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Southern Cultures 8.1 (2002) 109-111

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Book Review

Race and Reunion:
The Civil War in American Memory

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. By David W. Blight. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. 512 pp. Cloth $29.95 [End Page 109]

America has an inexhaustible store of anecdotes about the Civil War, but here's one that never made it into the nation's collective memory. In May 1865 African American troops marched toward Smithfield, North Carolina. When they came to the Neuse River at the edge of town, they found the bridge burned. Local white women watched these black soldiers from windows, doorways, and yards. The soldiers "would disrobe themselves, hang their garments upon their bayonets and through the water they would come, walk up the street, and seem to say to the feminine gazers, 'Yes, though naked, we are your masters.'" Their chaplain, Henry McNeal Turner, "was much amused to see the secesh women watching with the utmost intensity, thousands of our soldiers, in a state of nudity. I suppose they desired to see whether these audacious Yankees were really men, made like other men, or if they were a set of varmints." As far as we know, this vignette was never recounted at the monthly meetings of the Smithfield chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Instead, the nation was creating a segregated historical memory to suit its segregating society, and stories like this and others that focused on African Americans were excluded from the conventional narrative. Today's monotonous debates about Confederate symbols reflect that limited vision of what the Civil War can mean. David W. Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory takes us back a century to a time when the nation was debating these same questions for the first time.

How did America get from 1863 to 1913; from the bitterest conflict that ever divided the country to a time when men who had shot at one another only fifty years earlier would commemorate those battles together and agree that they had all been in the right? Earlier generations of historians explained this sectional reconciliation in terms of politics and economics. Northern industrialists found that they needed the cooperation of white southern planters to complete the transformation of the United States into the world's industrial leader, so they acquiesced to the planters' desire to control their black laborers. More recently, many scholars such as Blight argue that the development of the public memory of the war itself was a central mechanism of the process of reconciliation.

Blight puts race at the center of his analysis more clearly than anyone else writing on this question. There were, he suggests, three competing visions of how the nation should publicly remember the war: reconciliationist, white supremacist, and emancipationist. These views corresponded roughly to the social groupings of white northerners, white southerners, and African Americans. Of the three, the white supremacist and the emancipationist visions could not coexist, so the struggle became which of those visions would be able to fuse with the reconciliationist vision to create a lasting public memory of the war. The main thrust of Blight's book is that, in the end, the white supremacist vision won. The nation's demand for healing--the principal value of the reconciliationist vision--triumphed over the demands for justice embodied in the emancipationist vision. [End Page 110]

Race and Reunion explores questions other books have ignored or passed over too quickly. Starting with the pivotal 1868 election--the first in which large numbers of freedmen voted in the South under new state constitutions--Blight digs into the political boilerplate of campaign speeches and newspaper editorials to show how debates over what recent events would mean were used to join and to divide voters and political constituencies. In 1868, before the soldiers themselves were ready to purge their memories of painful conflicts, reconciliation was just not politically viable.

The violent response of southern whites, the "counterrevolution against Reconstruction," attacked the emancipationist vision directly and...