The other day I briefly noted my surprise by how little the war was being discussed in a conference devoted to Massachusetts and the Civil War. What I am struck by now looking back on the three days of talks at the MHS is the overwhelming emphasis on Boston’s abolitionist community. That should not come as a surprise given the location of the conference and the place of the abolitionists in local memory. I learned quite a bit about them and I accumulated a nice list of books and article from the papers, which were wisely precirculated.
By the end of the conference the abolitionists’ agenda had emerged as the dominant narrative of the Civil War. In fact, if this conference can be defined as reflecting a Civil War memory it would have to be that of the abolitionists themselves and their agenda beginning in the antebellum period through the war and into the era of Reconstruction. It was so palpable that even our understanding of the war’s meaning and the success or failure of Reconstruction had little chance of being critically examined without Garrison, Douglass, and the rest of the gang looking over our shoulders. There was little consideration of the importance of Union, as recently analyzed by Gary Gallagher in his new book, The Union War>, nor was there much of an attempt to distinguish between the goal of ending slavery and the question of civil rights. The war had been reduced to an agenda with racial equality as its ultimate goal. In short, it was all or nothing. Continue reading