Here is my review of Caroline Janney’s book, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation, which will appear in the next issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (pp. 389-90). It goes without saying that I highly recommend this book.
In 2001, David Blight published Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. The book won numerous awards and helped to shape a wave of academic studies that soon followed. Blight’s depiction of a nation that by the turn of the twentieth century had largely embraced sectional reconciliation at the expense of a legacy of emancipation also found a voice outside academic halls on National Park Service battlefields and in museum exhibitions. Many have embraced the narrative of emancipation and its emphasis on African American soldiers throughout the sesquicentennial commemorations as part of an effort to overcome a nation’s willful amnesia.
A number of historians, including John Neff, Barbara Gannon, and William Blair, have chipped away at Blight’s thesis, but this is the first book to offer a comprehensive reinterpretation of the subject since 2001. At the center of Caroline Janney’s understanding of how Americans struggled to come to terms with the legacy of the war is a careful distinction between reunion and reconciliation, which is all too often conflated in the literature. Janney’s veterans harbored a deep bitterness for their former enemies and remained steadfast in their commitment to the righteousness of their respective causes well into the twentieth century. Reunion was a fact of Union victory in 1865, and outward signs of this could be found in numerous Blue-Gray events, but according to Janney, this should not be mistaken for genuine feelings of reconciliation.
Janney builds her case by looking closely at how four years of destruction and bloodletting (that would include Lincoln himself ) helped to frame postwar remembrance. It is a focus that not only complements recent scholarship on the Civil War dead but is also informed by America’s experience overseas and its recent involvement in two civil wars. Janney breaks down Civil War memory into the largely recognizable tripartite distinction between Unionist, Emancipationist, and Lost Cause narratives. In the case of northern soldiers, the author challenges the tendency to distinguish sharply between union and emancipation by showing that many understood that the latter would guarantee and strengthen the former. Indeed, white northerners were likely more involved in keeping the legacy of emancipation and the service of black soldiers alive than previous acknowledged. As Janney and others have noted, however, this stance should not to be confused with a commitment to racial equality. Given the author’s previous research on the Ladies Memorial Associations, readers will not be surprised to find an expanded section on the work of southern white women, who remained some of the most extreme proponents of openly commemorating the Confederate dead as well as vocal opponents of reconciliation throughout the postwar period. Janney juxtaposes this with a thoughtful analysis of the activities of the northern Woman’s Relief Corps, though these ladies were never as visible in the work of commemoration.
Janney’s narrative is largely centered on the veterans, but apart from the influence of national political trends, these men are largely apolitical. State politics in places like Virginia during the Readjuster era, which revolved around former Confederate general William Mahone, certainly complicated the memory of Virginia’s Civil War for many veterans. Such concerns aside, this is a fabulous book. Remembering the Civil War offers important insights and demonstrates without a doubt that memory studies are far from exhausted. Whether a readership beyond the academy that continues to embrace reconciliation—as evidenced by the ongoing Civil War 150th commemoration— has yet to be seen.