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cover Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory By David Blight

Harvard University Press

Reviewed by Jennifer Jensen-Wallach,
BlackBookshelf.com Reviewer


Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
(Harvard, 2001) is a rich contribution to the growing field of historical memory. David Blight puts a new and important spin on the impact of the Civil War on the collective American psyche from the war's turning point in 1863 until 1915. His concentration is not on what actually happened during the war and its aftermath but rather how the nation, left with the daunting task of reunification, was to remember the struggle. In Blight's analysis it becomes clear that many of the memories of the Civil War were false ones constructed to meet present day political needs rather than memories rooted in historical evidence.

Although Blight himself is quick to poke fun at the historian's tendency to tame the complexity of historical reality by forcing it into rigid, preconceived categories, he makes a convincing case for his argument that the Civil War was remembered in primarily three ways. The three competing visions of the Civil War were reconciliationist, white supremacist, and emancipationist. Overwhelmingly, Blight argues, the reconciliationist vision, which stated that the North and South were equally heroic, was triumphant. This memory of the war was fed by New South economic interest in rebuilding and industrializing the South with the help of northern capital. It was also fed by the nation's desire to put the nightmare of the bloody war behind it and to heal itself. The net result was that the emancipationist vision of the Civil War and the specific recollection that slavery was the root cause of the conflict was forgotten by the white majority.

The freedpeople who were liberated as a result of the war clung to the emancipationist vision as did articulate black spokesmen like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. At a Memorial Day observance in 1871 Douglass pointedly asked, "if this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?" These voices were increasingly ignored or silenced as the fomenters of war "redeemed" the South and set up the social and political machinery that would transform the freedmen into disenfranchised, second class citizens. The betrayal of the former slaves and the thwarted progressive promises of Reconstruction bear a direct relationship to the triumph of the reconciliationist vision.

Race and Reunion is worthy of all the accolades it has received, including both the Frederick Douglass Prize and the Lincoln Prize in 2001. It is painstakingly researched, intelligent, provocative, and well written enough to make it accessible (and enjoyable) to the specialist and non-specialist alike. It is without a doubt a major contribution to both Civil War scholarship and to the ongoing, interdisciplinary discussion of historical memory.

Jennifer Jensen-Wallach is a Ph.D. student in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
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