The end of the combat of arms in April 1865 began the combat of memory over the meanings of the American Civil War. For Southern whites and freed former slaves the stakes could not have been higher.
White planters knew that if the war was recalled as a revolt by wealthy slave owners against the first modern democracy to preserve black men and women as mere property that they could never again occupy a leading role in the republic they had willingly sacrificed 600,000 lives to destroy.
African Americans knew that their transition from chattel to citizenship depended on the support of a Northern electorate whose anger at the haughty manner in which Southerners had plunged the country into the worst war in American history made them a vengeful ally of the freedmen.
Writing a hundred years after the war, Robert Penn Warren wrote that Civil War memory still penetrated into the consciousness of America. “The Civil War is our felt history-history lived in the national imagination”, he wrote during those early years of the Civil Rights Movement. Penn Warren said that all Americans draw lessons from the war. One lesson is that “slavery looms up mountainously” in the American story, but the other is that “when one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten,” or as William Dean Howells put it more succinctly, “What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending”.
African Americans tried to deny a happy ending to the Civil War, or any ending to it at all, before full equality was achieved.
Historian David Blight’s important book on the creation of Civil War memory, Race and Reunion, tells the story of how in American culture “romance triumphed over reality, sentimental remembrance won over ideological memory…as a culture, we have preferred [the Civil War’s] music and pathos to its enduring challenges.” He says that the war “haunts us…but often we do not face it.”
Immediately after the war ended, memory favored freed slaves.
Once despised abolitionists were cast as unarmed heroes who had recognized the danger of the Slave Power of the Old South. These abolitionists advanced the theory that the war represented America’s march towards equality and full democracy.
Less ideologically determined Northern soldiers’ memories saw the blacks as allies of the Union army and as the rescuers of lost soldiers and escapees from the South’s notorious prisoner of war camps.
Both memory sources saw the Southern elites as treasonous, anti-democratic, and barbarously violent.
African American leaders like Frederick Douglas worked untiringly to keep these memories alive. They hailed Abraham Lincoln as the bringer of a new birth of freedom to America, insisted that the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of non-whites was central to its meaning, and reminded Northern veterans and their families that nearly 200,000 Southern blacks had volunteered to fight beside them in the Union army to preserve the United States as a haven of freedom.
But, Blight says, “in the half century after the war, as the sections reconciled, by and large, the races divided.” This was reflected in popular novels of the time. By the 1890s romantic fiction often involved secret love affairs between the daughter of a Confederate veteran and the son of a Union soldier. The parents at first try to stand in the way of a match that would unite two families that three decades earlier were involved in deadly warfare. When the lovers marry, they bring about a reconciliation of the families, symbolic of the reconciliation of the North and South. There, were, Blight writes, no similar romances of racial reconciliation in which the daughter of a planter marries the son of a freedman as a harbinger of reconciliation between former slave owner and slave.
To emerge as a world power, the United States had to craft a nationalism that had never existed during its first century of independence. A country in which the powerful in the North and the powerful in the South were permanently at odds could never challenge Britain, France, or Germany on the world stage.
Blight writes that “The memory of slavery, emancipation, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments never fit well into a narrative in which the Old and New South were romanticized and welcomed back to a new nationalism”. Instead of examining the war’s deeper meanings, Northerners gradually accepted the Southern white claim that the war was never about slavery and that the real focus of history should be on the heroism of the young white Americans involved in the war, their loyalty to what they believed to be right, and their devotion to duty.
Southern white interest in maintaining this fiction was so great that state school boards across the South barred the use of textbooks that included a realistic treatment of race in their discussions of the war. National textbook publishers accordingly de-historicized their books to protect the tender sensibilities of the grandchildren of the Confederates.
The extremes to which the Southern white effort to control history were willing to go can be seen in the 1911 response to an essay on the war by an academic historian. Enoch M. Banks taught at the University of Florida. He published an article on the war’s Fiftieth Anniversary in which he said that after full study of the issue he had concluded that the “fundamental cause of secession and the Civil War…was the institution of slavery”. This essay stirred a firestorm of denunciation across the South where newspapers denounced his “false and dangerous” views. State funding for the university was threatened and Banks resigned his professorship.
As the North accepted the Southern white interpretation of the war, it also embraced its notions of racial segregation, and, Blight says, a “segregated society demanded a segregated historical memory.” The new history of the war that emerged in the early 20th Century, essentially wrote blacks out of its narrative. When African Americans tried to assert their freedom as central to the war by holding Emancipation Day celebrations and commemorations of Lincoln’s birthday every year, they came to be viewed as distorters of the true meaning of the war. Blight says that for blacks “Lincoln was their icon” and the Emancipation Proclamation their Magna Carta, but whites now took a jaundiced view of “Old Abe” and often seemed to forget the Proclamation entirely.
In 1875 Fredrick Douglas had asked if war among the whites had brought emancipation for Blacks, what would peace bring? During the half century after he uttered that question, peace meant the increasing degradation of blacks and the whitewashing of memory.