By Gregory Rodriguez
David W. Blight, a historian at Yale University who has written seven books and edited many more, stopped by Zócalo’s offices in December of 2018. Earlier that day, The New York Times had named his most recent book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, one of the top ten books of the year. Blight said he was stunned when he heard the news, having worked on Douglass’ biography for most of his adult life. He added that he was surprised—and delighted—to realize how much Americans continue to care about reading history. He sat down with Zócalo Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Gregory Rodriguez to talk about his 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. They discussed the differences between memory and history, the three competing stories Americans tell about the Civil War, and why Walt Whitman is our death poet.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
What is the difference between memory and history?
Well history tends to be, in my view, what historians do. It’s this reasoned reconstruction of the past from evidence. We are never untied from that evidence. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be done in the academy: There are lots of good historians who do not have academic jobs, and many of them are on the best seller list.
On the other hand, memory tends to be how real people—groups of people—process the past, and how they create stories and narratives of the past. Whether they get it from schooling, from family, from church, from political rhetoric, or however they come by it, memory is the sum of the stories that people believe they are living in. Sometimes that’s borne of their ethnicity. Sometimes that’s borne of their culture; borne of their political persuasion; borne of their sense of nationhood; borne of their sense of an immigrant past. The narratives we believe we’re living in our heads are memory, collective memory. And every person out there on the street beyond the window in this room has a sense of the past in their minds.
They don’t think about it all the time. Everyone walking around on the streets in Los Angeles right now has a sense of the past. They got it by a variety of means, first family usually, grandparents in particular. Our job as historians, if we are traditionally trained historians, is to be able to write about the past in ways that hopefully—either through people reading us, but more likely through film and documentary, or even more likely through schooling—penetrate those stories that they carry in their heads, from their families, from their churches, with good, solid history.
The difference between history and memory is quite profound.
Is memory more visceral than history?
Memory is more visceral. There’s more of it, if you think about it. There’s far more memory.
At what point do they coincide? Do they have to coincide? Does memory have to have the evidence that you say history has?
No, it doesn’t have to, and that’s the problem.
It can be a complete fabrication?
Fabrication, yeah. I had a German-born grandmother who used to tell these wonderful, wild tales. We loved it as kids. She was kidnapped by Indians in Ohio, and she was, oh God, it was just, you know, all kinds of crazy stuff she used to tell us. Now, at some age, I stopped believing a lot of that, but it put in my head a certain, deep kind of mythic sense of my grandmother’s immigrant experience.
That was your memory as a child.
It was part of it, and I think some people grow up with an even deeper, more profound sense of that past from parents and grandparents, and only schooling begins to, you hope, penetrate that. There’s far more memory than there ever is history.
You’re implying that ideally memory should somehow connect with history?
Yes. You hope.
Does good history tap into visceral memory?
It needs to, because it needs to know its audience. We need to try to write history and meet people where they are. Now, for example, the Lost Cause. Deep, great—your word, visceral—mythic set of stories about the meaning of the Civil War and what the Confederacy was about, and what slavery was about, and how Southerners never fought for slavery, and so on. That became a powerful, almost overwhelming, set of narratives that wasn’t just for Southerners. It’s the way Northerners bought into it. We need history to penetrate that in careful ways; to try to explode it in some ways; but also to slowly and surely try to replace it with something more borne of serious evidence.
Given that you acknowledge that memory can be fabricated, what is the difference between collective memory and myth?
Well sometimes there isn’t really any difference between collective memory and myth. I like the word myth. Now the problem of that word of course is that in common parlance it tends to mean the great Greek myths, or the great German myths. Every culture has these myths, and sometimes they are the deep, deep stories that define us, and they’re very important. As Joseph Campbell showed in his famous work, you can’t get rid of myths. You don’t want to get rid of myths. They are the stories by which we define our identities, our cultures, our selves. I like to quote Roland Barthes, who said, “Myths are those great narratives and stories about which we forget that they were ever made up. They just exist.”
Now we have to recognize that. I mean, there are deep American myths. You think of classic American myths: the city on a hill, the nation that always solves its problems, the nation of creeds and idealism, the nation that saved the world in the Second World War, and so on. There’s a way in which you don’t want to destroy some of those myths, but you want it to be rooted and based in real history as best you can.
A word that a lot of others have used, and historians tended to use first, was simply traditions. When is memory simply the traditions by which you grew up, or by which you define yourself, or by which you practice rituals in your life?
When I was in college I felt that academics thought their job was to tell students that there was no Santa Claus. Is that their role, to explode the tidy myths that we were taught in elementary school?
Yes, in some ways that is our role as historians. I’m afraid it’s true.
Then why teach children such myths in the first place?
Well, because some myths are more harmful than others. Some myths simply embed in a child a sense of storytelling. What’s one of the first things we do with children? Read them a story. Does that story have to be somehow genuinely true? Does it matter? Are the great fairy tales true? Of course not, but what we’re doing with children, because they’re humans, is we’re helping them develop what may be something we’re hardwired for, which is story.
I mean, the neuroscientists have had a lot to teach us about this. If they’re right, we’re hardwired for story, for a tale with a beginning, a middle, and some end, and probably a hero or a villain. In the great mythologies the cultures have developed, truth or fiction really isn’t even the point.
OK, but speaking specifically about the U.S., can you mention one myth that American children are taught that you feel is destructive, and that therefore has to be untaught in freshman history?
Well, that the American founding was of a republic, you know, nearly perfect, rooted in classical creeds, and that it was a society that launched itself on a history of improvement. We have to find ways to show—we have found ways to show, and it’s in textbooks now, and it’s in curriculums, although it’s always under duress—that America was also founded in slavery. It was founded in a massive slave system that grew in leaps and bounds in the 19th century, and became the stem of the American economy. We have to be able to help young people understand that, yes, the creation of the American Republic was an amazing event. There were very few republics on the globe. But that also 25 of the 55 signers of the Constitution were slaveholders. There would have been no constitution without the three or four classic compromises on slavery within the constitution. Slavery was the backbone that built the American economy in its first 80 years.
Which brings us to, what I think, is the brilliance of your book Race and Reunion. Instead of correcting an old myth by introducing a new one, you have identified and laid out three competing memories Americans have had about the Civil War. What are those three broad visions?
The first I called “reconciliationist memory,” which was this story that started immediately after the war, particularly at Appomattox. This idea that everybody fought heroically. Everybody fought for their sense of right, but in the long run they had to find a way to reconcile this terrible division that led to the Civil War. Reconciliationist memory eventually became probably the most dominant, for lots of reasons.
A second form of memory I called “white supremacist memory.” I remember puzzling a long time about what to call that, but that became, in essence, this Lost Cause ideology. The Lost Cause stories were an ideology, they were a racial ideology. This was the story fashioned by ex-Confederates as an explanation of their defeat. In time, it became more than just a kind of nostalgia for an older past, a nostalgia for when they had power, a nostalgia for a greater time in a pastoral past. It eventually became a victory narrative. This white supremacist memory became a victory narrative, and the victory they were celebrating was the victory over reconstruction.
The third kind of memory I called “emancipationist memory.” It never flowed off the tongue perfectly, but what I obviously meant by that was this strain of narratives and stories that, borne out of abolitionism, were led by Frederick Douglass and other former abolitionists, but by no means only black abolitionists. This strain of story and memory said the war was about slavery. The destruction of slavery in the war and all that bloodshed was its greatest principal result. And the remaking of the American Republic in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and other civil rights laws in reconstruction, was the reinvention of an American Republic.
That emancipationist version of memory is going to, by and large, lose this debate in the 50 years or so after the war. Lose in the sense that the more dominant memory became some combination of reconciliationist and white supremacist memory.
The important thing is that this emancipationist memory never died. It always had its tremendous spokesmen. And the lost cause ideology, or white supremacist memory, emanating from the South, always had dissenters as well. Such that by the turn of the century into the early 20th century, and certainly over the course of time, that emancipationist narrative was always there for us to rediscover and re-tap to explain this war much more fully, and much more, I would say, accurately over time.
How is it that the emancipationist vision never died? How did it survive? Who kept it alive? When and how was it resurrected?
Well it was never utterly hiding, by any means. It survives on two levels, which is almost always the case. One is among leaders of thought, intellectuals. Frederick Douglass, in endless speeches in the last 25 years of his life, fought for this emancipationist memory, often at GAR reunions (of Civil War veterans from the Union) of all kinds. He was hardly alone in that. Eventually it appeared in the early writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and many others, but it also survived at a grassroots level. That’s the most important thing.
Primarily among African-Americans?
Primarily African-Americans, and allies, but especially black communities across the South and across the nation who started having all kinds of their own ritual commemorations, jubilee days, emancipation commemoration days. Whether that was Juneteenth, practiced in June, or whether that was January 1st. There were Emancipation Day celebrations, hundreds and hundreds of them, by the 1890s and into the turn of the 20th century, in black communities all over the nation. The evidence has always been there hiding in plain sight.
In my research I made tremendous use of the clipping files, for example, of Tuskegee Institute and Hampton Institute, which were two black colleges. They employed people, daily, clipping from black newspapers from the mid-1890s right onto the 1920s and even later. Especially Tuskegee. Clipping articles out of the black press, and many of those papers, some of those papers, only lasted five years, or six years, or less. They don’t exist in any digitized form, but those clipping files are full of these stories of emancipation celebrations, speeches at these celebrations, in communities.
One of the things those black communities continually celebrated was the memory of the black soldiers. They were local heroes. They were, by and large, segregated in the Union veterans’ organizations, although not entirely in the North. Black soldiers were local heroes.
How long did these celebrations last?
Well they lasted way into the 20th century. Well into the 1930s, even the ‘40s. January 1st celebrations still go on, as do the Juneteenth celebrations, which is that date in June when the emancipation was announced. It began by the announcement of emancipation in Galveston, Texas, in 1865.
It takes many, many other forms. It gets rehearsed and reinvented, which is what always happens with collective memory. It gets reinterpreted and reinvented with organizations like the NAACP, and in its monthly newspaper, The Crisis. It gets reinvented in lots of black writing, black fiction, poetry. I mean, James Weldon Johnson managed to publish a poem on page one of The New York Times, on January 1st, 1913, the 50th anniversary of emancipation. James Weldon Johnson has a poem, page one of The New York Times, mainstream newspaper, about freedom, you know.
These celebrations were always out there. I mean, and Du Bois in 1914, 1915, created, sponsored, organized, and wrote this huge pageant: The Star of Ethiopia. It was a huge event attended by thousands of people in New York. In the age of pageantry, that was a celebration of black history all the way back to Africa, but it was especially a celebration of emancipation.
The story of emancipation, and therefore a kind of emancipationist memory of the Civil War, never died. It was always there to be tapped by the next generation, and the next generation, and God knows it surely was when it came for the time of the civil rights movement. I mean, it’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I end the book with in part, is happening on the 100th anniversary of emancipation, and he directly reflects upon it.
King knew that.
Oh God, did he know that. If you read the first paragraph or two of the “I Have a Dream” speech, actually it’s more than the first paragraph. It’s Martin Luther King referring to how we are here on the 100th anniversary of freedom, and as he says, “the Negro still is not free,” which becomes the refrain of that speech. The dream metaphor in the “I Have a Dream” speech, doesn’t come until 15 minutes into the speech. The first 15 minutes of that speech is really, I say it in the book, is the greatest emancipation commemoration speech ever delivered.
Because that’s where he embeds the whole story. He says, here we are on this anniversary, and “the Negro still is not free.” Only about 15 minutes in does he float into those perorations about the dream. We tend to only listen to, or hear, the last part.
You quote Reinhold Niebuhr early on, “The processes of historical justice are not exact enough to warrant the simple confidence of the moral character of history.” What do you understand that to mean?
Well Niebuhr was trying to tell us to have humility. He comes from that deep Protestant tradition of humility. He’s trying to tell us to be careful about our certitudes, but he’s also arguing, never lose sight of the essential tragic character of history. We’re all part of it. We’re all capable of good and evil, and especially evil.
Niebuhr, the theologian philosopher, helps one understand that history is, one, never over—that history’s a very messy, complicated thing, and at its core is our human potential for tragedy. That if we ever lose sight of that—especially I think Niebuhr was arguing this as an American, to Americans. Because by and large—here’s one of your deep American myths—we don’t like the word even. We tend to use it in superficial ways. We tend not to want to view our own past as essentially tragic. I mean, we’re willing to view Russian history, if we know it, as tragic. We’re willing to view modern German history as tragic. What about our past?
Americans are always demanding—this is what Niebuhr’s trying to point out—Americans are always trying to imagine our past as always somehow progress. We are the people of progress. California is about renewal, it’s about always starting over, it’s about progress, and it has been of course. Our task as historians, our task as teachers, is to help people understand that history is always a combination of these things.
Of course there’s progress, but as soon as you think you’ve won something, as soon as you think you’ve turned that great corner of history, or as Obama used to love to quote King saying, who was really quoting Theodore Parker from the 19th century, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Every time I heard Obama say that I would think to myself, “No, it doesn’t. No, it doesn’t. Come on, and you know that.” Of course, a president has to say that, at least a thoughtful president does. Lo and behold what happens? We get a Donald Trump elected, and people are still in shock, wondering how we could go from such progress to this.
Do you consider Race and Reunion a theological work? To the extent that you are tinkering with major American theologies, and you’ve said there are three visions of this war, this war that, in Garry Wills’ words, “revolutionized the revolution.” There was the emancipationist, there was white supremacy, and there was reconciliation, but are you sifting through the theologies to create a new one?
Not consciously, necessarily. I am deeply aware that American history has theological roots. All you’ve got to do is study the Puritans for one week. All you’ve got to do is look at the American founding. The American Revolution is layered with theological rhetoric, even in the hands of people like a Jefferson or a Madison, who were not very deeply religious. They saw themselves in teleological time. They saw themselves creating something that was partly of divine inspiration.
I’m not trying to create a new theology. I am trying to help, I hope, the reader understand that narratives of the American past are never without this—like it or not—never without this theological underlay of a nation with some kind of special destiny and design. Look at our rhetoric through time. Look at presidential rhetoric through time. Look at Reinhold Niebuhr, who comes from the more tragic Protestant tradition, or more realist tradition. Nevertheless, Americans have never been able to crawl out of this idea that we are somehow living our history in some kind of religious or theological time.
However, our greatest events probably are caught up in a kind of a theological history. We just can’t seem to help it. Look at the rhetoric of World War II.
At what point did Americans start to remember the Civil War?
Oh, even while it was happening.
In what ways were they articulating that memory?
The first great crisis North, South, black, and white, are facing during the war is the sheer scale of death, and how to deal with the logistics of that death. What did it mean to have sacrifice on this scale? What’s the sacrifice for? If it’s a sacrifice for nation, then what does the nation owe its dead? That’s where you get the origins of materialization. It’s people, individual people, often women literally going to battlefields, trying to find their dead brothers, husbands, sons. In that process, they’re beginning to forge stories and memories of what this is about, and why their dead loved ones have died.
Then take it to the grassroots level on both sides in this war. Then take it to the larger level, and you think of the great rhetoric of Lincoln. Lincoln has to start explaining this war very early in his presidency. What’s it about? Especially after it lasts more than a year. And that’s when he begins to move toward emancipation. In his great state papers, his famous public letters, and then of course in the two proclamations: the preliminary and final proclamation. Then eventually in the magic of the Gettysburg Address, and then the even more magical, theological rhetoric of the second inaugural.
This is a Lincoln explaining the war. What does he say the war’s ultimately about? You read the magnificent two pages of the second inaugural. In two pages, what did Lincoln say? He said, well, we might have wished it away. We all wished for “a result less fundamental and astounding.” Which were his words. Less revolutionary, but that is not what we got. And for every drop of blood shed by the lash, it shall be paid by blood shed by the sword. That is Lincoln telling the world, this war is all about slavery. It’s all about the way slavery caused this Union—this country—to tear itself to pieces.
How did the way the Civil War ended influence the creation of memory?
You just look at the imagery; you look at the event and imagery of the surrender. The Lost Cause tradition, in some ways, was the South’s idea that it fought with great valor for homeland, independence, and not really for slavery.
How better to begin that narrative than to look what happened at Appomattox? Here’s this great General Lee, dressed to the nines in his golden sash and his sword, ready to hand it over to Grant, who says, Nah, you don’t have to give me your sword. And so the war ends in this utterly, completely dignified handshake—at the end of this unbelievable bloodletting.
It seemed so peaceful, so reconciliationist on the surface. If you’re a Southerner and you’ve lost half your family, and you’ve given everything in this war. If you want to start the narrative, start it right there: the noble surrender. They’re defeated by, as Lee said in his farewell address., by “overwhelming numbers and resources.” Lee is never going to talk about slavery. He did privately, but not publicly.
If you want to say, this was all about mutual valor, this was all about fighting for your family, your home, your land, which was invaded. You’ve got a perfect place to start the story, and then just, you know, you think of the painting that was done of Appomattox. Lee sitting there looking gorgeous, and Grant kind of just sitting there looking like a guy off the field.
Of course, what we quickly forget about that was that that was no peace treaty. That was just the surrender of an army. Grant was not making any deal with Lee—except that you’ll put down all your weapons, you’ll surrender, you’ll disband your army, and never go to war again. The rest of the political settlement of this, Grant understood, was left to the political class, was left to the nation. Appomattox is the perfect beginning of great mythmaking. Then it just grew from there.
Gary Wills wrote that with the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln “revolutionized the Revolution.”
I used it. I used that quote, I did. Great find. I did indeed, because what Lincoln does in that speech, though he doesn’t lay it out, it’s not a state paper, it’s not a policy statement. There’s nothing in that speech that says, here’s the policy we must now adopt to do this, this, and that. But he utters the word “equal” at the very beginning of that speech, which is the most vexing still, to this moment, the most vexing of all of our first principles. What the hell is equality in America? We’re still fighting it out, always will.
Right in the middle of the speech comes the metaphor of rebirth, which is the essential point of it. He says, look, all these men are dead. He’s in a cemetery, we need to remember that. He’s dedicating a cemetery, where they haven’t even buried all the people, and they’ve barely banished the stench of the dead by then. He says, look, this war, this horrible war that we still have to endure, is reinventing this country, we don’t know precisely how yet, and I’m going to be honest with you. He’s saying, I don’t know exactly how yet, but that’s what we’re doing.
It is the rebirth metaphor of that speech that makes it so powerful. We tend to, you know, we always focus on the last lines, of the people, by the people, for the people, which is his appeal to saving representative democracy. If a republic can survive, and he has that in there, can a republic survive? That’s what’s at stake.
You can read that speech and say it’s really just about the survival of a republican government, a democracy of some kind. You don’t mouth the word equality and talk about rebirth without understanding you’re talking about slavery. He doesn’t mention the word slavery in the speech, but it’s like the subtext.
What I love to do, and I did it in Race and Reunion to some extent, and I do it much more fully in the new biography of Douglass, is I show that at the very same time, late fall 1863, Frederick Douglass took a speech on the road, called “Mission of the War.” It came to be known as his mission speech, and he gave it just dozens, who knows how many times; he gave it just dozens and dozens of times throughout the winter of ‘63, ‘64. He’s still giving it through the summer of ‘64.
In that speech, where Douglass does speak for an hour and a half, not five minutes like Lincoln did, the essential argument of “Mission of the War” is the same argument as the Gettysburg Address. This is a war that is destroying the first American Republic, and a second new one must be invented, reinvented, and redefined, and it has to be redefined around the freedom of the slaves and the beginnings of their equality in law.
What is fascinating to me is those two speeches really have the same rebirth metaphor at the heart of them. Douglass uses all kinds of rebirth metaphors at the same time. The fact that Douglass and Lincoln have grown to this same argument, from where they started two years earlier, is what’s so interesting about it.
So, Lincoln and Douglass both came up with this argument independently?
Yeah, but they were not alone. They were hardly alone. Others have been arguing this too. Other abolitionists have been arguing this. Other republicans have been arguing this. All I meant by that phrase, “intellectual godfather of the Gettysburg Address,” is that the ideas in the Gettysburg Address, the central metaphor there—Douglass had been arguing that for 20 years. He’d been arguing out of this theological sense of history that he had, like it or not, rooted deeply in the Hebrew prophets, rooted deeply in the oldest of the Old Testament stories. The idea that the Temple in Jerusalem must be destroyed because it has become so poisoned and sinful, and it must be reinvented, recreated. To Douglass, his temple in Jerusalem was of course the United States. That’s all I meant by that. Douglass had been practicing this story for 20 years before ‘63.
You write that few people sought to understand the war more than Walt Whitman. Why do you say that, and what meaning did Whitman ultimately ascribe to the war?
Well, you know, Whitman is our death poet. He’s the Civil War’s death poet. There were others, but none like Whitman. It’s borne of course of the nearly two years he spent working in Washington, D.C., hospitals—nursing, nurturing the dead and the dying. Out of it came magnificent poems like “The Wound Dresser,” and so many others. Whitman’s war was the war of dying boys, dying men—on both sides.
There is a kind of deep, visceral desire for reconciliation in Whitman’s poetry. It’s a reconciliation though of watching the amputee bleed to death. It’s watching the kid, Southerner or Northerner, die of pneumonia. And so on, and so on. It’s also Whitman’s vision in his poetry—that there was an America dying here, and a new America being formed out of it. It doesn’t mean Whitman had a vision of what the country should become and be necessarily. It doesn’t even mean that he had a very far-reaching racial vision, because he had some terrible racial blind spots, did Whitman.
It was driven by sorrow?
Deep sorrow, loss, and a sense that this war had been existential, not just for thousands of dying boys and men, but maybe for humankind itself. That this had been a kind of Armageddon that he could never, ever get out of his creative mind. Whitman was, as he says in Specimen Days—and he says over, and over, and over—he could never get this experience out of his mind. It’s never not in his imagination.
Of course, it began with him looking for his own brother. He goes to the front, trying to find his own brother. If we again go back to the idea, where does Civil War memory begin? It begins in this terrible degree and scale of loss. That’s why I chose, after thinking about it a lot, to start the book with Whitman, to start with our death poet, who was there trying, but I think also knowing, that there was something here that might never be really reconciled. He says it especially with beauty and power in the Lincoln poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Sorrow and loss, a sense of sorrow and loss drove presumably many others’ desire for reconciliation.
Oh yeah. They couldn’t put it in the words of a Whitman because they don’t have the gift, but yeah. We can easily forget that. We can easily forget that even about the South. I mean, in the South you have whole communities that had been devastated. Families that have ceased to exist. Mothers who had lost all their sons. Whole communities gone. How do you process that? You need a story to process that.
What role did Memorial Day play in sectional reconciliation?
Oh, Memorial Day was huge. In this book I was so lucky to discover what I think still is the origin of it, although it had multiple origins around the country at different times. Memorial Day emerges out of an attempt to deal with the scale of death and the logistics of burial.
I was able to, just out of blind luck, discover this amazing event that occurred in Charleston, South Carolina in May, May 1st of 1865, on the old planters’ race course, the horse track of Charleston. That’s an origin of it, but with time, once Memorial Day became an official holiday in 1868, so decreed by the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans. Then in the South they started practicing an official Confederate Memorial Day, actually on three different days: Lee’s birthday, Stonewall Jackson’s birthday, and Jefferson Davis’ birthday—depending on which state you were in.
These became days of ritual memorialization, especially in cemeteries. You need only look back through world history, to look back through religious history. The American Memorial Day, at least in its early years, became a kind of All Saints’ Day, if you think of Catholic traditions in Europe. It became a day to ritually commemorate the dead and their valor without politics. The truth, of course, is politics does begin to seep into Memorial Day commemorations.
Memorial Day was a ritual of remembrance of the dead, and an incredibly solemn sort of ritual at first. It eventually got highly politicized in the rhetoric of speechmakers over time—when the Lost Cause ideology is at stake on Memorial Day, or a Union victory ideology is at stake on Memorial Day in the North.
Part of the whole story is simply that the whole country now had to find ways to deal with all of these dead soldiers. Americans had never experienced anything like this. In fact, nobody had.
How did sorrow lead to a sense of reconciliation? Wouldn’t that tend to deepen the survivors’ sense of grievance at some level?
No. A cemetery is a solemn place. If what your business is in being there is to commemorate the valor of a soldier, the quickest sensation a human being has, is to honor that sacrifice, whatever the cause.
Do you also have to honor the bravery of the person who killed your brethren?
You don’t have to, but if you want to reconcile the country—and there’s a deep wish for that in the culture, for lots of reasons—the country has to get on with business. The country has to get on with coping with the Great Depression in the 1870s. The country has to get on with all kinds of other matters. If you want to reconcile a country, how better to do it than around stories of mutual valor. Your son fought heroically. My son fought heroically. They may have killed each other, but they both fought heroically.
Is that also a way to justify your own loss and sort of to make a hero of the dead, to say their opponents were somehow great as well?
Yeah. I mean, if you just think about it, if anyone’s ever been to a military commemoration, or a Memorial Day celebration. For example, I happened to be in London in what must have been 1992, or ‘93. On the anniversary of D-Day, June 6th, and suddenly we were walking toward this park. Out ahead we saw this huge sea of blue men marching around. It was the D-Day veterans’ organization in Britain. My God, when we got up close, and they were going through all these maneuvers, and they had their bands playing, and all of them have all these medals clanging all over them. It was so deeply moving to see these men—old men—trying to stand straight and march, that you could not help being affected by that. I remember thinking about old soldiers—we have to respect that. We have to understand that.
Here again the historian has to step in and say, whoa, wait a minute. The valor of the soldier is important, but it’s not necessarily what the war is about, it’s not necessarily what the results of the war were. We can end up having commemoration utterly above, and apart from, and without politics, if we choose to. Unfortunately, the politics will come back and hit us right between the eyes.
To me, the Gettysburg reunion of 1913 was just the most powerful, poignant example of what reconciliation had done to the culture. You can celebrate mutual valor and utterly forget what the war was fought for, or about. You can create a meaning that is only about valor, and that’s exactly what happened there. There was to be no discussion whatsoever in that reunion, and it was by official policy, of the causes or consequences.
Not discussing politics was an act of politics that allowed for the forgetting of the emancipationist vision.
That’s exactly the point.
I understand how the Lost Cause turned a loss into a victory in the minds of Southerners. But how did the Lost Cause come to influence people in the North?
Lost Cause ideology ultimately conquered the North, too. That is what is most important. It was the way, not all Northerners by any means, but a large number of Northerners, now the sons and daughters of the Civil War generation, bought into the racial ideologies and the sentimental stories of the Lost Cause. That led Northerners to retreat and made possible that grand reconciliation at Gettysburg in 1913.
What was it about Northern culture that made it so susceptible to Southern propaganda?
Well, lots of things, not least of which is massive immigration, namely from eastern parts of Europe, from the so-called darker parts of Europe, the Italians and the Slavs. These new generations of people that white people now had to cope with. Massive industrialization now, which separated individual workers from the economy. A fearful set of economic circumstances, and you know, an America that is turning into something they don’t like, not unlike today. They want an America that is going to be great again. They want an America that was mostly white, and they want an America that they understand. How better to find that stability than to find it around soldiers? Good, sturdy soldiers. White men having a fight over the nature of the Republic.
You know, by the 1890s, my God, American society is becoming this massive industrial society, urbanized society, with another new depression that hits in 1893. Why not just kind of let the South have its race problem? Let the South determine its own racial situation. We’re done with that. Look what we’ve sacrificed to try to solve this race problem! Let them do it on their own now. I give up.
Plus, Northerners by the hundreds of thousands loved reading sentimental stories about the South, and sentimental stories about happy, old “darkies,” and faithful slaves. And that’s what they did.
You write that Walt Whitman feared national reunion would never be complete? How deep was this reunion?
Very deep, depending on where and when you look. This is why history matters. This is why contingency matters. If we’re talking about 1911 to 1915, the 50th anniversaries of the Civil War, what happens? Woodrow Wilson was elected president, the first Southern-born president since the Civil War. He begins to resegregate whole agencies of the federal government. We have this massive Gettysburg Reunion in 1913. If you only look at those circumstances, the Jim Crow system is almost completely in place by then. Jim Crow laws are all set. You look at that situation and you’d think, wow, this reunion is complete.
However, at the same time, you’ve got the NAACP thriving. You’ve got black colleges to some degree, thriving. You’ve got an old neo-abolitionist tradition that is not yet dead, and is going to be revived again, and again, and again. Out of that NAACP is going to come this incredible group of heroic lawyers who are going to create this litigation system that is going to start cracking Jim Crow and eventually succeed in killing it in the courts. Such that the other narratives that seem to be defeated are still there, they’re still being reworked.
There are poets and novelists and historians, like Du Bois writing Black Reconstruction, by 1935. And he’s not alone, there are many who are developing a different history to fight this memory. Lo and behold, it’s still possible for that reunion to be reimagined by the centennial of the Civil War, although it’s not. Then reimagined again after the ‘60s and ‘70s, after the civil rights movement. That’s the hope in the story here. Otherwise, Race and Reunion can be a very big downer because of where the country’s at, at its 50th anniversary.
All of which is to say, history is never over, even when it seems like a dominant story has won the day. Are we not reminded of that even when we feel like we’re on the winning side? Like when the first black president got elected in recent times, and a lot of people thought this was just the biggest turn in American history in 100 years. We were somehow becoming a tolerant, progressive country that was just going to truly be different. Again, that usually requires a lot of forgetting.
The lesson in all of this is: Never say never. History is never over. When you think you’ve won something, watch out, because it’s coming back to get you.
Gregory Rodriguez is editor-in-chief and publisher of Zócalo Public Square.
This interview is part of What It Means to Be American, a project of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Arizona State University, produced by Zócalo Public Square.