The public memory of the American Civil War developed and changed drastically over the fifty-year period from 1863 to 1915. In his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David W. Blight demonstrates how reconciliation and white supremacist views came to dominate the emancipationist vision in popular culture and politics, and how this led to the country turning its back on the war's noble achievement of freedom for African Americans.
David W. Blight details several historical events that show how reunion came to dominate the issue of race in public memory of the Civil War. He begins by exploring how reactions to the carnage and loss of life involved in this incredibly bloody war steered public memory almost immediately towards a focus on reconciliation over emancipation. Although Lincoln, Frederick Douglas and others stressed the value of human equality and the emancipation of slaves, writers such as Walt Whitman responded to the nightmare of the dead and injured by focusing on the need for reunion rather than the implications of emancipation.
Reconstruction continued to emphasize reconciliation between the North and the South in the mind of the public, even as it dealt directly with issues resulting from emancipation. As in 1863, the public preferred to remember the war in memorialization services and to forget the fundamental reason why the war was fought. They preferred remembering "Homeric tales of great war" rather than the true cause of lost lives (Blight, 2002, p. 73).
The importance and implications of issues of race were at odds with reconciliation, particularly for defeated Southerners and anyone subscribing to the vision of white supremacy. When the country was in utter ruins as a result of the war, the public responded favorably to reunion ceremonies, newspaper articles, travelers' accounts and political events that emphasized national rebirth. The underlying cause of the war was to reunify the country, and racial issues were remembered as either fueling the fire of division, or remembered as secondary, economic issues particularly devastating to the South.
The granting of black suffrage is an example David Blight presents of how reconciliation and reunion overwhelmed racial rights in public memory, even as it enacted those rights into law. Slavery was something everyone could forget, including North, South, blacks and whites, once equality for blacks was written into law (Blight, 2002, p. 63). By enacting laws, Americans could once and for all forget about the true cause of the war, focus entirely on reunion, and be free to remember the war via nostalgic memorialization.
Nonetheless, Americans continued to struggle over the true meaning of the war. David Blight notes that, "…Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. But the struggle to own the meaning of Memorial Day, in particular, and of Civil War memory in general, had only begun" (2002, p. 70).
Again and again in his book, Blight demonstrates how even such personalized experiences as soldiers' and blacks' memories were appropriated or reinterpreted by writers, politicians and other cultural figures to emphasize reunion over race as the cause of the war. Public symbols of the war such as the Gettysburg battlefield were also reinvoked by politicians and others again and again to shape public memory. As a result, for decades after the Civil War, the challenges and issues involved in racial equality were largely overlooked, minimalized, ignored and deliberately forgotten in public memory.
Source: Graduate way