Monday, January 23, 2012

Remembering Race and Reunion: Ten Years Later – Some Comments on a Review

Those of you who read the web component of the Civil War Monitor this week will undoubtedly have by now seen Brian Matthew Jordan’s thoughtful and compelling look back at David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American Memory. Ten years after Race and Reunion got us all thinking about how the Civil War generation remembered the conflict, says Jordan, Blight’s work still resonates. Not so much for its power to provide the last word on Civil War memory, but rather for the groundbreaking path it so eloquently cleared for a host of those (myself included) who directed their scholarly interests toward memory studies.

Race and Reunion was one of two books that convinced me to pursue a career as a historian (I’ll let you guess what the other one was….get it right and I’ll send you an autographed 8X10). But not exactly because I thought Blight got it all right. In fact, quite the opposite happened. Like many other historians have since discovered, It surprised me that those who killed each other in great profusion for four years could not simply let “bygones be bygones” while commemorating on the pedestal of shared racism. Sure enough, the historical record resounds with bitter reflection – from both sides...often with some aspect of the fight for emancipation at the center of what can best be described as a contested commemorative ethos.

Jordan reflects not only on the significance of Blight’s work, but also on the state of the field as it has grown over the last decade, suggesting scholars – even those who have challenged Blight’s thesis – owe a great deal to this monumental achievement of intellectual history. Noting that a handful of historians (again…myself included) have reconsidered the implications of the emancipationist cause in post-war celebrations, he sees the fight for emancipation making a turn back into memory studies – not to lament its disappearance in the commemorative literature, but to do precisely the opposite – and reveal veterans’ persistent efforts to highlight this highly contentious strand of commemoration.

But Jordan’s conclusions offer a cautionary tale. By repositioning slavery at the heart of the conflict, are we running the risk of creating some sort of “morality play that we tell and re-tell in an effort to exorcise white guilt?” Perhaps – but as long as we remember that from a Union perspective, a sense of what historian Thomas J. Pressly called a “moralizing self-righteousness” pervaded the commemorative vernacular – then, remembering the emancipationist cause does not boil down to a one-dimensional “good” war but rather another way, coupled with the memory of treason, to stick it to the Rebs for trying to create a slave-holding republic.

Jordan’s own work on the trauma of the Civil War will certainly be another valued addition to the growing collection of scholarly works denoting the various ways Civil War soldiers remembered the war. Like the recent work of John Neff, who reminds us that Union veterans had a hard time forgetting a war in which so many of their comrades were killed, Jordan will undoubtedly shed light on yet another troubling roadblock to reconciliation.

From where I sit – I see a lot coming down the pike in terms of the Civil War and memory studies. I would like to see more people make the distinction (if there is indeed one) between “reunion” and “reconciliation.” Scholars, including Blight, often conflate the terms. I see them as related, but not the same thing. I grapple with this in my own upcoming book – and I would like your thoughts as well. So feel free to chime in.


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