- Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865–1914
In Cities of the Dead, William Blair reminds us that memorial celebrations in the post–Civil War South were much more than simple affairs of remembrance. Rather, he argues, parades, speeches, and the decoration of graves were fundamentally political events, even as those political meanings changed with the decades. This [End Page 57] was equally true for both ex-Confederates, who used Decoration Day ceremonies to unify whites, and African Americans, whose Emancipation Day celebrations repeatedly called for full black political participation.
Blair traces the political conflicts that accompanied white Southern memorial efforts. Ex-Confederate men and women used Decoration days as a means to keep the memory of the Confederacy alive and as a way to express resentment of Reconstruction, while simultaneously professing loyalty to the Union. What resulted, particularly during Radical Reconstruction, was a contest over the control of public space with Southern whites wanting full control over memorial activities and Republicans unwilling to grant it. With the end of Reconstruction came a shift in Confederate memorialization: a new emphasis on the contributions of the common soldier, which neatly dovetailed with Democratic party ambitions. In addition, this focus on ordinary soldiers allowed white Southerners to argue that in their memorial efforts they were asking only for equal, not special, treatment, and sped the path toward sectional reunion. Even in reunion, however, as Blair points out in his final chapter on Arlington National Cemetery, politics and sectionalism continued to intrude.
One of the strengths of this book is the way that Blair explores white and African American memorialization efforts in tandem, and his argument about the importance of politics is especially powerful when he looks at Emancipation Day celebrations. While the date may have varied—some places celebrated in September, some in January, some in April, some in June—the ways in which African Americans used parades and speeches to make their case for full political citizenship did not. By focusing specifically on the political content of these festivals, Blair is able to unpack the complexities of the relationship between African Americans and the Republican party. He deftly illuminates the ways that African Americans had their own political agendas and desires, which did not always dovetail with those of the national Republican party. With the coming of disfranchisement (coinciding with the reunification of white Northerners and Southerners), Emancipation days lost much of their political salience, though they continued to function as presentations of civic virtue.
While Cities of the Dead performs a useful function in illuminating the political content of these commemorations, it ultimately suffers from its narrow focus. The past several years have seen a veritable parade of studies of memory and commemoration in post–Civil War America. Blair therefore chose to focus specifically on politics, eschewing "the construction of memory . . . religious symbolism . . . statuary, other material culture, battlefield preservation, veterans reunions, historical societies, or any mechanism beyond the invention of traditions" [End Page 58] (x). Certainly, the politics of commemoration were important, and have sometimes been overlooked, and Blair does an excellent job of tracing the subtleties of political discourse. He also integrates the role of women, both white and black, into his argument, tracing their struggles to remain part of these ceremonial occasions. But by looking only at politics, and almost exclusively at Emancipation and Decoration days, Blair excludes much of the richness from his story. His argument is convincing to the point of seeming repetitive, and it would have benefited considerably from exploring other facets of these commemorations.
A lesser, but not insignificant issue comes from the book's focus on Virginia, with only a few examples from South Carolina and Louisiana. Remembrance in Virginia, and especially in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, seems to have been especially contested, and one is left wondering how these battles might have played out across the region as a whole. Criticisms aside, however, this book...