Review of Robert J. Cook‘s “Civil War Memories, Contesting the Past Since 1865”

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James Thornton Harris is a regular contributor to the History News Network and the author of The Evil In Our Soil: the Creation of Slavery in America

The current fight over removing Confederate monuments and the disturbing popularity for waving confederate flags at white supremacist rallies has attracted tremendous news media attention. The public demonstration of support for the Confederacy is not a new phenomenon, however, but rather the latest skirmish in a 150-year old struggle between competing “historical memories” about the Civil War, according to a new book by historian Robert J. Cook, Civil War Memories, Contesting the Past Since 1865.

According to Cook, a professor of history at the University of Sussex in Great Britain, and the author of two previous books on the Civil War, “As one would expect of such a divisive event, no single ‘memory’ of the Civil War has ever existed.”

According to Cook, in the thirty years after the peace was signed at Appomattox, “four principal strands” of Civil War memory formed. These separate narratives, each of which offers a different cause for the terrible conflict, continue to influence the way it is “remembered” today, even by Americans who “have no direct connection with those who fought and suffered in it,” Cook states.

In brief, the four “strands of historical memory” are: Unionist (i.e. justified Northern victory); southern or “Lost Cause,” (a noble, losing effort), emancipationist (i.e. a war fought to free the slaves) and “reconciliatory” (i.e. both have forgiven their foes and agreed on moving forward to jointly improve the republic).

Cook reports, not surprisingly, that in the southern states the “Lost Cause” enjoyed near universal acceptance in the post-bellum era. The southerners, who preferred to call it the “War between the states or the “War of Northern Aggression.” In their view, the South was fighting for states’ rights and the “true” principles of the Constitution” (e.g. the right to own slaves). This narrative turned increasingly grim and bitter as the task of interring the Rebel dead continued and the local population suffered from the humiliation of rule by Yankee soldiers and black politicians.

Cook notes that the frequent local parades, graveside memorials and the erection of civic monuments in this period “testified to the potency of a historical memory … invigorated with Christian notions of fidelity, suffering and blood sacrifice.”

The second competing narrative, which became the dominant truth for the victorious North, was the “Unionist memory.” This view depicted the four-year struggle as a glorious people’s war led by the noble, Christ-like Abraham Lincoln to “safeguard the most important republic on Earth” which had a “unique democratic mission in the world.” This viewpoint was propounded in the Northern press and also accompanied by local parades and construction of monuments.

Cook notes that this recounting of the Northern victory, while emphasizing battlefield triumphs, frequently omitted key political goals of the Lincoln government, notably the emancipation of the slaves and the attempt to establish black voting rights in the South. He attributes this to the fact that the majority of whites in the Northern states cared little about the fate of the black population in the South.

The third narrative, never as popular with the public as the first two, was the “reconciliatory” concept. This story stressed that the war had ended with both sides avoiding punishing retributions (e.g. reparations, war tribbunals) and instead emphasizing that Americans were “brothers once again.” One of the most visible acts of the reconciliation story was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, attended by more than 50,000 veterans of both sides (most elderly Union veterans), various battles were re-enacted and a great spirit of camaraderie prevailed. President Woodrow Wilson paid tribute to the bravery of the men, the Christian act of forgiveness and a new spirit of national unity.

The fourth, and least well known of the narratives, was that of “emancipation,” that one of the major goals of the war was to free the slaves and that one of its major accomplishments was the new legal guarantees of black civil rights contained in the 13th and 14th amendments.

In the south, this strand of memory lived in the remaining community of black leaders, but never was aired publicly in the white society. The attempt to impose social change by newly emancipated blacks was vehemently opposed at every turn. Rabid anti-black violence broke out. Between 1882 and 1968, 4,742 Americans (virtually all black men) were tortured and killed in lynchings throughout the South.

Although a handful of black leaders, including Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells tried to call attention in the North to the perpetuation of white supremacy and anti-black violence in the South, their voices remained isolated in a society flooded by immigrants from Europe with no memory of the war and preoccupied with economic advancement.

As Cook observes, “By 1900, the American republic was an assertive imperialistic power in which the mass of its nonwhite population was disenfranchised, legally segregated and liable to be lynched with impunity.

The federal government, eager to establish its place in the world as a rising republic, chose to portray the Civil War as a “contest that had saved the United States as a nation with a unique democratic mission in the world” and the home of people enlightened enough to join hands as brothers after bloody conflict that might have permanently divided other nations.

The competing historical narratives, for a time, played a key role in national politics.

The more populous North, a Republican stronghold, retained control of the presidency from 1860-1876. In the disputed election of 1876, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes ran against Democrat Samuel Tilden, a wealthy New York lawyer. The race came down to a dispute over the electoral votes of three southern states: South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida, the only Southern states where Republican Reconstruction governments held any power. In the famous “corrupt bargain,” a bipartisan electoral commission awarded the election to Republican Hayes with the secret understanding that federal military support for the South’s remaining Republican organizations would be withdrawn.

With the Democrats now able to count on the “Solid South,” the region played an important role in national politics for the next 80 years. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt counted on Southern electoral votes to get elected and he rewarded the region with massive federal building projects including the Tennessee Valley Authority, numerous army bases and naval shipyards and the Oak Ridge nuclear facility.

Civil War Memories is an important contribution to American historical studies, but it is also an interesting read, at least for those of us interested in the great national struggle.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes that illustrate the many skirmishes between the competing narratives. As a frequent visitor to Washington DC, one I found particularly interesting was the battle over the construction of the Lincoln Memorial.

While we take it for granted today as an essential part of the national mall, it almost never got built. The Republican Party, restored to power by the 1896 election of President McKinley, wanted a prominent Civil War monument on the mall, one linked to the Union Victory. A large statue of Abraham Lincoln, Republican war leader, was a natural choice. A bipartisan architectural commission was formed and could not agree on a recommendation and the project stalled.

With the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, progressive Democrats, already promoting a “City Beautiful” movement in the District, endorsed the project. Wilson, although a Democrat born in the South, was an advocate of a strong executive and accepted a temple-like design with a massive statue of the martyred president. The project was finally completed in 1922.

In his concluding chapter, Cook notes the danger of the “dual heritages” approach to the Civil War. While attempting to “respect” both southern white memories and African American memories of the conflict, is “likely to sustain rather than combat racial oppression.”

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