Wednesday, March 3, 2010
To Bind Up the Nation's Wounds - Reconciliation Reconsidered
Greetings all. This is the first in what will certainly be a series of posts concerning - you guessed it - post Civil War reconciliation. This is a topic that has been very close to my heart for the last decade. Just to open things up, I want to say a few words about the intersection between national reconciliation and the veterans' efforts to commemorate the war.
Commemorative themes have intrigued historians for decades. Their conclusions can best be described by what I have called the reconciliation premise. The premise, in a nutshell, goes something like this: The overwhelming majority of Civil War veterans moved on from the war and let bygones be bygones. The commemorated the war essentially free from controversy and instead, celebrated the mutual valor of all participants. Civil War commemorations were about remembering bravery and fortitude and forgetting divisive issues such as treason and slavery.
Historian David Blight has proposed that reunion rested on the solid ground of shared racism. In short, being able to write the vexing issues of slavery and emancipation out of Civil War memory allowed the veterans to quickly forgive one another and commemorate the war on "southern terms."
Hmmmmm. Well, I can't deny that Civil War veterans, by our standards, shared the racist assumptions of most people in the 19th century. But is this what reconciliation boiled down to? While Blight and his legion of followers make a compelling argument, I believe that they obscure what was really going on.
Reading through the historical records, one can quickly see that veterans left behind a wide range of opinions on the nation, the war, and their former enemies. The proponents of the reconciliation premise would argue that any individual stirring up a sectional fuss was either an Unreconstructed Rebel or a Bloody Shirt Yank - and definitely an anachronism during the reconciliation era.
But here's the problem. Some of the most vehement, the most vocal, and yes...the most sectional, claimed to be reconciliationists at heart. Reconcilationists talked at length about treason, tyranny, slavery, and oppression. And as it turns out, their commemorative efforts were loaded with highly controversial expressions after all.
Maybe then, reconciliation was something altogether different from what historians have led us to believe. I won't give it all away here - you'll just have to stay tuned. But for now, just think of the reconciliationist commemorative ethos as a heated competition.
Most veterans saw reconciliation as a fact. Nothing less. The Union cause had been about reconciling from the very beginning - preserving the Union explicitly demanded it. Former Confederates had little choice in the matter. But the terms of this reconciliation - and how the reunited nation and the world would remember the war - were highly contested. In some ways, this winner of this battle has not yet been determined.
While many historians insist that reconciliaiton was really about forgetting, I disagree. Reconciliation was about remembering - preserving the memories that led them to war in the first place.
For a couple of books that support the reconciliation premise (books that I argue against), see:
Race and Reunion by David Blight
Ghosts of the Confederacy by Gaines Foster