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.

Eric Foner reviewed the book for The New York Times in 2004.

In ”Race and Reunion,” David W. Blight demonstrates that as soon as the guns fell silent, debate over how to remember the Civil War began. In recent years, the study of historical memory has become something of a scholarly cottage industry. Rather than being straightforward and unproblematic, it is ”constructed,” battled over and in many ways political. Moreover, forgetting some aspects of the past is as much a part of historical understanding as remembering others. 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 touches on a wide range of subjects, including how political battles over Reconstruction contributed to conflicting attitudes toward the war’s legacy, the origins of Memorial Day and the rise of the ”reminiscence industry,” through which published memoirs by former soldiers helped lay the groundwork for sectional reconciliation. He gives black Americans a voice they are often denied in works on memory, scouring the black press for accounts of Emancipation celebrations and articles about the war’s meaning. As his title suggests, Blight, who teaches history and black studies at Amherst College, believes that how we think about the Civil War has everything to do with how we think about race and its history in American life.

Blight’s work on this period of history can also be found in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, in a chapter entitled “Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South.”

In a footnote, Blight points out:

8. New York Tribune, May 13, 1865; Charleston Daily Courier, May 2, 1865. I encountered evidence of this first Memorial Day observance in “First Decoration Day,” Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. This handwritten description of the parades around the Race Course is undoubtedly based on the article by the New York Tribune correspondent named Berwick, whose name is mentioned in the description. The “First Decoration Day” author, however, misdates the Tribune articles. Other mentions of the May 1, 1865, event at the Charleston Race Course include Paul H. Buck, The Road to Reunion, 1865–1900 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937). Buck misdates the event as May 30, 1865, does not mention the Race Course, gives James Redpath full credit for creating the event, and relegates the former slaves’ role to “black hands “strewing flowers” which knew only that the dead they were honoring had raised them from a condition of servitude” (120–21). Whitelaw Reid visited the cemetery in Charleston founded on that first Decoration Day, making special mention of the archway and its words in his account of his travels through the conquered South: “Sympathizing hands have cleared away the weeds, and placed over the entrance an inscription that must bring shame to the cheek of every Southern man who passes: ‘The Martyrs of the Race Course.'” Whitelaw Reid, After the War: A Tour of the Southern States, 1865–1866 (1866; reprint, New York: Harper and Row, 1965).

Blight describes the importance of the Civil War in this three-part lecture for the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Part 2 and Part 3

I take time out every Memorial Day to remember my own family members who fought in that war, even though this is a day of remembrance for those who died in battle. Thankfully, my Black enslaved ancestor Dennis Weaver was not killed, though he had a terrible time getting his military pension. I wrote about him in 2009’s “Ode to colored soldier whose name I bear.” My white second great-grandfather, James Bratt, also fought for the Union, in the 6th Independent Battery, Wisconsin Light Artillery, and survived. What is important to note, when remembering those blacks who served, is that many of them died.

By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war—30,000 of infection or disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well. Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. There were nearly 80 black commissioned officers. Black women, who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies, and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman (photo citation: 200-HN-PIO-1), who scouted for the 2d South Carolina Volunteers.

Hari Jones, assistant director and curator of the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum (Note: he passed on June 22, 2018) talked about the origins and importance of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) contribution to the American Civil War:

On September 27, 1862, the first regiment to become a United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment was officially brought into the Union army. All the captains and lieutenants in this Louisiana regiment were men of African descent. The regiment was immediately assigned combat duties, and it captured Donaldsonville, Louisiana on October 27, 1862. Before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, two more African descent regiments from Kansas and South Carolina would demonstrate their prowess in combat.

After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, the War Department publicly authorized the recruiting of African Americans. The first regiment raised with such authority was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. (Leading many to report that it was the first African descent regiment.) By the end of 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant viewed the African descent population armed with the Proclamation as a “powerful ally.”

African Americans fought in every major campaign and battle during the last two years of the war earning twenty-five Medals of Honor. USCT regiments captured Charleston, the Cradle of Secession, and Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Lincoln recognized their contributions. He declared, “Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.” And without the Emancipation Proclamation, these soldiers and sailors would have had little reason to fight for the Union.

If you visit Washington, D.C., be sure to check out the museum :

It is the mission of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum to correct a great wrong in history which pretty much ignored the heroic role of 209,145 US Colored Troops in ending slavery and keeping America united under one flag. The Museum uses a rich collection of artifacts, documents, primary sources, and technology to create a meaningful learning experience for families, students, Civil War enthusiasts, and historians about the period from the American Civil War to Civil Rights and beyond.

Who are you remembering this Memorial Day?


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