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Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American…

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

by David W. Blight

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The only reason this book does not get five stars is the omission of any but glancing references to the economic background to the 50 years after the civil war ended. This background was one of extraordinary growth, spurred by nearly 30 million immigrants, clashes between labor and capital, the banking crises of 1873 and the 1890s, and many other factors, including the triumph (and eventual collapse) of capitalism. That said, this is an extraordinary book. The author takes care to pinpoint all of the turns in the US attitude towards the blacks and the eventual triumph of the Southern view by the time of the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg. This is must reading for the civil war buff, because it shows how deadly earnest the South was in its defense of slavery and how temporarily successful they were. It also shows how racist this country actually was and how little the success of the nation extended to the black people who actually built the place. ( )
  annbury | Aug 25, 2015 |
Iinsightful. ( )
  Your_local_coyote | Dec 29, 2013 |
This is a 2001 book by a history professor at Amherst. It studies the way the country viewed the Civil War during the period from 1865 t o 1915, and how the South "won" all it fought for except slavery. The South was able to do this because of prejudice against blacks in the North. I think I knew what this book told me, and the point made is an obvious one. I am surely glad the civil rights movement after World War II changed the view of so many. This is a good book, telling of an important fact in U.S. history but that I needed to read a whole book (of 485 pages) about it is questionable. ( )
  Schmerguls | Apr 12, 2013 |
Compellingly written and impressively researched, this book shows how the Southern story about the Civil War and its aftermath took over as the national story in the half-century after the Emancipation Proclamation. That story stayed in place until the civil rights movement in the second half of the 20th century, which is a long run for a narrative far removed from what is suggested by the actual evidence about the causes of the war and about racial developments after the war.

Blight shows how, after the war, various groups competed to have their story about the war take over as the dominant narrative. African Americans focussed on what it meant for them -- the end of slavery -- and expected freedom and citizenship to lead to full participation in society. Many Southerners, however, almost immediately began to push for as much of a return to the old social order was was possible. In this effort, the construction of "The Lost Cause" myth gave a post-war focus to regional patriotism (the war was only lost because of the crushing numerical and material superiority of the North). At the same time, focussing on states' rights as a cause of the war rather than on slavery gave southerners an acceptable reason to have fought. As to the Northern story, Blight suggests that there wasn't much of one. During the war, saving the union and freeing the slaves were both major motivations for Northerners, but as the war slipped into the past, Northern interest in maintaining the rights of black people faded. In time, race relations in the South became the province of state and local governments, with the North implicitly accepting the abandonment of black rights as the price of national reunion.

Blight shows how this happened in very concrete detail: the emergence of a literature of the Lost Cause, the appearance of history and veteran's magazines and organizations advancing the southern view, the building of monuments in the South, the choosing of textbooks, the "reconciliationist" push for Blue/Grey reunions, etc. etc. etc. This was a highly organized and very successful effort to take control of the memory of the Civil War, a process which helped Southern states make race a local issue, not a national one. That, of course, had terrible implications for African Americans.

More broadly, this book vividly illustrates how much of the "history" we learn in school and from the culture around us is really a version of history, selected and shaped to bolster patriotism and a sense of group identity. That's not just true of the American South, of course -- every society has its national myth, which forms the basis of its official version of history, including America as a whole. But the sucdess of the Southern story in taking over the national view and national politics -- especially national politics about race -- was remarkable. Clearly, history isn't always written by the victors.

Note for those interested in the Civil War -- David Blight, the author of "Race and Reunion", has an EXCELLENT series of podcasts on "The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877" which is available free at I Tunes U at the ITunes store. It comprises 27 lectures, each about 50 minutes long, of which about a third are on pre-war developments, a third on the war itself, and a third on reconstruction. If this series were a book, it would be one of the best I have ever read on the Civil War. It isn't a book, but it is a great listen. ( )
  annbury | Oct 21, 2011 |
This is an excellent, and extremely well-documented, history of Reconstruction and the years afterward, and how the ideas of what the Civil War stood for were shaped in those years. I first became interested in this subject after reading Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic last year. I was so amazed by some of the differences between how the Civil War is remembered in the North and in the South, and this book really lets you see how those differences were nourished and evolved. If you follow the news, you may recall a controversy in Virginia earlier this year, when Governor Bob McDonnell issued a statement declaring April "Confederate History Month" and didn't mention slavery at all. To understand how the "Lost Cause" came to be totally separated from what many of us (in the North at least) considered to be the true and lasting cause of the war, slavery, this book is an essential too. It is exhaustively researched and very dense, and ultimately fascinated. For anyone interested in American history, the Civil War and its effects, or the constantly changing view of race in America, I can highly recommend this one, although it may take you a while to read it. Four and a half stars. ( )
  allthesedarnbooks | Jul 9, 2010 |
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Full title (2001): Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American Memory.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674008197, Paperback)

No historical event has left as deep an imprint on America's collective memory as the Civil War. In the war's aftermath, Americans had to embrace and cast off a traumatic past. David Blight explores the perilous path of remembering and forgetting, and reveals its tragic costs to race relations and America's national reunion.

In 1865, confronted with a ravaged landscape and a torn America, the North and South began a slow and painful process of reconciliation. The ensuing decades witnessed the triumph of a culture of reunion, which downplayed sectional division and emphasized the heroics of a battle between noble men of the Blue and the Gray. Nearly lost in national culture were the moral crusades over slavery that ignited the war, the presence and participation of African Americans throughout the war, and the promise of emancipation that emerged from the war. Race and Reunion is a history of how the unity of white America was purchased through the increasing segregation of black and white memory of the Civil War. Blight delves deeply into the shifting meanings of death and sacrifice, Reconstruction, the romanticized South of literature, soldiers' reminiscences of battle, the idea of the Lost Cause, and the ritual of Memorial Day. He resurrects the variety of African-American voices and memories of the war and the efforts to preserve the emancipationist legacy in the midst of a culture built on its denial.

Blight's sweeping narrative of triumph and tragedy, romance and realism, is a compelling tale of the politics of memory, of how a nation healed from civil war without justice. By the early twentieth century, the problems of race and reunion were locked in mutual dependence, a painful legacy that continues to haunt us today.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:06 -0400)

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