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?
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.
You will notice a short interview with David Blight at the top of the sidebar on the right that I recently posted. Below you can listen to parts 2 and 3. In part 3 Blight talks about his current project, which is an exploration of the Civil War Centennial and the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, and Bruce Catton, as well as the sesquicentennial. In addition to this study I’ve heard that he is at work on a biography of Frederick Douglass. I do hope that is true. A few weeks ago my friend, Keith Harris, posted a short review of Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which in my mind is still the place to begin in the field of Civil War memory studies. Keith’s own scholarship challenges some of the central assumptions of Blight’s work, specifically the ease with which white Northerners abandoned an emancipationist narrative of the war for reconciliation and reunion. My own forthcoming study of the Crater and historical memory complicates Blight’s interpretive framework by showing that reunion was not a simple process for former Confederates, especially for those veterans who fought under Mahone at Petersburg. More importantly, Confederate veterans of the Crater were not unified in terms of how they chose to remember and commemorate the war because of deep political differences, especially during the four years of Readjuster control in Virginia. Blight’s book has spawned a growing literature that complicates the postwar narrative of how Americans chose to remember the war. A few of my favorite studies include, John Neff’s Honoring The Civil War Dead: Commemoration And The Problem Of Reconciliation, William Blair’s Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, and, most recently, Benjamin G. Cloyd’s Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory.
At the same time I think it’s important to acknowledge Blight’s book because of the studies that it generated. I think that’s the mark of a seminal book. Although Blight wasn’t the first person to explore this topic, he did offer students of the Civil War a rich interpretation of the various political and cultural forces (with apologies to PC) at work following the war. For me the book continues to offer fresh insight every time I open it up and it proved to be invaluable in helping me to think about my own narrow project on the Crater even though I ended up disagreeing with some of Blight’s central assumptions. In other words, it’s one thing to disagree with a book, but another thing entirely for that very same book to help steer you in a different direction.
If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Andy Hall’s analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks saga. I tend to agree with Hall that there is no reason to believe that Ms. DeWitt’s goal is to intentionally mislead her young readers or distort the history covered in her book. However, as we now know she is, in fact, doing both. I am not familiar with the rest of Kevin Weeks’s books in the Street Series collection, but I have no reason to believe that these books are inappropriate in any way. It just so happens that the subject of Entangled in Freedom has been on my radar for quite some time and for very good reasons. I’ve been just as critical with white proponents of this myth as I have with African Americans. That said, I don’t mind admitting that I am much more disappointed when the target of my criticism is black. Let me explain.
As all of you know my primary interest in the Civil War and American history generally is centered on questions related to historical memory. Much of that interest revolves around the broad subject of slavery and race. My recently completed manuscript on the Crater focuses on how Americans chose to remember – or in most cases forget – the participation of black Union soldiers in the battle and my new project will address the evolution of stories related to the black Confederate narrative. As a result of my extensive reading and research into these areas I would like to think that I have some grasp of the challenges associated with correcting /revising a collective memory of the Civil War and broader historical narrative that up until recently either ignored the subject of black history or included a grossly distorted version of it to suit the political and racial agendas of certain groups. We can see this at different points in our history from the Dunning School in the 1920s and 30s to the continued hold of the Lost Cause narrative and its imagery of loyal and contented slaves. I have nothing but the highest respect for those black historians such as John Hope Franklin, who worked tirelessly to correct this racist narrative and ultimately inspire countless others to continue to research topics related to the history of race and slavery in America. Let’s face it, it’s only in the last two decades that we’ve seen significant changes to textbooks and other curricular materials used in classrooms across the country. We should never forget what it took to bring this about. And we should not forget that it took the hard work of both black and white Americans. Continue reading “A Responsibility To Take Care of the Past”→