Tag Archives: David Blight

Is There An Official Civil War Memory?

In response to one of my posts last week on the Civil War Sesquicentennial one of my readers expressed a feeling of frustration (not on the blog) that David Blight’s interpretation of Civil War memory has become the standard or official narrative.  The individual is a professional historian, who has written on the subject.  On the one hand, I can certainly understand the concern.  How can what is essentially a meta-narrative (a narrative about multiple narratives of the past) become something akin to an official explanation?  Since the publication of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory back in 2001 historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s thesis, which emphasizes the triumph of sectional reconciliation at the turn of the twentieth century.  My own forthcoming book on the Crater and historical memory bumps up against it.

On the one hand the cottage industry of Civil War memory studies that Race and Reunion spawned is a testament to the quality of the book.  Race and Reunion unfolds much of the terrain that subsequent historians have attempted to stake their claim to and challenge.   And yet the argument has held up quite well.  That, however, does not explain the book’s popularity.

To the extent that Race and Reunion has been embraced by the general public has everything to do with the visibility of its author.  The guy gets around.  Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Prof. Blight in a number of settings from academic conferences to National Park Service tours to small bookstore signings.  Of course, he is not the only academic historian who has achieved public notoriety, but there is something special about achieving it in an area that many might think of as much too theoretical.  Most Civil War enthusiasts want to talk about the Civil War and not about how it has been remembered and what this tells us about ourselves as a nation.

The visibility of Blight’s narrative in our popular discourse reminds us that it is the personality and sense of mission behind the book that matters most.  And that is something that we should always encourage and celebrate in our public intellectuals.

Where Have You Gone, Benjamin Butler?

I’ve caught bits and pieces of the Museum of the Confederacy’s “Person of the Year: 1862″ symposium on CSPAN-3.  It’s an entertaining event for the children of the Civil War Centennial.  The historians in charge of nominating this year include Robert K. Krick, David Blight, James McPherson, Jack Mountcastle, and Emory Thomas.  The historians selected are all familiar to the audience and their selections, for the most part, are predictable. Can anyone imagine Krick selecting anyone else but Jackson or anyone but Lee for Thomas?  Blight chose Frederick Douglass, which is not surprising.  McPherson’s choice of Farragut may be the only one that couldn’t be predicted.  I don’t know what to make of Mountcastle’s choice of McClellan since I am not familiar with his scholarship.

There is nothing wrong with their selections since this is clearly not a question that has a final answer.  There is also nothing necessarily wrong with the selection of historians.  All of them are well respected scholars.  That said, I do have a few suggestions for next year.  Get a panel of younger historians, whose choices may not be so predictable.  Not only are you likely to get a different short list of nominees, but the Q&A will also be an opportunity to explore new terrain rather than rehash the same tired stories.   You have to include at least one woman and an African American.  In short, perspective is everything when it comes to these kinds of events.

So, who would you choose?

My choice: Benjamin Butler

How Short is America’s Collective Memory?

Today I had the pleasure of skyping with a Civil War class at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee.  Chris Lese and his class have made good use of my blog over the past few weeks so I offered to spend some time with his students to field questions.  In addition to utilizing the blog the class has read a chapter from David Blight’s book, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War and they are making their way through a critical evaluation of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.  It’s always nice to see high school kids engaged in serious study of American history and it made for an entertaining and informative 45 minutes.  I am planning on visiting with this class in person during my trip to Milwaukee in April for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.

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A New Geography of Civil War Memory

If you haven’t read Brian Matthew Jordan’s reflections on David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory ten years later head on over to The Civil War Monitor and do so.  It’s an incredibly thoughtful piece and much of it I agree with.  Blight’s book has had a huge influence on my interest in the Civil War generally and specifically in regard to questions of memory.  Toward the end of the essay Brian suggests that we need a “new geography of Civil War memory”:

One unfortunate (and I think unintended) consequence of the laudable efforts of recent historians to reposition race and slavery at the heart of the conflict is that the Civil War has become the nineteenth-century’s equivalent of “the Good War”—not, as the historian Edward L. Ayers has so eloquently pointed out, a “problem to be explained,” but, rather, a modern-day morality play that we tell and re-tell in an effort to exorcise white guilt. Massive death, destruction, and suffering are effortlessly explained away and left un-interrogated because they contributed to the demise of slavery in America. The blood spilled on battlefields from Big Bethel to Palmito Ranch, we are reassured, cleansed the nation of its collective sin. And as soon as that blood washes away the sin of slavery, that blood is itself washed away. The Civil War, we are told, was a necessary national sacrifice. It is time that we critically examine this sanitizing process and its manifold implications.

I am not sure I agree with Brian’s analysis here.  It seems to me that the cleansing of the “destruction and suffering” of the Civil War had been accomplished long before our collective memory took a turn toward a narrative with emancipation at its center.  The veterans themselves bear witness to this point.  James Marten argues that a wide range of factors influenced how Americans during the postwar decades responded to their veterans, who bore the physical and psychological scars of war.  Many veterans experienced disillusionment as those around them pushed their sacrifices off the public stage in light of changing definitions of manhood and bravery.  Blight’s emphasis on the pull of reconciliation and reunion also contributed to this cleansing as well as a growing international presence buttressed by a belief in American Exceptionalism.

Popular culture today seems to have little patience with coming to terms with the death and destruction of the Civil War, which you can see reflected in such things as reenactments and movies.  We seem much more comfortable pointing out the scale of violence and long-term damage in civil wars elsewhere.  In contrast, our civil war was somehow special or unique.  I also don’t see the focus on emancipation in recent scholarly studies of Civil War memory as part of a narrative that downplays the “hard hand of war” in order to emphasize a “Good War” or as part of an effort to “exorcise white guilt.”  If anything, recent scholarship has reinforced a long-term narrative of “promises unfulfilled” rather than a rebirth in 1865 that replaced bondage for freedom.  Even Ken Burns’s celebratory documentary sounds an alarm in the last episode over questions of race and rights in the Jim Crow era.

Those are just a few thoughts.  It is entirely possible that I missed Brian’s point entirely. What do you think?

Brian just published his first book, UNHOLY SABBATH: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862, which I eventually plan on reading.  Oh, and he wrote while still an undergraduate at Gettysburg College.

Where Have You Gone, Bruce Catton?

Tomorrow my wife and I are going to head over to Cambridge to the Harvard Bookstore to hear a talk by David Blight.  I tend not to take my wife to hear Blight as she has what I would say is an unhealthy attraction to his voice.  Hopefully, she will be able to exercise sufficient self control.  Blight is going to talk about his new book, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, which explores the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin.  Each of these writers struggled to come to terms with America’s collective memory of the Civil War during the civil rights era.  Like much of everything else Blight has written the book is well worth your time.

One of the things I find interesting is the lack of a prominent Civil War historian or literary figure, who occupies the same space as did Penn Warren, Catton, Wilson, and Baldwin.  In terms of historians of that era I would also include Allan Nevins and Douglass Southall Freeman, though he died in 1953.  Perhaps you disagree, but if so, I would be curious to know who you think fills those roles and speaks for our generation’s memory of the war.  If you agree with me, I would also like to hear why.