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RACE AND REUNION by David W. Blight


The Civil War in American Memory

by David W. Blight

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-674-00332-2
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Blight (History/Amherst Coll.) describes how Americans decided to remember the devastation of the Civil War during the decades that followed.

For a year after the war’s close, Andrew Johnson carried out Lincoln’s “with malice toward none” policy. It failed. As whites resumed power in Southern states, they disenfranchised the freed slaves and passed the infamous black codes in an effort to restore as much servitude as possible. Johnson did not object: he was a Southerner, after all, and even loyal Southerners opposed equality for freed slaves. Always a minority, abolitionists and radical Republicans took advantage of hatreds fresh from the war to impose military rule and restore black rights. Within a few years, most Northerners lost their war fever. Support for Reconstruction faded, then disappeared in the mid-1870s, another failure. By this time both South and North were fashioning memories of the war that bore little resemblance to the facts. The author sorts through an avalanche of memoirs, biographies, and magazine articles, as well as fictional accounts, presented a nostalgic, sanitized version of the conflict. A new holiday, Decoration Day (later Memorial Day), changed from a simple day of sorrow for Union war dead to a national nonpartisan celebration of all who fell in battle. In the South, the war became a doomed, but noble, struggle for freedom and states’ rights; in the North it was a triumphant, but tragic, struggle to preserve the Union. Hatred—at least between soldiers—disappeared: since both sides fought a manly fight, mutual respect was essential. After this transformation, almost no one maintained that slavery caused the war, and blacks and the struggle for their rights vanished from the political mainstream for almost a century.

Blight has distilled a mass of historical material into an impressive, clearly written volume that, however depressing, reads well and rings true.