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  • The Quarrel Forgotten?Toward a Clearer Understanding of Sectional Reconciliation
  • Robert Cook (bio)

Americans slaughtered one another in horrific numbers in the 1860s. According to the most recent estimate, at least 750,000 soldiers may have perished in the Civil War, while perhaps 50,000 noncombatants died indirectly as a result of military operations.1 Yet by the end of the nineteenth century President William McKinley, a Union veteran from Ohio, was able to tour the reunited republic hailing the restored amity that supposedly prevailed between the erstwhile warring sections. In December 1898 he told spectators at a peace jubilee in Atlanta, Georgia, that it was time the U.S. government accepted responsibility for care of the southern dead—men who had given their lives to destroy the country he loved. Fifteen years later, a Virginia-born president, Woodrow Wilson, journeyed to Gettysburg, site of the most famous Federal victory of the war, to tell an audience of veterans and civilians that Americans had “found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valour, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes.”2

This essay reviews a range of modern scholarship on the tangled process of sectional reconciliation—a process that greatly assisted the United States’ emergence as a great power by reducing persistent and divisive internal tensions after the carnage of the Civil War. It contends that while historians such as Nina Silber and David W. Blight have been right to pinpoint construction of a sentimental culture of reconciliation as a primary source of North–South amity, their influential studies unwittingly conceal the persistence of smoldering wartime hatreds and tenacious partisan allegiances built on perpetuation of those animosities. During a period dominated socially, politically, and culturally by men and women who had experienced the turmoil of the Civil War era, sectional memories—northern [End Page 413] as well as southern—countered and sometimes trumped the gushing rhetoric of nationalist politicians. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, most Americans certainly thought of one another as compatriots. However, the formidable strength of Civil War remembrance made the process by which they came to that conclusion both complex and uneven.

The first modern scholar to sense that reconciliation between Americans was a genuine historical problem rather than an inevitable attainment requiring no explanation was Harvard professor Paul H. Buck, whose book The Road to Reunion 1865–1900 was published in 1937.3 Born in 1899, Buck was himself a product of sectional reconciliation who regarded it as one of America’s “noblest achievements.” Acknowledging that considerable animus existed on both sides after Appomattox, he charted the damaging impact of Reconstruction on sectional relations before explaining the rapid growth of reconciliatory forces primarily in terms of the development of a national market, the rise of a sentimental literary culture, the decline of sectionalism in mainstream politics, and a burgeoning soldiers’ reunion in which “ordinarily the mass of veterans on each side accepted an easy camaraderie.” Although Buck noted the determination of politicians, especially northern Republicans, to sustain sectional hostility for selfish political purposes in the 1880s, he contended that reconciliation was virtually complete by 1898, when northerners and southerners joined forces once again to fight against Spain. Blacks, he conceded, were the losers from this process (he devoted several pages to the failure of federal voting rights enforcement) but he voiced no criticism of his fellow northerners’ decision to accept racial segregation as part of the postwar settlement. Optimistically, he told readers that Jim Crow had “permitted a degree of peace between North and South hitherto unknown, gave to the South the stability of race relations necessary to reconcile her to the re-united nation, and gave to the Negro a chance to live and to take the first step of progress.”4

Buck’s analysis of sectional reconciliation was conditioned not only by contemporary race relations but also by his conception of culture as a predominantly white, uniform, and literary production—the work...


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