- Editor’s Note
One trend captivating the historical profession has been the study of collective memory as a force in contemporary issues. History—or at least a certain interpretation of events—has been used in many ways: to find comfort and a sense of belonging, to validate particular behavior or beliefs, or to justify regimes and their attendant political and social orders. Scholars of the Civil War have been especially receptive to how a population uses the past to achieve goals in the present. How Americans remembered the key events of their Civil War played a central role in the reconstruction of the nation. A selective memory of the past was used to promote reconciliation between white Northerners and Southerners. Similarly, eliminating from collective memory the contributions of African Americans to that same war—and the central role of slavery in the coming of the conflict—allowed white Americans to ignore the more troublesome causes that made the war less romantic and less appealing.
The articles in this special issue contribute to our understanding of the role of memory in rebuilding the nation. Funerals of key figures often become ceremonies that not only honor an important figure, but also offer occasions for declaring allegiances to a nation-state and defining the character of a country. Michael A. Ross shows how members of the Conservative party in New Orleans seized upon the death of Robert E. Lee to announce a political position that would help them maintain white supremacy and home rule. Next, Joan Waugh resurrects the importance of the funeral of Ulysses S. Grant to former Confederates who tried to promote reconciliation between the sections. The final two articles examine aspects of racial solidarity and racism. Andre Fleche argues that there was more solidarity between black and white veterans than current scholarship admits. While they had racial differences, the two groups shared a common view of what the war had achieved. W. Scott Poole examines how abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson tried to hold onto the emancipationist vision of the war in the face of growing cynicism about the federal government in the early twentieth century.
Taken as a whole, the articles in this issue both reaffirm the value in considering how people use the past and complicate the categories by which we have understood this phenomenon. Some Southerners wanted reconciliation as part of a political gain, especially if it meant fortifying their positions as the rulers or their section. Some Northerners fought a rearguard action to [End Page 133] preserve the centrality of emancipation to the Civil War, even if they increasingly became voices shouting into the wind. Yet it is significant that these voices existed. And we owe a debt to these authors for helping the positions to be heard once again.