Monday, July 6, 2009

Race and Reunion

I currently find myself reading this book, which I think does an excellent job of summarizing the process of remembering and forgetting that took place after the Civil War. Blight breaks his narrative down into 10 essays that demonstrate various aspects of this process and how the black man faded into the background of the battle of narratives that took place afte the war. Below is an excerpt from a NYT review by Eric Foner:

David W. Blight demonstrates that as soon as the guns fell silent, debate over how to remember the Civil War began...Blight's study of how Americans remembered the Civil War in the 50 years after Appomattox exemplifies these themes. It is the most comprehensive and insightful study of the memory of the Civil War yet to appear...Blight tells this story in a lucid style and with an entirely appropriate measure of indignation...Race and Reunion demonstrates forcefully still matters very much how we remember the Civil War.


  1. Nice to see this book highlighted. I'm thrilled that you are reading it and enjoying it as much as I did.

    The whole concept of how we remember the past and package these ideas is the point I've been trying to make all along, albeit inadequately -- and why I come across sounding like, in Blight's words from the Foner book, a neo-Confederate, libertarian utopian -- or whatever it is I sound like. Uninformed maybe.

    It's why I also love historiography because how we write about and remember history says as much about us and our times as it does the actual events. And I why I so enjoyed Vowell's book since she's looking, in her quirky way, at public history and historical relics.

    If I find my book today I'll join in with you while we await a new selection for the group. (Or maybe everyone would like to read this one?)

  2. I don't take you as as Neo-Confederate, avrds. I had the feeling you were shortchanging Lincoln there on the issue of emancipation. I felt he saw it more than just a political and military tool but as a way to turn the course of war, but needed a victory, which he finally got at Antietam, in order to deliver it.

    I like to think that Lincoln would have done a much better job of shaping a Reconstruction-Reconciliation message after the war than either the Radical Republicans or the Johnson administration did. As he said to Frederick Douglass, he stood firm in his decisions and I don't think would have let the South off the hook the way Johnson did, nor penalize the South the way the Radical Republicans did.

    Anway, that is not how it turned out and so the South was allowed to slip back into its antebellum hole essentially letting the industrial revolution pass by it as if nothing had really changed. All though, they have been able to exploit their "victimhood" to great effect over the years.

    The North was content because there was no more talk about the expansion of slavery into the new territories, essentially allowing them to exploit the West the way they saw fit.

  3. You almost have to wonder if the war was really about shaping the West, from the Northern point of view, in its industrial vision. The South would essentially remain a relatively easily exploitable agricultural base until the US was able to exploit the Latin American countries.

  4. That's one of the most amazing points made by Turner, who has been largely discredited by academics -- he says that the West was so central to American "expansion" and history, it even caused the Civil War. When I brought that up to a colleague, it sort of floored her (since I"m the only remaining neo-Turnerian left in the academy).

    Now you're digging into my real interests....

  5. Turner was right----the West was the safety valve---and when the South thought it was going to be turned off to them with regard to slavery, it contributed to the coming of the War. I don't know whether it can belisted as a cause per se, but surely it has to be factored in. Lincoln was probably right in thinking that isolation might cause the death of slavery.

  6. It was the expansion of slavery into the new territories that lit the fuse of the Civil War. The North was expanding more rapidly than the South. Throughout the Civil War, work continued on the trans-Continental railway, which had been authorized in 1862. I think it was McPherson who noted how important railroad lines were to the North and Goodwin noted Stanton's audacious plan to supply troops and supply to the Western front which was successfully executed. The Union wasn't waiting for the war to end to continue their Western expansion.

    There was the interesting battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862. The Confederacy was hoping to open a trade route to sympathetic California, given the success of the Union blockades.

  7. Just how much did Cultural differences between North and South lead to expansion of the one area while the other remained essentially stagnant? Leaving aside slavery for the moment, would not the North have outstripped the South anyway, leading to rivalries and tensions which could have led to armed conflict? The disputes over tarrifs were mighty intense. The North had an immigrant labor force not found in the South and was thus more culturally diverse and into the work ethic to a greater extent than the South.

  8. However, let's not forget the South did have the raw materials so necessary to England's "dark Satanic mills."

    robert: I know you said you enjoy making broad generalizations but back them up with sources, and I can go along with the North being more diverse since it was the (voluntary) immigration destination, but I'll ask what source causes you to say the North was "into the work ethic to a greater extent than the South"?

  9. Do you think then that the Southern economy was more like a colony to England than the North?

    NY and Robert, I think you both will like Hobsbawm if you ever get around to him because this is largely what he talks about, just in a much bigger context.

    Not sure who I was reading today -- maybe it was Turner looking for that quote on the civil war -- but someone pointed out that with the railroads building on the system of canals, it sort of diminished the role the Mississippi River (and New Orleans) played in commerce.

    That's why I was so struck by all the legislation that was passed during the Lincoln administration. It did all seem focused on developing the West.

  10. "I was so struck by all the legislation that was passed during the Lincoln administration. It did all seem focused on developing the West."

    Me, too, avrds. I had and thoroughly enjoyed a course in history of the Westward Movement which owed much to/left me a fan of Turner, whether or not he's in favor nowadays.

    And yes, Hobsbawm is most certainly on the TBR list, too.

  11. All that cotton went through New York ports first with NY banks extending the South loans based on the value of that cotton, so the South was very much reliant on the North for its prosperity, which I think was one reason they worked so hard on NY political leaders.

    I think it was Catton who speculated on Northern states that considered secession as well and New York was one of them. The governor of NY, Horatio Seymour, was very sympathetic to the South, as it turned out Greeley was as well. Lincoln barely edged out McClellan in NY in 1864.

    I think Lincoln hoped to divert NY and other states' attention to the West, seeking out new opportunties that would make up for the loss of cotton revenue.

    Britain turned to Egypt for its cotton during the Civil War. It made sizeable investments in Egyptian cotton during the war, eventually leading to its occupation of Egypt in 1882, allowing it complete control of operations.

    So much for a moral high ground.

  12. In regard to Race and Reunion, Blight spends quite a bit of time on the great number of first person accounts that were written in the 1880s for Century magazine, eventually compiled into a four-volume set that tried to capture the war in valorous terms, assenduously avoiding the issues of race, cause and imprisonment. He notes that when Century did pursue prison accounts, notable Andersonville, it was met with quite a bit of resentment from Southern readers.

    For many former soldiers, especially generals which the series seem to focus primarily on, Century paid well. Even war widows got into the act, selling diaries, photographs and other artifacts which they thought Century would be interested in.

    The four-volume set spawned many copycats. Blight noted that never before had such an accounting take place of a war and its aftermath, although black accounts were conspicuously absent from most of these collections, as it seemed the country was not ready to reconcile itself with the issue of race, preferring to keep the black man as a footnote to the war.

  13. Blight provides a evocative character sketch of Grant following his presidency, during which time he experienced financial ruin at the hands of Ferdinand Ward only to bounce back shortly before his death with his Memoirs, which became the most popular Civil War testimony and one that has endured the test of time. While Blight notes that Grant was a reconciliationist, he didn't believe in letting the South completely off the hook, charting the battles in elaborate detail while making trenchant comments in the margins.

    Nevertheless Blight counters Grant's Memoirs with Albion Tourgee's account of the US after the war, An Appeal To Caesar, noting now the government had failed the Black Man, unwilling to uphold his rights in a rapidly redeeming South.

  14. Thanks for all these comments on Blight's book, Gintaras. I looked for my book the other day, but had no luck. But I'm still able to retrace the development of some of my own thinking through your comments.

  15. I set R&R aside while I read Uncle Tom's Cabin but plan to return to it soon. Tourgee really fascinates me, and I think I will read more on him afterward.

  16. Blight spent some time on Bierce and DuBois, noting what a contrast their writings were to the Lost Cause literature of the day. Bierce was a fierce anti-sentimentalist and, in Blight's view, was singularly obsessed with death, noting An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge in particular,

    In DuBois he noted the richness of Souls of Black Folk,

    I got a lot of mileage out of DuBois' Black Reconstruction in America, refuting most of the arguments of the naysayers.