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Race and Reunion Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Race and Reunion by David W. Blight.
In his historical non-fiction book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), American historian and author David W. Blight argues that in the four decades following the Civil War, the dominant narrative that emerged of the war was not one of fighting to end the horrors of slavery and to ensure freedom for all Americans. Rather, in America’s collective memory, the war took shape as a conflict between two armies full of brave soldiers on both sides fighting for what they believed. While this reconciliation may have resulted in greater solidarity among white Americans, the author argues that it obscured and even threatened to negate the narrative of black emancipation over which the Civil War was really fought. Blight was awarded the Bancroft Prize for the year’s best book about American history for Race and Reunion.
One of the starkest examples of this erasure of black Americans from the Civil War narrative comes from Blight’s discussion of so-called “Decoration Days.” Beginning on May 1, 1865, ex-slaves and supporters of the abolitionist cause organized days of remembrance to honor the fallen Union soldiers—black and white alike—who died fighting for the cause of black emancipation. Within a couple of years, Decoration Day events spread throughout the country, celebrating the citizenship and freedom now shared by all Americans thanks to the sacrifices of Union Army soldiers and other individuals fighting for the abolitionist cause.
However, by the 1880s, as the hopes of Reconstruction gave way to the bleak reality of the Jim Crow era, Decoration Day became less a celebration of black emancipation and shared citizenship and more a solemn, reconciliatory event honoring the fallen white soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy. And while white Southerners certainly have every right to preserve the memory of their fallen friends and relatives who fought for the Confederacy, the author explains how Decoration Day was slowly co-opted to serve the purposes of reconciliation between whites, as opposed to its original intent. Eventually, Decoration Day came to be known as “Memorial Day,” which is still celebrated every year by Americans as a day of remembrance for all fallen soldiers of U.S. conflicts. Few are even aware of its original roots as a celebration of fallen Union Army soldiers fighting for the specific cause of emancipation against Confederate atrocities.
Meanwhile, the author writes, black Americans were given conflicting perspectives on how best to remember—or, alternatively, forget—the real causes and consequences of the Civil War. For many years, Frederick Douglass made sure to share his and others’ stories of surviving the horrors of slavery in order to preserve the memory of why the Union cause was worthy and just. His spiritual successor, W.E.B. DuBois, also worked hard to correct narratives that denied African-Americans a place in U.S. history. Other black leaders, like Booker T. Washington, argued that African-Americans would be best served in an immediate and practical sense by forgetting the horrors of slavery and forgiving its perpetrators. In short, Washington encouraged black Americans to participate in the emergent narratives of post-Civil War reconciliation to avoid being crushed by them.
One of the most powerful of these narratives, according to the author, is the so-called “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” Rather than painting the Confederacy as an insurgency group rebelling against the federal government to preserve the atrocities of slavery, the Lost Cause movement fashioned a plainly false narrative depicting the Antebellum South in a much more virtuous light. To adherents of the Lost Cause ideology, the Confederacy fought not to preserve slavery but to preserve the “Southern way of life” in the face of “Northern aggression,” and to exercise “states’ rights” against a tyrannical federal government. This narrative, the author argues, was embraced not only in the South, but in the pages of popular periodicals based in the North, like Century Magazine which published vivid accounts of soldiers and generals on both sides of the Civil War but provided very little space for accounts of slavery. Meanwhile, Confederate veterans groups cleverly celebrated the courage of their Union Army counterparts while divorcing their opponents’ bravery from any abolitionist ideology. In return, Union Army veterans celebrated the bravery of their Southern counterparts until the wave of white reconciliation white-washed many more accurate Civil War narratives in America’s collective memory.
Despite this widespread erasure of emancipation from the memory of the Civil War, the author highlights numerous instances of resistance against this trend among black Americans and a number of Northern whites. In addition to the aforementioned work by W.E.B. DuBois, the author discusses one Union soldier who characterized the Civil War as “a death grapple between right and wrong,” adding that the Confederacy’s treason should be “so punished … that it might never come to be eulogized as true loyalty.” Of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, the author has a mixed view. On one hand, many of Grant’s speeches and writings “sentimentalized” white reconciliation. On the other, Grant’s memoirs offered an unvarnished view of the Confederate cause, calling it “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
At a time when many Americans still possess a flawed understanding of the causes behind the Civil War, Race and Reunion offers a valuable account of how those false narratives came to be.