The Election of 1896 and the Restructuring of Civil War Memory
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Civil War History 49.3 (2003) 254-280

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The Election of 1896 and the Restructuring of Civil War Memory

Patrick J. Kelly

The country is in greater danger than it has been since 1861. This is not merely our opinion, and is not merely a party opinion. It is the profound belief of patriotic men without distinction of party and in every section of the country.

New York Daily Tribune, Oct. 30, 1896

Gilded Age Republicans were notorious for attacking their Democratic opponents by waving the bloody shirt, a campaign tactic designed to activate the historical remembrance of the Civil War among Northern voters. Carefully selected, the wartime memories used by bloody-shirt Republicans became as familiar as the scriptures: GOP candidates reminded Northern voters of the party of Lincoln's firmness in the face of secession and portrayed the wartime Democratic party as treasonous, hijacked by Southern fire-eaters during the secession crisis, and closely associated with Northern Copperheads during the fighting itself. They also dramatically recalled the suffering of Union soldiers, especially prisoners-of-war, in the struggle to save the nation. Speaking directly to the North's enormous cohort of Union veterans, GOP candidates exhorted, "Vote as you shot." The tactic of waving the bloody shirt, always controversial within the GOP—many in the party thought its heated rhetoric needlessly inflamed sectional tensions between North and South—became even more contested in the 1880s, when the rhetorical focus shifted toward memories of the GOP's role in emancipation and in securing African Americans the right to vote. The last stand of bloody-shirt Republicans came in January 1891 with the defeat in Congress of the Force Bill, legislation designed to use Federal police power to enforce black suffrage in the South. By 1896, then, the day when Republican party candidates could marshal remembrance of the Civil War to win elections seemingly had become a thing of the past. 1 [End Page 254]

Yet a striking feature of the momentous 1896 presidential campaign was the role that Civil War-era memory played in the successful effort of William McKinley to defeat William Jennings Bryan. By the mid-1890s the GOP was led by a new generation intimately associated with the emergent corporate capitalist elite—most notably Mark Hanna, a successful Cleveland industrialist, McKinley's closest adviser and presidential campaign manger—and its political language had shifted away from the racial commitments of the previous generation of party leaders. Stunned by Bryan's nomination and alarmed by his appeals to both rural and working-class laborers, the 1896 Republican campaign crafted an electoral strategy that emphasized a renewed nationalism based on sectional reconciliation. Speaking to a group of Confederate veterans visiting his Canton home in October 1896, McKinley articulated the new Republican creed when he proclaimed, "Let us remember now and in all the future that we are Americans, and what is good for Ohio is good for Virginia." 2 Tragically, however, the GOP's shift from a sectional to a national strategy was predicated upon the party's acceptance of the racial apartheid that by the mid-1890s had taken firm hold in the South. Most tellingly, the 1896 Republican platform, for the first time since the end of the Civil War, omitted any demand that the Federal government use its police power to guarantee black suffrage in the South. This omission, the New York Times noted approvingly, was an important indication of McKinley's "sagacity . . . in depreciating sectional division and appealing to a common patriotism to protect the Nation's honor." 3 In 1896, then, GOP leaders, indifferent to the intensified attacks on the social and political rights of African Americans and eager to promote a patriotic nationalism based on the reconciliation of whites in the North and South, distanced the party from its historical role in revolutionizing U.S. race relations during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In restructuring the public remembrance of the Civil War to further its nationalist message, the McKinley campaign mobilized a potent but racially neutral historical memory, the...