, examined the late-19th century struggles over how Americans would remember the Civil War in his important book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001). The book looks at the first 50 years after the war and shows how competing memories of the war resolved into one that erased emancipation and the black struggle from the dominant narrative about the meaning of the Civil War, a legacy that we are clearly still living with today.

Blight argues that during and immediately after the war, there were three ways Americans understood the conflict. One was the "emancipationist," adhered to most strongly by African-Americans and abolitionists, which saw the war as a fight to end slavery, liberate African-Americans, and ensure them a just American future. The second was the "white supremacist," which remembered the war as a valiant battle to uphold a system of white supremacy. The third was the "reconciliationist," which saw the war ultimately as a struggle between two well-meaning sides whose soldiers were each fighting a noble fight for a cause in which they believed.

Blight shows that, not surprisingly, during the war the "emancipationist" and "white supremacist" analyses dominated in the North and South, respectively. In the years following the war, as Reconstruction played out, these two memories continued to do battle. But by 1876, most whites, North and South, wanted full peace and a revival of the national economy, and they saw that the most effective way to do that was to reconcile with each other, even if it meant (and for some, especially if it meant) excluding blacks from national politics once again. Beginning at this point, then, the "reconciliationist" memory, strongly influenced by the "white supremacist memory," reigned triumphant.

This version of history highlighted the efforts on both sides to defend one's country and one's values and emphasized the mutual loss of life that had occurred in both sections of the newly reunited nation. In effect, Northern and Southern whites reconciled and rebuilt a sense of national identity by remembering the war as a struggle between two equal sides - a familial fight between brothers. They erased slavery and emancipation from this memory for the sake of national unity and a reassertion of their place on top of a racial hierarchy that protected their social, economic, and political interests. By 1915, when Blight's book ends, this had become the dominant narrative of the war - although African-Americans continued, of course, to insist upon their "emancipationist" memory.

And so here we are today. I don't want to oversimplify, because obviously a lot has happened in the past 100 years, not least the Civil Rights movement which made use of the "emancipationist" memory. But I can't help thinking about Blight's analysis when I read things like this quote from the NY Times about the "secession ball" recently held in Charleston: "'We’re not celebrating slavery,' maintained Sons of Confederate Veterans Commander-in-Chief Michael Givens. 'We’re looking at the bravery and tenacity of the people who rose up.'" Outside the ball, the NAACP was protesting, articulating the "emancipationist" memory for anyone who would listen.

[If you're really interested in this topic, you can watch a 52-minute lecture about it by David Blight here.]

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