Monday, May 7, 2012

Reunion and Reconciliation - There is a Difference, You Know

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.


  1. I agree that we need to be mindful of the definitional differences. Reunion is one thing, but reconciliation takes it to another level.

    Have you ever considered how other countries have handled “reconciliation” in the aftermath of internal conflict in the 20th century and contrasted that to the Civil War in the United States? I am thinking, for example, of the reconciliation efforts in Colombia, as well as South Africa. Interestingly, it seems that in the United States we largely arrived at reconciliation through the efforts of the veterans themselves in trying to promote healing while at the same time honoring and commemorating. Do you know of any larger, government-driven efforts in the post-Civil War era? Perhaps such efforts are a 20th century invention.

    Another point to consider—while reconciliation may have been achieved one way by the war generation, was it sustained differently by future generations? I am thinking of the apparent hold that the Lost Cause seemed to have on the American imagination until the later part of the 20th century. In that narrative, it appears that the country as a whole buried union and emancipation, and focused on tales and plantation life, cavaliers, and the “noble” generals like Lee and Jackson. I don’t have much empirical evidence to back this up yet, but it seems to be the case from looking at the popular culture.

  2. Why were the victorious Union veterans so willing not only to forgive their foes, but also to enable them to regain control of the Southern states?

    “Reconciliation” in practice meant the political surrender of the Southern states to those who were only recently defeated at such great cost on the battlefield.

    For a generation, those who fought in the Union Army dominated national politics. Yet it was precisely these Union veterans who very quickly returned the rebellious states to the political control of former Confederates.


  3. This is a very good, and thoughtful, post. I'm not sure we have yet had genuine reconciliation, the Massive Resistance to desegregation demonstrates this, and I would point to the use of the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to civil rights as evidence of this. Re-watch the documentary "Eyes on the Prize," and look for when and where the CBF shows up and the anger and hatred on the faces of white Southerners when they confront blacks who are attempting to register for school, or get into downtown stores. The Confederacy is still a touchstone for those who espouse white supremacy, and reject the notion of equality for blacks, and there are many more of these people than I would have thought until recently. Check out this appallingly blatant racist blog:

    Hunter Wallace, who hosts the blog, is an unapologetic racist, and supporter/defender of the Confederacy, and uses offensive racist language directed at those with whom he disagrees.