Race & Reunion 10 Years Later: The Power of Interpretation and Explanation

Part two in a series

Authored by James Broomall.


In thinking about David Blight’s sweeping study, Race and Reunion, I am drawn to its interpretive and explanatory powers, especially as a teaching instrument. In describing how Americans’ “remembered their most divisive and tragic experience,” Blight locates three general visions of Civil War memory that clashed over time: reconciliation, white supremacy, and emancipation.[1]

By the twentieth century Civil War memory, while still unsettled, “rested in a core master narrative that led inexorably to reunion of the sections.”[2] In fundamental ways, however abstract and hard to quantify, elements of this legacy still hold sway: national reunion over difficult questions about race and battlefield heroes over unsettled causes and consequences.[3] It is, to some extent, this tradition, which professors confront in the classroom and why Blight’s book still matters so greatly.

The year 1863, as Blight contends, is the fundamental turning point in the conflict, and “all future discussions of the meaning and memory of this fundamental turning point… had to either confront or deflect” the transformations enacted.[4]Starting with this historical marker, then, I construct with my students a series of emerging and contending narratives to reveal how particular traditions triumph over others and how memories are both created and displaced. We discuss how, for instance, by the 1870s the emancipationist vision vied with an increasingly powerful Lost Cause mythology perpetuated through white public memorializations. And why, by the 1880s, Northerners and Southerners alike were swept up by a spirit of reconciliation, which recast the country’s political spirit.

Blight’s three-part, evolving vision lends a certain narrative precision that distills complex historical processes. Ultimately, then, in understanding the Civil War’s legacy students are exposed to the conflict’s shifting meanings, contrasting interpretations, and lingering importance; they are given the tools to deconstruct shrines built upon Lost Cause mythology.

Blight’s vision, while sweeping and sometimes generalized, offers clarity making concrete what otherwise appears abstract, and pointedly describes the building blocks used by Americans to reconstruct their fractured nation. That is why I make sure to always have his volume nearby whenever I begin addressing the consequences of the American Civil War.

[1] For his summation and this quote see, David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 1-2.

[2] Blight, Race and Reunion, 397.

[3] As scholars such as Tony Horwitz and David Goldfield have demonstrated, the war’s meaning and memory remain contested; however, many in the neo-Confederate and revisionist camps are influenced more by contemporary politics than historical evidence. See, Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Vintage, 1999) and David R. Goldfield, Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004). See also, Peter S. Carmichael, “ ‘Truth is mighty & will eventually prevail’: Political Correctness, Neo-Confederates, and Robert E. Lee, Southern Cultures  (Fall 2011): 6-27.

[4] Blight, Race and Reunion, 18.

2 Responses to Race & Reunion 10 Years Later: The Power of Interpretation and Explanation

  1. I ordered this book, and am waitng for it to arrive before I read the articles. I am looking forward to an enriched experience. What will the next book be?

    1. Hey, Meg —

      We cooked up the Race & Reunion series this week because I just finished reading the book and thought we might be able, as a community of bloggers, be able to have a conversation about it. What you’re reading is the result of that conversation. Thanks for being a part of it. I’ll be anxious to hear your reactions to the book once you read it.

      As for the next one…. We’ll see what jumps off the shelves at us. I’d recommend Jim Morgan’s Ball’s Bluff book, “A Little Short of Boats,” if you’re up for a good battle study. I know you’re an 1861 person because of your EE connection. 😉

      — C

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