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  • Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United States since 1865 by Robert J. Cook
  • Kevin M. Levin (bio)
Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United States since 1865. By Robert J. Cook. (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Pp. 288. Paper, $24.95.)

Few people could have predicted the pace at which Confederate iconography, including battle flags and monuments, have been removed from public spaces following the murder of nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in June 2015. The toppling of Confederate icons such as Lee, Jackson, Davis, and Forrest constitutes the most sustained challenge to the Lost Cause narrative since its emergence in the years following the Civil War. Robert J. Cook's Civil War Memories tracks this long and contentious story of the nation's struggle to come to terms with the legacy of the war.

The book is organized into two parts and structured chronologically around four narrative themes. Cook's distinction between the Lost Cause, Unionist, emancipationist, and "reconciliatory" narratives that developed in the thirty years following the war will be familiar to most historians. He relies heavily on recent scholarship of Civil War memory to flesh out these four narratives. No book looms larger in the first part than David Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), which has dominated scholarly and even popular discussion of Civil War memory. Blight's contention that the "Union cause" and the war's "emancipationist legacy" were eventually overshadowed by the pull of national reunion and reconciliation by the early twentieth century has proved to be a seductive narrative for a nation that continues to struggle with its history of racial discrimination. Cook follows the trajectory laid out by Blight by acknowledging "the flowering of a romantic reconciliatory strain of historical memory that would quickly predominate over its Unionist and emancipationist competitors in the North and in official circles because of its excellent fit with postwar nationalism" (209).

At the same time, Cook does not ignore recent scholarship from historians such as Caroline Janney, John Neff, M. Keith Harris, William Blair, and Barbara Gannon, who have argued persuasively that the triumph of sectional reconciliation was never complete. He acknowledges [End Page 735] that Civil War veterans harbored a deep bitterness toward their former enemies and remained steadfast in their commitment to the righteousness of their respective causes well into the twentieth century. Reunion was a fact of Union victory in 1865, but outward signs of sectional bitterness could be found in numerous Blue-Gray events, such as the dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in 1895. In addition, even as Union veterans embraced former enemies on the old battlefields, they remained proud of having taken part in a war that ended slavery and continued to welcome black veterans in many local camps of the Grand Army of the Republic. The memory of emancipation and the embrace of black comrades who aided in saving the Union were not so easily sacrificed at the altar of sectional reconciliation. Of course, this does not mean that African Americans operated on a level playing field. Cook correctly notes that "reconciliation … alongside white-supremacist terror, economic coercion, political disfranchisement, and de jure segregation, pushed African Americans to the margins of national memory" (209).

The dominance of reconciliation and the Lost Cause continued through the first half of the twentieth century largely as the result of white southern control of public memory through legal segregation, the erection and dedication of monuments, and the dissemination of other cultural artifacts throughout the region. The second half of Civil War Memories tracks the eventual decline of this narrative, beginning with the civil rights movement and Civil War centennial celebrations. African Americans pushed for civil rights, in part, by reminding the nation of the "unfinished work" of the Civil War with a narrative that highlighted the importance of emancipation and the service of the United States Colored Troops to the Union war effort. Cook's analysis of this watershed moment in Civil War memory is a distilled—though no less compelling—version of his excellent 2007 book, Troubled...


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