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Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books


The Cost of Remembrance: Reflections on David Blight’s Race and Reunion

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham
Harvard University

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.

     In her short story, “The Namesake,” Willa Cather uses the portrait of a young Civil War soldier to renew emotions of being from and belonging to America on the part of students abroad in Paris and enamored of the city’s international milieu. The “handsome lad” in uniform had been killed in the war decades earlier, but his “energy” and “gallantry” lived on in the portrait and in the memory of the nephew who bore his name. The “Namesake,” published in 1907, tells of home-goings, of discovering one’s own self in others’ lives long gone—the past ever present with us. “I felt the pull of race and blood and kindred,” the nephew confides in the students, “and felt beating within me things that had not begun with me.”1 Like Cather’s “Namesake,” David Blight has told a story that did not begin with us, but continues to haunt American memory. Race and Reunion is a rich and elegantly written book about Civil War memory, specifically the construction of memory in complex and conflicting forms over a half century.

     Blight’s intellectual contribution is a great one, which is all the more impressive given the already extensive work on memory and the absolutely overwhelming amount of literature on the Civil War. He offers no abstract framework such as the social construction of memory and gives no explication of the relation of memory to the brain, as does David Thelen, in a pathbreaking study. He attempts no general classification of memory distortion, as does Michael Kammen. Nor does he introduce a sophisticated theoretical analysis of memory’s relation to history, as does Dominick LaCapra.2 Yet every page of Race and Reunion demonstrates Blight’s consciousness, indeed his mastery of the recent scholarship on memory. In Race and Reunion we see collective memory and private memory, official memory and vernacular memory, memory as ritual and as physical monument. Blight’s goal is straightforward and yet profound: to disclose at what cost Americans came together to understand and remember the war that split our nation apart, the war that held the promise of a regenerative spirit—a Second American Revolution—and the collective failure to keep that promise. Blight tells us that “if Du Bois was at all correct in his famous 1903 assertion that ‘the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,’ then we can begin to see how the problems of ‘race’ and ‘reunion’ were trapped in a tragic, mutual dependence.”3

     It is interesting that Blight weaves poetry throughout his narrative. This is particularly effective since Blight’s own writing conveys a poetic quality. His treatment of Walt Whitman, in whom he sees both strengths and limitations, is stunning. At times it seems as though Whitman himself were the narrator, leading us to the campsites and hospitals, where through his eyes we, too, find “authentic tragedy” amidst the amputees, the dying, and those with wounds “full of worms—some all swelled and inflamed.” I am reminded of George Santayana’s remarks about Whitman in 1911. Santayana, too, expressed criticism of Whitman, but he found him refreshing against a staid, genteel, and tradition-bound culture. Santayana writes: “In Walt Whitman democracy is carried into psychology and morals. The various sights, moods, and emotions are given each one vote; they are declared to be all free and equal, and the innumerable commonplace moments of life are suffered to speak like the others. Those moments formerly reputed great are not excluded, but they are made to march in the ranks with their companions-plain foot-soldiers and servants of the hour.”4

     I quote this passage from Santayana precisely because the words capture the tone of Race and Reunion. The book counters romantic and sentimental versions of the Civil War, thus going against the grain of what Blight calls “the mother lode of nostalgia for antimodernists and military buffs.” Blight pays attention to everything: heroism and betrayal; the poetry of Walt Whitman and the slaughter and destruction found in war’s darkest side; legendary abolitionists and nameless ex-slaves; great yet complex generals (I loved his poignant reading of Ulysses Grant) and ordinary, battle-weary soldiers, even prisoners. In addition there are several ideological positions to reckon with: the reconciliationists who sought to extend the olive branch and extol the honor of both sides; the white supremacists who defeated Reconstruction, resurrected the Lost Cause and reigned over the American imagination; and the emancipationists who believed that the abolition of slavery was at the heart of the Civil War and struggled valiantly against insurmountable odds for the true meaning of freedom. David Blight argues that “in the end this is a story of how the forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture, how the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.”5 However, Blight’s story is far more complicated than a tale of three visions, for each assumes a variety of permutations with subtle and not so subtle differences. Positions do not fall neatly under North versus South, or black versus white. For example, generational differences in a rapidly modernizing society affected both blacks and whites. Likewise the black community stood divided over the remembrance of slavery and the war. The chapter on black memory and progress renders an exceptionally nuanced analysis of some blacks’ assertive demand for equality under law and other blacks’ call for license to forget the war. This chapter covers generational conflict, the religious-secular divide, and fundamental ideological differences over whether to look back to lessons learned from the crucible of slavery or to look forward to material advancement and unquestioned faith in progress. Amidst the growing disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching of the 1890s, the dilemma of remembering and forgetting was too unsettling for easy, if any resolution. In riveting language Blight posits: “How to look back, and then forward, with pride and confidence? How to tell the tale that they too had marched with Grant, stormed Fort Wagner, and lurched toward freedom through fear and hardship? Indeed how to understand and declare their history in the Jim Crow South? When the children of Israel assembled their memorial stones, they too were obedient and reluctant in the face of God’s commands, inspired and frightened by their faith, their heroism, and their history.”6

     Blight’s elegant language appears as well in his discussion of the fraternalism of both war and reconciliation. In the chapter “Soldiers’ Faith,” the discourse of manhood rights constitutes the subtext of all North-South reunions. This gendered discourse formed the core of a reconciliation that exalted manliness and honor, while at the same time demanding that black men be called by the title “boy”—denied manhood suffrage in the South and Jim Crowed out of Blue-Gray commemorative celebrations, except as menial workers. Blight is careful to call attention to the hypocrisy and contradictions, but he is also careful to take seriously the Civil War veterans’ concern that the younger generation be instructed to safeguard the heroic ideals of a “backward glancing faith,” the ideals of manliness, selfless duty to country, sacrificial honor, and noble callings. In the 1890s, at a time of heightened materialism and rapid economic and technological change, the memory of heroism required more, or so it seemed, than younger generations were willing to give. The pages devoted to Henry Lee Higginson’s gift of Soldiers’ Field to Harvard University in 1890 and the passages devoted to the “muscular and eloquent address,” of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to the Harvard Graduating Class in 1895 are majestic, arguably the most moving passages in the entire book.

    I was impressed with the level of detail in descriptions of soldiers’ experiences and memories. This is true for both white and black soldiers. Blight quotes Thomas Wester, a black soldier who wrote in 1864: “We are fighting as hard to restore the Union as the white man is. Why then should we not have equal rights?” I must admit that I wanted to hear more voices like Wester’s in Race and Reunion. The memory of black soldiers’ valor and struggle, of their bloodshed and losses, and most of all their pride of victory translated into assertive demands for full equality, particularly the vote. Blight provides insightful and extensive commentary on the debate over black voting rights immediately following the Civil War, but his commentary focuses primarily on the white friends and foes of black suffrage. His examples of black soldiers’ demands are too few in number. Blight recognizes that “black spokesmen as well could wave the bloody shirt,” and he highlights the Christian Recorder, the periodical of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which rallied black men to vote in remembrance of “their brothers’ lifeless and mutilated bodies piled a hundred deep upon the body of their brave and noble leader before the walls of bloody Wagner.” However, I believe that Race and Reunion would have benefited from a longer, tighter section devoted to the explicit connection between black military valor and the vote.

    Black soldiers used words like “deserve” and “earned” in speaking of rights. In the work of Eric Foner, Philip Foner, William Gillette, and Herbert Aptheker, we see some of this language.7 Frederick Douglass proclaimed: “[L]et the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” On another occasion Douglass wrote: “It is dangerous to deny any class of people the right to vote. But the black man deserves the right to vote for what he has done, to aid in suppressing the rebellion both by fighting and by assisting the Federal soldier wherever he was found. He deserves to vote because his services may be needed again.” A group called the Israel Lyceum sent a petition to the Thirty-eighth Congress stating: “In the name of our fathers, brothers, and sons now breathing the red flame of war on the battlefield, in defense of a common country and a common civilization . . . we must respectfully ask you to extend to us the sacred rights and privileges of the elective franchise in all national and local affairs.” African-Americans from the District of Columbia also presented their case by praising the loyalty and patriotism of the city’s two black regiments: “They have responded voluntarily and with alacrity, ‘pay or no pay, bounty or no bounty, promotion or no promotion’.”

    Indeed white congressman had early on recognized the potential for such demands for equality when they debated the use of black troops in 1862. “If you make him the instrument by which your battles are fought, the means by which your victories are won,” stated a congressman from Ohio, “you must treat him as a victor is entitled to be treated, with all decent and becoming respect.” In the early months after the war, the truth of such words resounded throughout black communities. African Americans did not passively observe the growing tug-of-war between President Johnson and Congress over Reconstruction and their own political fate. Frederick Douglass and many others perceived the black military experience as their ticket to full citizenship. Blacks mobilized in mass meetings in such cities as Richmond, Petersburg, and Alexandria, Virginia; Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi; Nashville, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and in Washington, D.C. Often they sent their appeals to Congress. A meeting of North Carolina blacks captured the demand for citizenship:

It seems to us that men who are willing on the field of danger to carry the muskets of Republics, in the days of Peace ought to be permitted to carry its ballots; and certainly we cannot understand the justice of denying the elective franchise to men who have been fighting for the country, while it is given to men who have just returned from four years of fighting against it.

    Although Race and Reunion is replete with gendered discourses of manhood, there is too little articulation of women’s memories. Notwithstanding Blight’s attention to the Daughters of the Confederacy, a unique period of interracial sisterhood between white Christian women in the North and black Christian women in the South existed in the 1880s and 1890s. I have argued in my book Righteous Discontent that the two groups of women attempted to keep the memory of both Emancipation and the Civil War alive. This memory formed a central part of their motivation to build schools in the South, to support black women students, to encourage dialogue through actual visits and in published and unpublished writings, and to educate and socialize children in the belief of racial equality. White and black Baptist women constituted a readership that kept abreast of activities in the South, Northeast, and Midwest by means of women’s magazines. Between 1885 and 1887 the Home Mission Echo, published by women in New England, presented a series of questions for group discussion. The questions were designed to teach about the history of slavery, antislavery leaders and abolitionism, the slave trade, and current social conditions in black communities. It is in the magazine Tidings, published by white Baptist women in the mid-west, that readers learned of black Mississippians’ commemoration of the Civil War dead on May 30, 1892. Amelia Scott, a black missionary in Mississippi, shared her feelings of reverence on that day, as she stood in the “city of the dead” and saw American flags at the head of sixteen thousand graves—“the graves they died to save.” In 1892, when Scott’s report was published, Tidings enjoyed a circulation of 11,000 issues monthly. Some white northern women recalled the role of black soldiers in the Civil War, portending their future use. For example, in the Home Mission Echo in 1887, white educator Rachel Mather wrote from South Carolina to her sisters in New England in a tone that combined xenophobia with sincere respect for black soldiers: “We have needed them in the history of our country; we may need them yet again. Two hundred thousand colored soldiers . . . served faithfully in the war of the Rebellion. Unlike other foreigners among us, they are a loyal people, and may be counted upon as true to the government that enfranchised them. Policy and papacy cannot share their allegiance.”8

     I found Blight’s discussion of the reminiscence industry especially compelling. He tells us that the idea of the Lost Cause skillfully and sweepingly transformed Confederate memory into a “revival Crusade” that rendered the Old South a “lost racial utopia” of orderly black white relations. The “Lost Cause on display,” as Blight describes the fashioning and commercialization of white southern memory, assumed a plethora of forms: the plantation stories of Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris; monuments to Confederate heroes and mammy memorials for faithful slaves; the sale and display of Confederate flags; organizations such as the Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veteran; the production of the Confederate Veteran magazine, Thomas Dixon’s novel The Leopards Spots, and D. W. Griffith’s epic film Birth of a Nation. Blight refers to the tributes to faithful slaves by former masters, dialect poems in the voices of loyal slaves, festivals called “Old Plantation Days,” minstrel performances, and published and unpublished family memoirs-all constitutive of a deeply rooted belief in the “faithful slave.” Blight is ever ready to critique the lingering Old South assumptions: “In this flood of testimony about faithful blacks at the heart of Civil War memory, history gives way completely to mythology.” He references the many slaves who escaped to contraband camps, joined the Union military forces, and engaged in countless prosaic forms of resistance. In a paper presented to the American Historical Association in 1910 and published later that year as “Reconstruction and Its Benefits” in the American Historical Review, W. E. B. Du Bois sought to give voice to this black perspective by championing the freedpeople’s quest for equality. However his perspective held little sway against the dominant interpretation of Reconstruction as a tragic era. Two decades later Du Bois would call America’s selective memory, the “propaganda of history” and condemn the racist interpretations that filled the pages of children’s schoolbooks and posed as Truths within academia.9

     Although Blight certainly provides an insightful analysis of the role of historians in the construction of a national memory of reconciliation, I wish he had linked the politics of reunion to the Americanization of immigrants. As the number of immigrants rose exponentially between 1880 and the outbreak of World War I, education and socialization became the clarion call of reformers who sought to imbue the huddled masses from southern and eastern Europe with American ideals and attachments. Countering active, vociferous nativism, the reformers rode the tide of social change and found a niche in the memory business through the proliferation of museums of Americana, commemorative parades, celebrations and expositions, and history books. These activities, according to Michael Kammen, “tended to glorify the national past, to praise the conservative forces of ordered liberty, and to omit those problematic aspects of American history involving Native Americans, African-Americans and dissenters.”10

     Perhaps it is because Blight does not focus on memory’s role in the Americanization of immigrants, that he misses an opportunity to explore how the reminiscence industry plied its wares to working-class whites. The commodificiation of the Lost Cause, buoyed as it was by mass production and advertising, played a significant role in the psychological conditioning of people who had little if no prior knowledge of America. For the laboring masses, who came for the most part tabula rasa in regard to America’s tortured history of race relations, the memory of reconciliation, in conjunction with the mythology of the Lost Cause formed the warp and weft of the Americanization project. On subliminal, deeply subconscious levels, the newly arrived foreigners soon found themselves consuming and being consumed by the memory of mammy and Uncle Mose—plantation stock characters, whose smiling faces appeared on countless inexpensive products of daily use. Kenneth Goings writes: “These objects served a political interest by reinforcing the Old South/New South myth, making sectional reconciliation that much more palatable.”11 From soap to postcards, from pancake mix to tobacco tins, and from dolls to fly swatters, race was packaged in items of daily use. Today we pay considerable money for such memorabilia, made of cloth, paper, ceramic, and plastic—cheaply produced items that were sold in variety stores all across America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his fascinating article on the symbols of slavery in material culture, Steven C. Dubin argues that very few of these items were originally decorative in purpose. Rather they had a functional use, often with violent implications. For example, a common image on postcards was that of black children being chased or eaten by an alligator. Foreigners who could barely speak English, much less read it, joined together with American-born whites in the mutual, unquestioning utility of objects that “naturalized” a slavish, inferior image. Through racialized commodities of everyday use, ethnic differences melded together in white superiority over blackness. Nothing could have been more effective in excising race from reunion. Dubin posits:

There is a totem-like quality to many of these items but with a curious twist. . . . They do not provide a symbolic embodiment of the vital characteristics of the community to be venerated but instead furnish a common representation of the other. Solidarity could be enhanced through the convenient identification of who was beyond important social boundaries, and domination thereby shored up.12

    I’d like to conclude by sharing a private memory stirred by David Blight’s Race and Reunion. I refer to my own personal reflections upon the Civil War’s meaning to me and my family. My first real knowledge of the Civil War came by introduction to the role of black soldiers in the Union Army. I was about ten years old when I stumbled upon a book in my father’s study—Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870). The book was autographed with a hand-written inscription to my grandfather. I was mesmerized by the idea that this person, whose signature crossed boldly over the title page, was the very man who led the troops. Indeed the book took on a life of its own, simply because of the handwritten name and the words of regard. I wanted to know who Colonel Higginson was, what the black soldiers were fighting for, and how my grandfather came to possess this book. Discovering the book was a defining moment for me, because it provided the opportunity for my father to teach me about the war and myself. For my father, a historian who worked with Carter G. Woodson, the book reaffirmed a collective memory of valor denied in the great majority of textbooks. Nearly two hundred thousand black soldiers fought on the Union side, my father emphasized to me. They had won their own hard-fought freedom. They were decisive to Union victory. My father also told me that my grandfather, born a slave in Richmond, Virginia in 1851, gained his freedom as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. My grandfather’s father, a man named Albert Brooks (the same as my father’s name), had served on the grand jury to try Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis never came to trial; he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. However, my only visual knowledge of my great-grandfather comes from the photograph of him sitting proudly among the black and white members of the grand jury in the Richmond courthouse.13

     I share my story in a spirit similar to Willa Cather’s “Namesake,” in which the nephew of the slain soldier admits: “It was because this story was ever present with me, because I was unable to shake it off, that I began to read such books as my grandfather had collected upon the Civil War.” David Blight’s Race and Reunion keeps the Civil War before us. Unable to shake it off, some of us hold to the glory of bygone valor and some of us hold to the promise of equality yet to be fulfilled.


     1. Cather writes of the image of the boy: “It was the portrait of a very handsome lad in uniform, standing beside a charger impossibly rearing. Not only in his radiant countenance and flashing eyes, but in every line of his young body there was an energy, a gallantry, a joy of life, that arrested and challenged one.” In the story, the Italian-born sculptor Lyonel Hartwell reveals the subject of the portrait to be his uncle. He shares with the students his search for memories of his uncle and the power of those memories to inspire his art. Willa Cather, “The Namesake,” in Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction 1892–1912, ed. Virginia Faulkner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), 139, 144. [return to text]

     2. David Thelen, “Memory and American History,” Journal of American History 75 (March 1989):1117–29. Michael Kammen, “Some Patterns and Meanings of Memory Distortion in American History,” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 329–45; Dominick LaCapra, History and Memory After Auschwitz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998). [return to text]

     3. David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 5. [return to text]

     4. George Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition,” in Selected Critical Writings of George Santayana, vol. 2, ed. Norman Henfrey (London: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 97–98. [return to text]

     5. Blight, Race and Reunion, 2. [return to text]

     6. Ibid., 337. [return to text]

     7. The quoted testimony regarding black soldiers and voting rights comes from the following sources: Philip S. Foner, ed., The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 4 (New York: International Publishers, 1955), 158, 167, 509; William Gillette, The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 40, 87–88, 162; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 278–79; Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States (New York: Citadel Press, 1951), 509–10. [return to text]

     8. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 114. [return to text]

     9. W. E. B. Du Bois, “Reconstruction and its Benefits,” American Historical Review (1910): 781–799; Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (New York: Russell & Russell, 1935), 711–729; and David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963 (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2000), 351. [return to text]

     10. Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 248. [return to text]

     11. Kenneth W. Goings, Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 12–14. [return to text]

     12.Steven C. Dubin, “Symbolic Slavery: Black Representations in Popular Culture,” Social Problems 34 (April 1987): 132. [return to text]

     13. The photograph of the grand jury appears in Marie Tyler-McGraw, At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia and Its People (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). [return to text]

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