David W. Blight was recently interviewed on Civil War Talk Radio which is hosted by Gerry Prokopowicz. For anyone interested in Civil War memory there is no better place to start than his award-winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001). The book has served as a catalyst for much of what has recently been written about the subject, including my own work on memory and the battle of the Crater. I didn’t expect to hear anything new from Blight, but I do enjoy listening to him reflect on many of the important themes related to memory.
The interview touched on Bruce Catton’s influence on Civil War historiography and I was surprised to hear that Blight has used A Stillness at Appomattox in his seminars to give students a sense of the horror of war and the difficulties in the transition to Reconstruction. He suggested that a book could be written on Catton’s influence on the profession and the way his scholarship moved beyond the narrowness of the battlefield to discuss the broader meanings of the war — a topic that has received a great deal of attention over the past decade. Blight noted that Catton’s fine narrative touch has been lost and ought to be recovered by professional historians if only for the sake of providing quality texts for the reading public.
In outlining his analysis of how the war has been remembered Blight referenced the final episode in the Ken Burns documentary which covers the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion. Of course, by 1913 the meaning of the war had been "sanitized" or cleansed of any racial references and had been turned into a celebration of national progress and the valor of white soldiers from both sides of the Potomac. That theme courses throughout this final episode. In pushing this theme Burns includes a few moments of what appear to be black and white soldiers shaking hands. Unfortunately, the footage is not from 1913, but from the 1938 reunion and the black men are in fact laborers who were working to maintain the camp during the commemoration. Jim Crow America is absent from the Burns documentary; instead we are to believe that race relations are peaceful and congratulatory. I should say that this is a wonderful teaching moment. Burns’s documentary should never be viewed by students without showing them how to analyze it as a historical source. Directors pick and choose themes as well as footage based on a set of working assumptions.
It was also interesting to hear Blight briefly touch on themes that I’ve raised on this blog, including the issue of black Confederates. He is correct in pointing out that this subject has more to do with the consequences of the Civil Rights Movement and the uneasiness for some in coming to terms with an expanding multi-cultural society than anything related to serious Civil War scholarship. [Bruce Levine puts this debate to rest in his recent book, Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 2006.] He also commented on our fascination with the war and the almost casual way in which we express it: "I love the Civil War." I’ve commented on this in earlier posts titled, "Civil War As Entertainment" and "Are You A Civil War Buff?"
Finally, some of you may be interested in his most recent project which is scheduled for publication in 2007. Blight has edited two recently uncovered slave narratives that were written after the Civil War. The first was written by John Washington of Fredericksburg who escaped in 1862 and the second by Wallace Turnadge (unsure of spelling) who escaped in 1864 in the Mobile area. Blight plans to publish both narratives and write a dual-biography of both men who lived into the twentieth-century.