Takeaway: The resistance to remembering has implications for today.
I first found out about David Blight when I was introduced to the podcast of his Yale History of the Civil War and Reconstruction class. Nearly 30 hours later, I was much more familiar with both Blight and the history around reconstruction and the Civil War. Last year I read his new big biography of Frederick Douglass, likely my favorite book I read last year. Since starting Race and Reunion, I also found out that Blight directs the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. The center has a podcast interviewing fellows of the center and Blight is involved in that podcast.
I have been aware of Race and Reunion for several years. It is an expensive book, small release academic books usually are. But the book was released as an audiobook earlier this year and when I found it as an audiobook that was enough to make me pick it up. By the time I finished the introduction, I had also purchased the Kindle edition so I could alternate reading methods, and especially so I could highlight.
I cannot better summarize his thesis better than Blight did:
Three overall visions of Civil War memory collided and combined over time: one, the reconciliationist vision, which took root in the process of dealing with the dead from so many battlefields, prisons, and hospitals and developed in many ways earlier than the history of Reconstruction has allowed us to believe; two, the white supremacist vision, which took many forms early, including terror and violence, locked arms with reconciliationists of many kinds, and by the turn of the century delivered the country a segregated memory of its Civil War on Southern terms; and three, the emancipationist vision, embodied in African Americans’ complex remembrance of their own freedom, in the politics of radical Reconstruction, and in conceptions of the war as the reinvention of the republic and the liberation of blacks to citizenship and Constitutional equality. In the end this is a story of how the forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture, how the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.
Race and Reunion is more than just an exploration of how the Lost Cause mythology was developed, although that is included. It is also about how memory shapes the future and how choices are consciously and unconsciously made about what is worth remembering. Historians talk about ‘usable memory’, the idea that history is not just history, but something that can give meaning or understanding for a current era. I do not think that Blight coined that term, but Race and Reunion spends a lot of time exploring how usable memory worked at the end of the Civil War.