Final part in a series
The contributions of David Blight’s Race and Reunion to the scholarship on Reconstruction and historical memory are undeniably some of the most valuable (and most-cited) in contemporary historiography on the American Civil War. Perhaps more thoroughly and more engagingly than any historian before him, Blight’s Race and Reunion explains the complex process whereby reconciliationist and Lost Cause ideologies erased nearly every mention of slavery and its myriad social, economic, cultural and political tensions with the “Free Labor” ideology that initiated the four-year conflict. Blight reminds fellow scholars and the American public of the “freedom story” that, for too long, had been “whitewashed” out of history by northerners and southerners alike who sought to smooth over, and eventually forget, the divisive and multi-faceted role that slavery played in the death of over 620,000 Americans. Perhaps most importantly, Blight illuminates the troubling tendency of Americans to sacrifice historical fact for a much more palatable, romanticized, “usable” public fiction, and in doing so, write an entire race out of not only history, but also out of de-facto citizenship.
It is understandable, then, why Blight’s book stands among some of the most highly-regarded and well-known works of modern scholarship, and why it has so strongly shaped the stories that we tell both to students in the classroom and to the American public at large.
However, as highly as I regard Race and Reunion, and as strongly as I believe that it deserves a place on the shelf of any historian of the Civil War era (amateur or historian), I also believe it is time for an addendum to Blight’s thesis—one that incorporates not only the racial elements and tensions of Reconstruction, but also the broader and more complex story of the exact nature of the “new Union” itself.
In recent years, we have placed so much of an emphasis on promoting the emancipationist story and condemning the racist-reconciliationist narratives of the war that we have neglected other, critical components of the Reconstruction story—components such as the psychological legacies of reunion for traumatized veterans and former prisoners of war, the regional variances in the conception of the “new Union,” the forging of new meanings of citizenship, and the evolving relationship between women, the state, and the federal government, just to name a few.
Recent studies by Laura Edwards, Peter Carmichael, Nina Silber, Brian Matthew Jordan, Megan McClintock, Paul Cimbala and others have illuminated first-rate research on the diverse, complex and contested meanings of citizenship and both the national and individual “healing” processes of the post-war United States. We must make a greater effort to include such research in the grand narratives that we seek to tell the public about the larger meaning of the war, particularly as we find ourselves in the middle of the Civil War sesquicentennial. Our current conceptual framework of the Civil War and its legacies simply does not reflect adequately the complexity and breadth of our knowledge of the war and its aftermath.
In following perhaps a little too narrowly in the vein of David Blight and other scholarly “emancipationist” critics of the Lost Cause and reconciliationist narratives of Reconstruction, many historians both within the field of academia and in public history have been proudly promoting the period between the Civil War and Reconstruction period—and even the period between Reconstruction and the present-day—as a trajectory from “Civil War to Civil Rights.” That is, they scorn the “whitewashing” of history by late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century historians at the expense of the black community, and repeat the cautionary statement that “while the Civil War may have granted emancipation to four million African-Americans, it fell far short of achieving racial equality.”
While such statements are, of course, valid and were, at one time, historiographically ground-breaking (no matter how obvious such statements seem now), such arguments have become rather tiresome and indeed, “old hat.” The repetition of such singular statements/themes with only slight narrative variations has isolated this important, but by no means solitary, aspect of national reunification both chronologically and thematically. By emphasizing the tragic failure of civil rights in the immediate post-Civil War years and the eventual achievement of significant racial equality only during the Civil Rights era, those revisionist historians of the “Civil War to Civil Rights” catch-all phrase essentially are flattening the struggle/the ebb and flow of the rocky path between the Civil War and the Civil Rights. Through such an interpretive framework, they also are positing the Civil Rights movement as the grand climax of civil rights struggles and the quest for racial equality—thus ignoring the continuation of the path toward perfecting civil rights in the present day about which so many of them have indeed lamented in their larger scholarship.
However, and perhaps even more significant, in promoting the “Civil War to Civil Rights” catch-all grand narrative/theme, those historians also completely erase one of THE most significant outcomes of the war: the restoration of the United States of America. What once was the most celebrated, but ultimately over-romanticized and fictionalized, product of the Civil War is curiously taken for granted today as a mere after-thought. Indeed, “Civil War to Civil Rights” proponents fail to extend fully the Unionist outcome of the war, and the more complex legacies which that “new Union” both created and exacerbated, to the present day. Such legacies have become some of the hallmarks of American culture, but also have produced enduring conflicts—conflicts that stem from the power dynamics of an (according to some) “imperialist” nation, as well as from the class and gender implications of a renewed and thoroughly “modern” Union.
Why do the majority of national narratives and public history sites shy away from such thoughts and the opportunity they offer interpreters to challenge and provoke the American public in enriching new ways?
Curiously enough, completely missing from contemporary conversations about the legacies of the Civil War is perhaps the most pertinent discussion of all to our present circumstances—the public’s perceptions of our nation at war today and the meanings we ascribe to that war, in light of our knowledge of and reflections upon the aftermath of a simultaneously destructive, regenerative and maturational civil war. If we do not even address the confluence of the Civil War sesquicentennial with our present military conflicts, won’t we have missed an enormous opportunity for self-reflection? Will the coordinators of the Civil War bicentennial look back upon our discussions with the same frustration and scorn with which many historians now regard the conversations of the Civil War centennial organizers who consciously divorced their historical commemorations from the all-too-pertinent, and troubling, contemporary socio-political issues swirling around them?
Ultimately, I am not critiquing Blight or his predecessors for their work, nor am I saying that we should stop reading such books or replace their arguments with entirely different theses. Indeed, I should hope Blight will always have a place on any historian’s book shelf. However, I am suggesting that, over 10 years after Blight’s publication, we as academics—but particularly as public historians—need to broaden our narrative horizons and not be so afraid of returning to the “Unionist” story—not necessarily to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors, but to expand upon, refine and complicate the foundations for the Unionist story which they have laid for us, for better or for worse, since the era of the Lost Cause.
In doing so, we might correct the errors—however conscious or unconscious—of our forebears and refine our nation’s historical narrative into one that is at once more intellectually honest, complex, and inclusive.