African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
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Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books


On Race and Reunion

W. Fitzhugh Brundage
University of Florida

Note: Presented at the “
Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books” Symposium, Amherst College, October 27, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by the author and the Trustees of Amherst College. All rights reserved.

     Race and Reunion is an ambitious work that surveys the meanings attached to the Civil War across the half-century after Appomattox. David Blight ranges very widely, from private correspondence and obscure magazine articles to elaborate rituals of reconciliation. The range of attitudes sampled is equally broad, including both obscure and well known men and women of both races. The voices of nameless slaves and long forgotten veterans and would-be authors find a place is this book along side Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, and Jubal Early. Moreover, David straddles the Mason-Dixon line, reminding his readers that the collective memory of the war was never the particular obsession of any one section. In simplest terms, the books probes more deeply into the complexities of the national imagination about the American Civil War than any other book to date.

     Given the scale and ambition of the book, the breadth and quality of the research is exceptional. I have mined some of the same sources and therefore have an especially keen appreciation of David’s diligence. He has delved into newspapers, autobiographies, private correspondence, magazines, orations, government documents, and books. There is a praiseworthy purposefulness about the display of erudition in this manuscript. Only that which is needed is squeezed into the text. David’s prose and scholarship (which seem to me to be inseparable) also inspire profound admiration. In places, this manuscript achieves unusual eloquence. For example, David on Walt Whitman’s war memory, on the legacy of the Lost Cause mythology, and on the tragic national failure to acknowledge the memory of ex-slaves are nothing short of brilliant. Nowhere else have I seen these topics addressed more eloquently or cogently. And, in my opinion, Chapter Six is a tour de force. David’s treatment of the fad for soldiers’ reminiscences is lively, humourous, touching, and beautifully executed. Despite the possible pitfalls of succumbing to arid scholarly detachment or labored and maudlin hyperbole, which is all too common in writing on the Civil War, David instead achieves a level of poetic eloquence that the topic demands.

     This manuscript is at once sui generis and yet immediately familiar. There are some books with which it almost certainly will be compared, including Buck’s Road to Reunion, Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, Silber’s Romance of Reunion, and Foster’s Ghosts of the Confederacy. But it differs in essential regards from each of those works in that it is far broader in conception and far more inclusive in execution. Race and Reunion, admittedly, covers ground that has been surveyed by previous authors. The topic itself—how Americans remember the Civil War—has compelled writers from Edmund Wilson to C. Vann Woodward and Robert Penn Warren to take pen in hand. In particular, scholars have written on postwar fictional accounts of the antebellum South and the Civil War, on the various veterans’ groups that emerged in the North and South, and on the ascendance of virulently racist depictions of blacks in American popular culture after the war. But if David crosses familiar terrain, he follows a significantly different path than previous scholars. Unlike Paul Buck, for instance, David is acutely sensitive to the presence of race in all discussions of the Civil War, even those in which race is never mentioned. And unlike the authors of the various studies of promoters of sectional memories (e.g., of the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the Grand Army of the Republic), David is attuned to (and reveals) the symbiotic relationship and dialogue that developed between all participants in the debate over the war’s significance. Consequently, there is no extant work quite like Race and Reunion.

     This book marks the maturation of American “memory studies,” to which David contributed in important ways even before the publication of Race and Reunion. At the very least, it should find a place beside other works on war and memory, such as those by Paul Fussell, Jay Winter, and others. But, more important for American historians, Race and Reunion is the first book on the memory of the Civil War to discuss systematically the counter-memory of African Americans. I’d like to dwell on this subject briefly because of its importance for how we understand African Americans, white southerners, and the contested meaning of the Civil War.

     The consequences of our ignorance of the African American counter-memory for our understanding of the post-Civil War South are significant. First, we have ignored important expressions of black cultural resistance and social imagination during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Close attention to black memory extends and deepens our understanding of black protest against the tightening constrictions on their thought and behavior during the era. Second, as long as we ignore the black counter-memory we also will have an incomplete comprehension of the forces that shaped southern white memory. When white southerners systematically set about codifying their heroic narrative and filling the civic landscape with monuments to it, they were conscious not only of a challenge from northern counter-narratives, but also from southern blacks. For all of the efforts of southern whites to enshrine their historical understanding of slavery, the Civil War, and black capacities, recurring expressions of the black counter-memory made manifest an enduring and visible alternative. The crucial point is that the contest over the meaning of southern history was not just between the North and the South, but also between white and black southerners.

     The struggle over the memory of the Civil War was evident in the commemoration of the nation’s founding on the Fourth of July. Since the Civil War white southerners refrained from or openly repudiated any observation of the Fourth of July. But after the Spanish American War, which prompted frenzied nationalism even among former Confederates, southern white enthusiasm for the anniversary of national independence reawakened. Leading the efforts to revive white celebration of the Fourth in many parts of the South were the Daughters of the American Revolution and other patriotic societies. In Atlanta, for example, they prodded public officials to stage large patriotic festivities, including parades of white veterans and troops, which monopolized public spaces that blacks had previously used without challenge. As a consequence, black veterans and other groups who had celebrated the holiday for decades without any competition found themselves and their festivities pushed to the margins of the city landscape.

     An even more glaring example of the campaign by whites to suppress black memory occurred in Andersonville, Georgia. The annual Memorial Day ceremonies at the site of the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp and a national cemetery attracted thousands of black excursionists from across Georgia and Alabama. Crowds, estimated at more than 10,000 in number, gathered to picnic, listen to speeches, and to decorate cemetery graves. The festivities at this particularly problematic reminder of the Confederacy proved especially obnoxious to white Georgians. They claimed to be offended by the lawlessness that accompanied the holiday, but even law-abiding black celebrants provoked hostility. Beginning in 1899, local authorities, bolstered by “a posse of hand picked men” and state militia, intervened and stifled the celebrations altogether. Opponents of the black festivities, supported by the governor, pressured the railroads to stop running excursion trains with reduced fares for visitors attending the Andersonville ceremonies. The cessation of excursion fares and the presence of white police and troops had an immediate effect; within two years white news accounts praised the military for simultaneously keeping away “the disorderly colored element” while attracting “the increased attendance of the white people.” By 1905 blacks were virtually excluded from the Memorial Day exercises at Andersonville, which now became pretexts for celebrations of national reconciliation and of (white) Union and Confederate valor. Neither slavery nor black gallantry merited even cursory mention in these and subsequent ceremonies. Although David does not discuss these specific struggles, his account and analysis help us to place them within a larger contest over the memory of the war. Most important, he forces us to take seriously the challenge that African Americans posed to the neo-Confederate memory that zealous white southerners promoted and all too many white northerners embraced.

     In this regard and many others, David has defined the terrain that subsequent scholars, for the foreseeable future, will work within. Yet he has left some barely mapped terrain for the rest of us. And some scholars may even want to contest the terrain that he has covered. As should be clear, I greatly admire David’s book. Even so, I would like to take this opportunity to revisit two important elements of Race and Reunion and to press David for some further elaboration.

     The first topic is David’s definition of the memory that he studies. David never defines precisely what he has in mind when he refers to “memory” in the manuscript. He offers the best apparent definition for his particular interest when he describes memory as “attitudes toward the past.” This definition of memory is inclusive (ranging from the personal/private memory recorded in a diary to explicitly collective memory propagated before vast audiences) and elastic. David, of course, is well read in the considerable (and complex) scholarship on the varieties of memory. Given this expanding literature, which can and often does define memory in much narrower and more specific terms than “attitudes toward the past,” I’d like to encourage David to clarify for us his conception of memory.

     You may ask why I linger on this point of definition at all. I initially was quite confused by his conception of memory. Readers of Race and Reunion encounter, under the broad umbrella of “memory,” ideas recorded in private diaries (and presumably never intended for larger audiences), sentiments expressed in personal correspondence, opinions expressed in letters to editors, and orations delivered before public audiences. David, seemingly, is principally concerned about the attitudes themselves, wherever and however they were expressed. Other scholars of memory (and I include myself in this camp), in contrast, often are especially interested in the form and reception of memory as much as in its “content.” I don’t mean to suggest that David ignores matters of form. He is always clear about who expresses the attitudes and in what context. But the ideas, the attitudes about the past, are always in the foreground. For example, David always offers well-done capsule portraits of the orators, but he tells us little about the audiences who heard these orators or about the membership of the groups that propagated memory of the Civil War. These audiences remain largely faceless and indiscriminate. David has no reason to be apologetic or defensive about his particular emphasis upon “attitudes toward the past,” but he might take this opportunity to explain the rationale and benefits of his definition. In particular, I would like to hear more about how these different expressions of memory, intended as they were for various audiences, acquired influence. Or put more prosaically, how do we decide which memories matter the most, which memories exert the most influence, which memories are most easily translated into power?

     A final point on this matter. David’s book is centered on what might be called text-based memory. He is most comfortable using text sources (whether they be newspaper accounts of ceremonies or correspondence or printed orations). He makes little use of material culture in his analysis of historical memory, unlike such scholars as Karal Ann Marling, Kirk Savage, and Shawn Michelle Smith. He also does not discuss in any focused way representations of the Civil War in the visual arts. I claim no expertise about this subject but I do have the impression that a genre of art emerged that was intended to convey the nature of the struggle to civilians. These “epic” war paintings of the late nineteenth century mesh nicely with David’s brilliant argument about post-war memoirs and the commodification of the war. This subject area is one example of the terrain that David has left for subsequent scholars.

     Now, on to my second request for elaboration. With regards to the confluence of race and memory, David has no peer. No scholar has matched his ear for the codewords of race in American memory. But David seems less attuned to the language of gender. It does, I readily concede, emerge in places in Race and Reunion. For example, especially in Chapter Six David refers to themes of “manliness” and to “muscular” addresses which seem self-evidently related to issues of gender. And the chapter on the “Lost Cause” acknowledges that issues related to gender informed the Confederate tradition. But elsewhere David is surprisingly silent about gender. Certainly, scholars of the local color school of fiction (including many others beside Nina Silber) and historians of postbellum black organizations (ranging from Glenda Gilmore and James Campbell to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Elsa Barkley Brown) have stressed the centrality of gender to black intra-racial dynamics. Moreover, in a book filled with new and fresh voices, I was struck by the surprising absence of some seemingly obvious female voices.

     Shouldn’t Anna Cooper find a place somewhere in this book? After all, she has fascinating things to say about black women and the memory of slavery and white violence. In A Voice of the South, published in 1892, Cooper explicitly set about challenging the ascendent white recalled past, characterized by Anglo-Saxon triumphalism. She mocked the efforts of America’s white elites to groom their pedigrees. She explained, “The South represented blood—not red blood, but blue blood.” “The South,” she conceded, “had neither gold nor silver, but she had blood; and she paraded it, with such gusto that the substantial little Puritan maidens of the North, who had been making bread and canning currants and not thinking of blood the least bit, began to hunt up the records of the Mayflower.” In the process, Cooper complains, white northerners and southerners embraced a program of interregional racial superiority. Critiquing such efforts, Cooper raged, “America for Americans! This is the white man’s country! The Chinese must go, shrieks the exclusionist. Exclude the Italians! Colonize the blacks in Mexico or deport them to Africa. Lynch, suppress, drive out, kill out! America for Americans! Who are Americans? Comes rolling back from ten million throats. . . . Who are the homefolks and who are the strengers? Who are the absolute and original tenants in fee-simple?” Cooper even went so far as to suggest that if a place was to be marked as the site of the original American identity it should be Jamestown, where African Americans landed in 1619, one year before the Mayflower reached New England.

     In all fairness to David, Cooper’s rant against the white version of American history did not focus exclusively or even largely on the Civil War. Yet there still is a connection because she was complaining about the denigration of a larger, broader more inclusive vision of American identity at a time when white patriotic and hereditary societies were laboring to overcome the divisions created by the Civil War. If she was not focused on the Civil War per se, she nevertheless was bitterly denouncing the rapproachment, the symbolic reunification, that David is so interested in. And she was doing it in a manner that called into question that fantasy of White Americanness in the face of a long history of sexual exploitation and interracial mixing. In short, she proposed a much more complicated notion of race and a much more complex vision of reunion than did her white contemporaries.

     Beyond Cooper, there also is the memory work of black club women. Black women were the institutional counterparts (so to speak) of the UDC who took an interest in matters past, along with social reform. It is important to appreciate the challenge that black women faced when they tried to find there place in the saga of the Civil War. Whereas the GAR provided a forum for black men to celebrate their service to the community and the Republic, black women had no comparable outlet. But, like white southern women who used the UDC to commemorate their record of sacrifice on behalf of the Confederacy, black women used the NACW and their local literary and social clubs to promote their version of the past. As Joan Johnson has demonstrated in her study of South Carolina, black club women rejected the Lost Cause history of the UDC and offered a distinctive history of the South. In 1906, for example, Mary Church Terrell, president of the NACW, published a caustic article in which she concluded that white southerners doomed their region to backwardness because of their unwillingness to forget the Civil War and to take down symbolically the Confederate flag.

     What is notable about these activities, these expressions of black memory, is the critique that they posed to the ascendant white memory and black male memory. The critique of white memory is clear, but the struggle over memory within the black community remains only incompletely understood. At the core of the contested memory within the black community was anxiety about the problem of black manhood. Manhood had surfaced in the middle of the nineteenth century as one of the preoccupations of American culture. As headlong economic and social transformations eroded older notions of masculinity, a new conception began to emerge, defining manhood in terms of individual enterprise, competitive prowess, and power over others. Unlike previous conceptions of manhood, this status was theoretically open to all free men, which ensured that those who aspired to it remained perpetually subject to nagging insecurity. By no means was this uncertainty about manhood confined to white men. Indeed, masculine insecurity was amplified among blacks, who bore the stigma both of violated manhood during slavery and of the continuing reality of the sexual exploitation of black women by white men. Moreover, American popular culture generated seemingly limitless emasculating stereotypes of black men. These threats were what Theophilus Gould Steward had in mind when he called for a strenuous but refined black masculinity to provide a “proper shelter for a pure and glorious womanhood.” Through a vigorous assertion of manhood, black men would at once elevate themselves and redeem the women of their race. Motivated by such anxieties about black masculinity, many blacks during the late nineteenth century began to reinterpret the whole history of the race in an effort to compile a cavalcade of heroic black manhood.

     Such sentiments obviously did not bode well for black women’s active and conspicuous participation in memory work. Some black women, of course, balked at the preoccupation with black manliness and the subordinate role assigned to them within conventional views of black progress. They warned that racial uplift was impossible without an improvement in the status of black women. Anna Cooper complained that it was “absurd to quote statistics showing the Negro’s bank account and rent rolls, to point to the hundreds of newspapers edited by colored men and lists of lawyers, doctors, professors,” while black women remained exploited and exposed to harm. She and other black club women tired of the propensity to celebrate the black man as the beacon of progress that was so marked in black commemorative celebrations and “race histories.” Only the black woman, she insisted, “in the quiet, undisputed dignity” of her womanhood, could represent the black race.

     This overly brief discussion of black women and black memory is intended to emphasize a point that David has made so convincingly in Race and Reunion: the meaning of the Civil War was up for grabs in the fifty years after Appomattox and many members of American society recognized the import of the contest over that meaning. White northerners struggled with white southerners to assign meaning to the war. White southerners vied with black southerners. White southerners contended amongst themselves. But so did black southerners. And in all of these struggles, including those within the black community, class, race, and gender identities were in play. Race and Reunion advances our understanding of these struggles greatly, but there is still important work to be done, especially with regards to the role of gender.

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