Reconciliation and Remembrance Overview

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Reconciliation and Remembrance Overview

By the early twentieth century, the United States had experienced a significant degree of sectional reconcilia-on. The scenes of aged veterans of the opposing sides greeting one another amicably on the battlefields over which they had once fought were touching, and the nation reveled in its burgeoning strength and returning unity of spirit. Yet the reunion was gained at the price of granting the South a negotiated half-victory despite its complete defeat on the battlefields of the Civil War.

White Southerners had launched their bid for independence in 1861 with the goal of preserving slavery. Though only about 25 percent of white Southern families owned slaves at any one time, far more than that percentage had actively and enthusiastically supported the Confederacy and the cause of slavery because the slave system offered more than mere economic benefits for those wealthy enough to own slaves. Its added dividend for white Southerners, frequently touted in political speeches throughout the prewar era, was that it kept blacks in an inferior position and assured a status of social superiority for whites, along with an imaginary equality among all whites. Many a non-slaveholding white farmer soldiered four long years in the Confederate army at least in part because he feared that Union victory and emancipation would bring him into a position of social equality with an ethnic group he feared and despised.

Union victory did indeed bring emancipation, finally cemented and made national by the Thirteenth Amendment, but the white Southerners who had just surrendered on the battlefield set out immediately afterward to insure that the demise of their slaveholders' republic did not bring about the black social and civil equality they had feared. The conventional war that had just ended now was re-born as a low-intensity conflict, with night-riding groups such as the Ku Klux Klan waging a long, wearying terrorist campaign against blacks and their white allies. The struggle, known as Reconstruction, dragged on for three times as long as the conventional war had lasted. The Northern populace grew tired of political conflict. First there had been the long decades of strife over slavery that had led to the Civil War, then the blood-drenched years of the war itself, and finally this twelve-year twilight struggle waged against foes who went about wearing the cloak of state-rights, local control, and self-determination by day—and sheets by night.

Meanwhile, Southern writers, beginning with Richmond newspaper editor Edward A. Pollard, started building the mythology of what Pollard was first to call "the Lost Cause." Within the Lost Cause myth, the Confederacy, though defeated, had fought for truth, justice, and righteousness— the cause of God and of Robert E. Lee, if the latter two were to be differentiated at all. Slavery had been a benevolent institution, according to the myth, but the Confederacy had not fought for slavery but rather for state-rights, or agrarian virtues, or, most vaguely of all, for the Southern "way of life." The North, in contrast, was the lair of low-flung, money-grubbing oppressors who lusted for the economic destruction of their virtuous and genteel betters in the South.

For its part, the North had never been politically unified and now found itself much more divided than the South. Some Northerners had been opposed even to waging a war to preserve the Union, and a still larger Northern minority had dissented from emancipation. Such consensus as there had ever been in favor of full civil rights for the newly freed slaves was even more fragile. During the years of Reconstruction, Southern resistance finally overcame the North's tenuous commitment to racial equality. In 1877 Reconstruction formally ended with the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the Southern states.

During the decade that followed, blacks disappeared from government in the Southern states as well as from the congressional delegations of those states. Black voting rights and civil rights winked out, and by the 1890s the former slaves and their descendents faced a system of second-class citizenship known as "Jim Crow." Southern whites had regained uncontested supremacy within their states, and the threat of black social equality was safely banished for the foreseeable future.

It was no coincidence that the 1890s was also the decade that saw the great surge of sectional reconciliation. The movement was based on the tacit willingness of Northerners, who had already, as a group, abandoned the political fortunes of African Americans, to accept key elements of the Lost Cause Myth. In the new Reconci-liationist version of the Civil War, both sides had fought nobly for their own equally noble causes; Southern troops had, perhaps, been somewhat braver and more heroic than their Northern conquerors; Robert E. Lee was a great American; and slavery had had nothing whatever to do with the war. White Southerners, for their part, would allow that it was for the best, all things considered, that the United States had remained united. It was on these terms that veterans in the 1890s began to hold joint reunions and other graphic expressions of sectional reconciliation. With the causes of the war forgotten, its bitterness could fade as well.

There were additional reasons for the upsurge of reconciliation and remembrance during the 1890s. Many of the war's senior participants were coming to the end of their lives. Jefferson Davis died in 1889, and his funeral and celebrated re-interment several years later were the occasions of massive outpourings of Southern devotion to the memory of the Confederacy. General Philip H. Sheridan had died in 1888, his fellow general William Tecumseh Sherman in 1891, Joseph E. Johnston a few weeks later, and Pierre G. T. Beauregard in 1893. The deaths reminded veterans of the great events they had been through and of their own mortality. More of them became interested in marking and preserving the battlefields where they had fought a quarter of a century before. In a country in which fewer and fewer people could remember the momentous events of the 1860s, men who had been soldiers in those years found that they had strong bonds in common with others who had marched in the ranks during the war, even if they had fought for the other side.

Still more reasons for reconciliation were provided by the Spanish-American War. The country pulled together to defeat a foreign foe. Evidence of the new unity could be found among the generals of the volunteer troops who went to fight in Cuba in 1898, two of whom had previously been generals in the Confederate army. One of them, the dashing cavalry leader Joseph Wheeler, on seeing Spanish troops falling back before his advancing soldiers momentarily so far forgot himself as to shout to his men, "Come on, boys! We've got the d—Yankees on the run!" Even after the Spanish-American War a ripening popular awareness of America's growing power and prominence in a world that seemed both exciting and dangerous encouraged Americans to embrace nationalism, even at the expense of forgetting what their fathers had fought for in the Civil War.

Steven E. Woodworth

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Reconciliation and Remembrance Overview

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