Thursday, April 14, 2011

Did Former Rebels Resuscitate Confederate Ideology Through Commemorations?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Scholars have argued that veterans organized and conceived of Civil War commemorations as distinct breaks with the contentious past – as moments at sites of historical memory that established a clear demarcation between what was old and what was new. Simultaneously, they sanctioned cherished memories as a heritage that exalted the present and functioned as a unifying bond between all American soldiers, Yankee and Rebel alike. Forward looking Confederate veterans, historians have argued, paid tribute to their heroes and their cause “that they believed to be just,” erected countless monuments, and looked ahead – selectively recalling the virtues of their past deeds to validate the present while conveniently marginalizing the profound issues surrounding the disruption of war. In so doing, former Confederates contributed to a great national healing, for better or worse, and by century’s end, had reinvented themselves as loyal, patriotic Americans. However, for many ex-Rebels, the past, articulated through commemorations, served as a compelling reminder of disunion in stark contrast against an era imagined as one of robust national reconciliation.

A widely accepted thesis has developed suggesting that veterans constructed a “whitewashed” version of Civil War memory involving little that had been at issue during the war. In Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, for example, historian David W. Blight emphasizes the connection between deep-seated racism and national reconciliation, suggesting “white supremacists and reconciliationists locked arms” and by the “turn of the century delivered a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms.” This interpretation, while compelling, obscures the tense, often vituperative negotiation processes of formerly warring sections suddenly thrust back together, each staking a claim to a nationalist spirit. To be sure, former Confederates elevated their heroes to the heights of the American pantheon as personifications of national virtue and celebrated their cause as reflective of the original intent of the founding generation while distancing themselves from the fight to preserve slavery. Yet they did so under the watchful eye of antagonists north of the Potomac, many of whom in turn countered what they considered traitorous perversions of the truth. While most former Rebels encouraged national unity and asserted that “history” would ultimately affirm their glorious cause, many nevertheless sided with their bitter comrades and blamed northerners, often with vicious acrimony, for distorting the Confederate vision of state sovereignty and racial hierarchy – the cornerstones of the Confederate nation transposed in the post-war world. The confrontations between former enemies actively working in the reconciliation era to shape their own versions of nationalism reveal periods of heightened anxiety in the southern states. These episodes suggest an ever-widening gap between former enemies, when those considered reconciled seemed to be working against the very unity they proclaimed.



  1. What a brilliant post! Still a lot of those heightened anxieties down here in the South, actually.

    I did a paper in grad school in a similar vein examining how the Alamo tied into Civil War commemorations in Texas (long story short, white people want their own way, then want it again and again). Blight's thesis seems accurate but you are also so right about the chinks in the facade of cooperation. In East TX there are still separate bathrooms for Black people in some restaurants! Yes! sick.

  2. "In East TX there are still separate bathrooms for Black people in some restaurants! Yes! sick."

    Shorter just to type, "Vidor."