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AMHERST, Mass. David W. Blight, the Class of 1959 Professor of History and Black Studies at Amherst College, has just published Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory ($29.95, 512 pp., Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2001), a study of how Americans "black and white, from North and South, soldiers and politicians, writers and editors" made sense of America's most wrenching war.
Blight shows that, to many Americans, the effort to reunite the divided states became more important in the 50 years after the war than the racial equality that the struggle had been about. Trying to reconcile "The Blue and The Gray," America chose to turn away from the legacy of slavery, and to suspend judgment of those who had defended it. Instead, many people wanted to see the Civil War as an epic struggle between noble soldiers on both sides, each fighting for what they believed right. Myths of the "Lost Cause" and the "Old South," still living today, grew in literature and popular memory.
These "reconciliationists" in both North and South chose to forget the many roles that African-Americans played in the war. By 1913 they had overwhelmed the emancipationists, who might have remembered. Thus America was able to turn away from the plight of African Americans in the post-war years, and the nation has struggled ever since to see that plight.
Blight traces this shift in memory through public celebrations, monuments, and images; through veterans' reunions and memoirs; through popular press, song and literature; through official pronouncements and decisions about racial exclusion; and through the political priorities that trumped the human imperatives.
Race and Reunion ends with an unsparing description of "an extraordinary festival of reconciliation" that brought Union and Confederate veterans together at the Gettysburg battlefield on the Fourth of July in 1913, 50 years after the battle. That day, "the only role for blacks was distributing blankets." The "'peace among the whites' that [Frederick] Douglass had so feared in 1875 had left the country with a kind of Southern victory in the long struggle over Civil War memory," Blight writes.
A pioneer of the emerging field of memory studies, Blight is also the author of the award-winning Frederick Douglass's Civil War (1989) and many other books and articles.More information is available at the Harvard University Press Website at http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/BLIRAC.html.