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.

18 comments… add one
  • Keith Harris Mar 7, 2012 @ 9:26

    I really believe that many Americans want this to be the story of reconciliation. It gives us a sense of feeling good about feeling bad about things.

    • Brad Mar 7, 2012 @ 9:50

      I think Blight pointed out in American Oracle that’s a failing that we have that good has to come from bad without taking into account the tragic sense of how things really are.

  • Doug didier Mar 7, 2012 @ 6:20

    Perhaps Blight’s theory is his real legacy. How social memory evolves and it’s impact on history.. Historical memory evolves with the past modulated by the present in a continuous loop whose bandwidth is the current state of radical conditions. His 2001 work was meant to be an example of three loops and how they interacted..

  • Tom Logue Mar 6, 2012 @ 16:45

    Put me in the column of people who are still hero-worshipers of Blight. His book blew me away.

    Not only did it help me organize in my head, all of the apparently-conflicting views of the war out there, but it also helped me see how much of our understanding of history is pure mythology, in the large sense of the word. Say what you will, but we all still look at history as a type of scripture that explains our morality and our world.

    So Blight walks the reader through three extreme re-interpretations of the Civil War, all of which serve the needs of different eras. I never really understood, sympathetically, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind until I read Blight. And also never realized how much the Lost Cause captured the imagination of the public. It still influences, for examples, the popularly-held view that Grant was a butcher and a bumbler as a general, which my own reading suggests is very far from the truth. It appears to be the one time when the losers did end up writing the history. What a strange trip!

    By the way, Kevin, your blog is awesome.

  • James Harrigan Mar 6, 2012 @ 11:33

    Kevin said …it is the personality and sense of mission behind the book that matters most.
    Kevin, I really disagree with this. The reason Blight has been so influential is the sheer quality of his work: he’s insightful, incisive, original, and (not least) a superb writer. I was completely unaware of him as a public intellectual until after having read Race and Reunion. No doubt his public profile contributes to his influence, but without the work nobody would pay him any notice.

  • Pat Young Mar 6, 2012 @ 10:24

    For those of us who are not professional historians, Blight answers the question of why we believed stuff that wasn’t true.

  • Jared Frederick Mar 6, 2012 @ 10:01

    If you want an interesting analysis that counter’s Blight’s examination on varying degrees, I would recommend John Neff’s “Honoring the Civil War Dead.” He contends reunion kept the war alive and veterans embittered rather than brought them together.

  • JMRudy Mar 6, 2012 @ 6:58

    I think Blight brought us a clearly defined paradigm within which to operate. That concept of meta-narrative helped to shift my mind’s perception of the active voices in history production from the historian to the commoner. I owe Blight a lot, frankly, for how I think about thinking about history.

    What my friends and I affectionately call “Storytime with David Blight” ( ends up floating to the top of my iPod queue about twice a year.

    • Brad Mar 6, 2012 @ 8:29

      Thank you for the links to David Blight’s courses.


  • Thom Bassett Mar 6, 2012 @ 6:15

    I’m growing increasingly interested in the question of how the war is remembered, as part of my research and thinking about my novel. What for you are the most important elements of the relationship between war and memory?

  • Ken Noe Mar 6, 2012 @ 6:06

    As Caesar did with Gaul, Blight divided Civil War Memory into three parts. There’s something clean and attractive about a tripartite structure, especially when it imposes order on a seemingly messy reality. That said, I’m again pleased with how my students aren’t shy about reexamining, modifying, and complicating his categories as they confront contemporary readings and now film.

  • Barbara A. Gannon Mar 6, 2012 @ 6:01

    Blight’s explanation is popular because it is neat and satisfying. It posits memory as useful, and historians believe in useful memory. It makes us feel important. In his work, he suggests that forgetting emancipation and the failure to protect African American are somehow tied, in a cause and effect relationship. He posits history was useful to Southerners in this case. His implication, if memory had been right, and slavery remembered, it would have changed things, and been useful to African Americans. Its a real problem when people remember slavery in this era and this did not effect on the status of black Americans. My book and others coming up challenge his fundamental assertions, not minor points in his work.

    • ari Mar 6, 2012 @ 9:12

      What’s your book about, Barbara?

      • ari Mar 6, 2012 @ 9:14

        Oops, found it and ordered it. Sorry about that.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2012 @ 10:53

          One of my favorite recent Civil War titles.

    • Brad Mar 6, 2012 @ 11:14

      When I read his book a couple of years back, I didn’t sense that he was implying that had slavery been remembered it would have changed things, because based on the power structure existing in the South after the war and thereafter , that was clearly not possible.

      I’m wondering upon what you base that conclusion. I’m not saying you’re wrong but am curious.



    • James Harrigan Mar 6, 2012 @ 11:44

      Barbara, I didn’t read Blight the way you did. What I loved about Race and Reunion is that it explained something I never understood before, not that it made me feel important. And I disagree that there is some lurking counterfactual in Blight’s book, an idea that, as you put it, “…if memory had been right, and slavery remembered, it would have changed things, and been useful to African Americans”. I don’t recall that Blight identified some alternate way that history could have played out.

      On another topic, you need a website! When I googled you and went to your UCF page there was no mention of your book (which looks great) or other scholarship.

  • Brad Mar 6, 2012 @ 5:45

    You seem to imply that Race and Reunion is well known, in part, because Prof Blight is good at publicizing or marketing himself. Good marketing can only go so far if there’s not something there that strikes a chord.

    Blight makes the point of what was the War all about. As it ended it was a hodge podge of Unionism and freedom for 4.5 million people. However, it came to be subverted over time. For me, this quest for freedom end ending bondage was what it all about and I didn’t need Blight to show me that. However, what his enduring contribution has been is to show how that came about and how the losers would try to subsume under the “recent unpleasantness.” As we all know it was more than that and that what was won (or at least the beginnings thereof) was quickly lost and took more than 100 years to recover or fully germinate or come into being, however you want to put it.

    The War was about something, not just some white argument between two sections of the country.

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