Biography 26.2 (2003) 329-331
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There is an amusing old chestnut about former Confederate cavalry commander Joseph "Fighting Joe" Wheeler, while he served as Major-General of U.S. Volunteers during the war against Spain in 1898. In an assault upon entrenched Spaniards, Wheeler, now in his sixties, urged his men forward with the cry, "Let's go boys, let's get them Yankees." His staff had to remind him that he was now a Yankee himself. Notwithstanding Fighting Joe's memory lapse, the Spanish-American War was but one of several symbolic events at the turn-of-the-century, capping the triumph of national reconciliation. A conspicuous casualty of this process was racial justice for African Americans.
By the nineteenth century's close, the memory of the earlier struggle between North and South had undergone considerable metamorphosis. Some memories had been gently massaged, others altogether forgotten, and still others, considerably altered. Most altered were those memories related to the racial tensions that were paramount in the conflict. By 1900 most Northerners were uninterested in dredging up the darker side of the war, and had acquiesced to a new generation of Southern apologists, novelists, and historians who were recasting the conflict as a non-ideological disagreement between the states. David W. Blight's Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War is an investigation into this curious phenomenon. Emphatically, Blight posits that both the history and the memory of the Civil War are legitimate and necessary avenues of study, and that the distinction between the two has often been blurred by partisan purpose.
Beyond the Battlefield is a compilation of previously published essays and lectures woven together into a unified strand, spanning the author's contribution to the field. Blight's scholarly interests dictate the study's organization. The first part deals with the meaning of the cause, course, and consequences [End Page 329] of the war. The second section focuses on the nature of African American history and the significance of race in American history. The final essays discuss the character and purpose of the study of historical memory (xi).
Central to Blight's argument is that the fundamental cause of the war—slavery—and what could have been its primary consequence—racial justice—were obscured in the national and historical consciousness of that event in the remaining decades of the nineteenth century. In a close examination of various memorials, commemorations, reunions, statue building, and observances of Memorial Day, Blight argues that the nation suffered from acute historical amnesia, allowing for a racist recasting of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. Amnesia induced nostalgia and sentiment which, in turn, fostered a spirit of national reconciliation. Unfortunately, the very cause of the war was forgotten in the process. As one of Blight's essays suggests, the Civil War was no longer a revolution remembered, but had become a quarrel forgotten. Increasingly, the Southern version of the war was accepted, as demonstrated in the general acceptance of the "Lost Cause" interpretation. To paraphrase the old bromide, the North won the war but lost the peace. The overthrow of Reconstruction governments in the South was political defeat, while the ascendancy of southern apologies justifying secession and slavery marked the North's ideological defeat. More than anything, however, this reconciliationist vision sowed the seeds of institutionalized racism as demonstrated in the rapid adoption of restrictive racial codes and Jim Crow laws.
Blight is at his perceptive best when noting that there were those who resisted the trend towards the reconciliationist view. Frederick Douglass, a dominant figure in several essays, knew well the stakes involved in the struggle for remembrance of the war. Former slave and outspoken abolitionist, Douglass remained Abraham Lincoln's racial conscience throughout the war. Afterwards, he grew chagrined that the nation was losing its memory of the...