What Would An Obama Presidency Mean To Civil War Memory?

This post originally ran in April 2007.  Given last night’s primary results in Indiana and North Carolina I thought it might be an opportune moment to share it once again.

One of my readers recently pointed out that the Civil War Sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances?  My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it becomes apparent that an Obama presidency could reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the "emancipationist legacy" of the Civil War would return to center stage. It does have the potential of becoming overly celebratory and I would resist this urge for the sake of maintaining the focus on better understanding the relevant history.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the "emptiness" referred to in connection with "Confederate heritage" is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

More to the point, the attention among professional historians in recent years to better understanding the ways in which slavery shaped the Confederate experience will potentially occupy a central place in future narratives that purport to explain the historical background of a black president.  We will be forced to acknowledge secession and the Confederacy as an attempt to maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy and not simply as a constitutional right or a defense of hearth and home; both points figure prominently in our collective memory while race and slavery linger on the fringes.  Of course, understanding the Civil War years does not in any way come close to defining the black experience in America nor does an emphasis on the American South.  What it does do, however, is highlight the importance that was attached to emancipation both during the war and in the decades to follow before it was overshadowed by reunion, reconciliation and Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century.

This post is not meant in any way as a justification for a vote for Barak Obama.  The election of a black president would be an important milestone for this country, but in our attempt to understand how we as a nation arrived at this point it also has the potential of radically shifting the way we think about our collective past.

3 thoughts on “What Would An Obama Presidency Mean To Civil War Memory?

  1. Larry Cebula

    Terrific post, Kevin, and one that you should work up into an article or editorial for publication. It would attract a lot of attention and kick off a necessary national conversation.

    On a related note: It is a dark day for Sean Wilentz today!

    Reply
  2. Elisabeth Payne Rosen

    Dear Kevin,
    Kevin–
    Did you receive a bound galley of my novel, HALLAM’S WAR? I believe it was sent to you by my publishers, Unbridled Books
    (www.unbridledbooks.com). If you did, I hope you will find time to read it, because in my opinion it is a direct commentary–no, not commentary, which implies coming after the fact, but ? something that provides some background and understanding?–on what you have written in this post. I think this is the most electrifying conversation going on in our nation right now, and it certainly speaks to the whole ACW community. For Obama or not, this is a conversation that is long, long overdue.

    Reply
  3. Kevin Levin

    Larry, — Thanks and perhaps I will turn it into a more polished editorial.

    Elisabeth, — I have not received the book, but even if I did I wouldn’t have any time to read it. Perhaps you can send it in the Fall.

    Reply

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