A Separate Peace

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, by David W. Blight. Harvard University Press, 512 pages, $29.95.

In the summer of 1913, President Woodrow Wilson was planning to vacation in New England and skip Civil War reunion festivities scheduled at Gettysburg, an event marking 50 years since the end of the war. Stern warnings by congressional advisers convinced him he had better put in an appearance at what was being called the Peace Jubilee. So Wilson arrived to find the small Pennsylvania town brimming with nearly 50,000 veterans. The soft-spoken president, who as a native Virginian was the first southerner elected to the White House since the war years, rose to the occasion with a conciliatory oration, calling the war a "quarrel forgotten." He even went so far as to suggest that it was an "impertinence to discourse upon how the battle ... ended."

In his speech to the appreciative throng, which was made up almost entirely of whites, Wilson mentioned the word "race" only once, in a passing reference. As David W. Blight chronicles in Race and Reunion, this was not an oversight but a deliberate erasure, one that reflected the tenor of the times. Indeed, "forgetting" seemed to be as important as remembering, even at a commemorative event.

And yet, Wilson could not have been more mistaken about the "quarrel forgotten." For the half-century following Appomattox, the contest over the meaning of the Civil War dominated American culture and reflected clashing views on race and competing emblems of remembrance. In some ways, the battle continues even now, as states such as Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina engage in angry public disputes about whether to banish the Confederate flag.

Blight, a professor of history and black studies at Amherst College, has written an erudite yet accessible history of the years leading up to the reunion at Gettysburg in July of 1913. He traces the ways in which Americans--soldiers and citizens, statesmen and clubwomen, blacks and whites--offered competing interpretations of the war.

The author has unearthed long-neglected sources that shed especially interesting light on the African-American experience. The first Civil War Memorial Day, according to Blight, was organized by blacks. Held on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, this event involved nearly 10,000 African-American participants and observers. It was a remarkable, defiant celebration held in the Cradle of Secession, the locale where Confederates fired the first shots at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Local blacks chose the reunion site well: It had once been a fashionable racetrack, a playground for low-country slaveholders. In the war, the racetrack held Union prisoners, hundreds of whom died during confinement and were left behind in unmarked graves. African Americans dedicated their songs and speeches to the "Martyrs of the Race Course." Their lavish ceremonies, on what was proclaimed Decoration Day, included placing flowers on the graves of the Union dead, an event depicted in Harper's Weekly.

The period from 1865 to 1915 was a long march of counter-memorialization by blacks. At the close of the nineteenth century, Americans heard songs for Robert E. Lee, visited the grave of Stonewall Jackson, and watched former Confederate generals carry the coffin of Ulysses S. Grant. But they also witnessed rousing campaigns by Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington to champion black soldiers. The indomitable W.E.B. Du Bois wrote and staged his dramatic Star of Ethiopia pageant at the National Emancipation Exposition held in New York City in 1913. There was even acknowledgment of African-American valor: In 1897, during ceremonies dedicating the Shaw Memorial in Boston, William Carney, who would be the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, was greeted by thunderous applause.

The tremendous explosion of marble memorials and reconciliatory rhetoric at the turn of the twentieth century is chronicled in lavish detail. And drawing on letters and memoirs, Blight vividly re-creates the war from the soldiers' varied and deeply personal points of view. In key chapters, he guides us through the massive literary outpouring of Civil War literature Americans had produced by the 1890s, especially the hundreds of memoirs submitted for publication. (The fact that the ebb and flow of Civil War memory could be charted in The Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, and other popular periodicals led critic Edmund Wilson to observe that "old issues must be put to sleep with the chloroform of magazine prose.")

In the contest over the war's meaning, liberals eventually joined with radicals to forge a new American creed, a renewed commitment to freedom. In his epilogue, Blight reminds us of the Civil War's connection to the civil rights movement of a century later, noting that the "enduring significance of race" required another "political revolution and the largest mass movement for human rights in our history." He is comfortable quoting an ex-slave on one page and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the next, and the narrative moves effortlessly from the essays of James Baldwin to presidential speeches to the musicals of George M. Cohan. Blight's eclecticism and erudition make this sweeping historical saga a pleasure to read.

The initial price of Civil War reunion was the perpetuation of white racism--a price the majority of Americans were willing to pay in 1913. But the hidden costs mounted. Fifty years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., called for a renewed commitment to fulfill the promises of emancipation--a genuine rebirth of freedom, a struggle to which many remain committed. And this powerful book is a part of that intellectual and political tradition. Race and Reunion challenges us to take seriously the clashes over the Civil War's contested legacies and symbols, which Americans continue to debate into the twenty-first century.