Greetings Cosmic Americans!
I often make mention of two significant books in the historiographical timeline of Civil War remembrance: Paul Buck's Road to Reunion and David Blight's Race and Reunion. Both (quite obviously) mention the word reunion in the title and then proceed to discuss at length, especially the latter title, the process of reconciliation - it is as if the two words mean the same thing. In fact, if one were to immerse themselves in the literature on post-war commemoration and general remembrance they might indeed arrive at this conclusion - a synonymous marriage of definition...reunion and reconciliation. The words even sort of appear interchangeable...or at least convey a sense of starting anew in tandem.
The two words are related but not interchangeable. But we are dealing with more than mere shades of meaning. From the perspective of the Civil War generation - those who fought and those who lived through it - reunion simply meant the coming together of individual states, previously united under one government, subsequent to a protracted war. It was a reality sealed by the final surrenders of Confederate armies, the dissolution of the Confederate national government, and the forced suppression of a domestic rebellion. Reconciliation, in contrast, was an experiential action undertaken by the participants of that war (military and civilian). The word implies general forgiveness, but in the context of the Civil War era, refers more pointedly to a general acceptance that those once warring parties were again fellow citizens. The promotion of reconciliation acknowledged a sense of unity – a sense of sectional healing. Veterans willingly, often enthusiastically committed to embracing an all-encompassing national identity – an identity as Americans, one and all. Ultimately, national politics depended on reconciliation; economic expediency rested on it. So veterans from both sides of the bloody chasm set out to craft a message of reconciliation from the scattered shards of disunion. In so doing, they preserved the memories of their ideals, their trials, and their respective causes.
Their speeches, parades, monument dedications, and literature reflecting on the war provided the means through which they articulated visions of reconciliation – visions that in essence mirrored the causes for which they had fought. Veterans’ reconciliationist views were in fact colored by their experiences of war, the issues that had been at stake, and their respective causes. They at once promoted reconciliation and reminded their audiences that only one side had been right. Their challenge was how best to situate former enemies within these commemorative contexts.
While scholars such as Blight (and his legion of proponents) have blurred the distinction between the two, I offer terms of separation - and clear definitions. Presuming of course that one agrees with my definitions, we might proceed with caution when we use them, and keep in mind how the veterans made the distinction between the two.