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Reviews in American History 29.4 (2001) 550-558

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Recovered Memory of the Civil War

Michael Vorenberg

David W. Blight. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. 512 pp. Illustrations, photographs, notes, and index. $31.50.

In his stirring, sorrowful conclusion to Black Reconstruction in America of 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois denounced the "propaganda of history" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that dehumanized black Americans in an effort to reunite a country divided by the Civil War. "In propaganda against the Negro since emancipation in this land," Du Bois lamented, "we face one of the most stupendous efforts the world ever saw to discredit human beings, an effort involving universities, history, science, social life and religion." 1 What must Du Bois have felt only two years after the publication of his book when Paul H. Buck, a historian at Du Bois's alma mater of Harvard, published The Road to Reunion? That volume praised the "speedy reconciliation" between North and South; declared that "a union of sentiment based upon integrated interests had become a fact"; accepted the supposed inferiority of black Americans as a source of an insoluble "race problem"; and commended Americans, North and South, for putting the race issue aside in their admirable quest for national reconciliation. 2 Buck's book won the Pulitzer Prize. Du Bois's book, though well received, would not get its rightful due from historians for another generation. 3 For the past thirty years or so, toilers in the field of Reconstruction, most notable among them Eric Foner, have helped raise Du Bois to the historians' pantheon while laying Buck and his kind to ground. Now, with the publication of David W. Blight's Race and Reunion, which makes contest rather than consensus the theme of Civil War memory, and puts race back at the center of the story of reunion, we can close the grave for good on Buck.

More than a mere rebuttal to Road to Reunion, Race and Reunion is the most moving meditation on Civil War memory since Robert Penn Warren's The Legacy of the Civil War (1961). It is also a gripping read. Wartime memories do not drift softly past one another in this book; they clash and grapple like wartime combatants, leaving a permanent mark on culture and society. Blight exposes memory for what it was and what it can be: an instrument of power. [End Page 550]

The study of memory, once the province of literary scholars such as Edmund Wilson, Daniel Aaron, and Paul Fussell, as well as European social scientists such as Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, has been invaded in the last decade or so by American historians. 4 Blight helped lead the charge in 1989 with his first book, Frederick Douglass' Civil War (1989), a study of the abolitionist's Civil War experience and his unflagging effort to keep the memory of slavery, emancipation, and African American heroism alive during Reconstruction and beyond. In the year of that book's publication, the Journal of American History devoted a whole issue to memory, which included an essay by Blight. Then, two years later, Michael Kammen published his powerful, sprawling Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991). Today, the history of memory has become not merely a cottage industry but a boom trade, and the history of Civil War memory is the cash cow of the business. We have five books on southern memory and the war, one on the northern culture of conciliation, one on the Grand Army of the Republic and its work in shaping Civil War memory, three in just the past two years dealing with the memory of the war in popular literature, and one so far on Civil War monuments. 5 Leaders have been taken up by the historians of memory: we have one book on Abraham Lincoln in memory, three on the memory of Robert E. Lee, a work in progress on the memory of Ulysses S. Grant, and even a...