As a boy, I was fascinated by the Civil War. I had an illustrated history, and I would spend hours poring over its maps of great battles. When I got older, I read and re-read Bruce Catton’s histories. As an adult, I immersed myself in Ken Burns’ documentary. And when we moved to the South, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit battlefields and monuments.
Only later did it strike me that all these historical accounts shared a common flaw: they glossed over the causes of the war, and the African American experience before, during, and after it. In their fascination with the intricacies of military maneuvers and their tribute to the valor and sacrifice of soldiers on both sides, they often failed to explain what all the tactics and carnage were about. For example, while there are hundreds of Civil War memorials, there are only a handful of memorials to abolitionists, African American Civil War soldiers, the Reconstruction period, or the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in the decades following the war. I have gradually realized that this omission was not accidental.
In his magisterial reflection on the evolution of the Civil War in American memory, Race and Reunion, David Blight tells the story of how the South, having lost the war, proceeded over the next century to win the battle for the public interpretation of the war. The Southern narrative of the romance of magnolia-scented plantation days and the heroism of the Lost Cause gradually won the hearts and minds of Northerners. Eager to put sectional grievances behind them, Northerners and Southerners tacitly agreed to embrace a narrow, distorted vision of the war and its aftermath. In doing so, they conveniently neglected to mention that the Lost Cause was the cause of perpetuating slavery, that the Confederate soldiers who fought so valiantly were fighting, consciously or not, for a system as evil as the one that German soldiers fought for in the Second World War.
At best, African Americans were absent from this vision. At worst, whites in the North bought into the Southern stereotype of childish, loyal slaves who loved their masters and were woefully unprepared for emancipation – think Margaret Mitchell. Reconstruction was treated as a terrible mistake, a vindictive outrage perpetrated upon noble Southern aristocrats, a time of mercenary carpetbaggers, treacherous scalawags, and corrupt, incompetent African American politicians, rather than what it actually was – the high point of African American political power and of this nation’s commitment to racial justice. The Battle of Gettysburg was obsessively recounted and reenacted, but Lincoln’s promise in his Gettysburg Address of a new birth of freedom and equality, a full realization of this country’s founding principles that extended their promise to include African Americans, was swept under the carpet.
(Part 2 will appear tomorrow. In the meantime: are their painful stories in our own histories that we obscure with a re-telling that tries to ignore the truth and in the process twists human dignity? There is much here on which to reflect.)