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The Reconciliation Movement

The Reconciliation Movement

The American Civil War ended in April 1865, but the debate over the political, social, and economic repercussions of the war continued well into the next century. The devastating effects of the war and questions regarding the status of former slaves divided Northerners and Southerners, often resulting in further bloodshed. Even during Reconstruction, white Americans began to seek common ground on which they could unite and forget the pain and loss of war. The reconciliation movement was an effort to obscure the legacy of emancipation and black participation in the war in favor of remembering the conflict as a fight between white Americans, Northern and Southern, which ultimately proved the honor and dignity of both sides.

Reconciliation downplayed the violence of battle, the failure to secure civil rights for former slaves, the centrality of slavery to the conflict, and the opposition to the war in both the Union and the Confederacy. White veterans of both sides embraced this movement in the 1880s and 1890s, after the responsibility of enforcing Reconstruction had been turned over to the Southern state governments. Reconciliation hid the true nature and meaning of the war for many Americans for decades to come, at the cost of creating a narrative of the war that almost eliminated the emancipationist legacy that African American citizens valued.

The Lost Cause

Reuniting the nation was a difficult task, hampered by the changes to Southern society caused by emancipation and by continued white Southern resentment of Northern influence and the imposition of federal authority. The popular postwar song, "Oh, I'm a Good Ole Rebel," epitomizes the bitter feelings of some defeated Confederates. In the song, the former Confederate soldier laments that he can no longer fight, but proclaims, "I don't want no pardon for what I was and am, I won't be reconstructed and I don't care a damn!" (Silber 1995, pp. 256–257).

The process of crafting an acceptable Southern version of the war's meaning began the moment the conflict ended. In 1866, Edward Alfred Pollard wrote an account of the Civil War that emphasized the Southern perspective and coined the term "The Lost Cause." Pollard described North and South as being separate "civilizations" and downplayed the issue of slavery by describing it as "a convenient line of battle between the two sections" (Pollard 1866, p. 46). His argument avoided questions regarding the immorality of slavery and the legality of secession. Pollard's book was mainly a narrative of military events, in which he underscored the bravery and chivalry of the Confederates, especially Virginians.

The Lost Cause myth was solidified in 1873, when former Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early (1816-1894) became president of the Southern Historical Society. Early wrote several articles that attributed Confederate defeat to the numerical superiority and industrial might of the North instead of the waning support for war among Confederate civilians or the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation. Both Pollard and Early were advocates of forgetting the war's unpleasantness and reuniting as a nation—provided white Northerners accepted the Southern version of the war.

Published Reminiscences

The process of reconciliation was greatly accelerated by a wave of publications on the Civil War in the 1880s and 1890s. The war was far enough in the past by that time that Americans became interested in reading about the conflict. Union and Confederate veterans wrote about their experiences, often filtering their memories through the lens of time and popular concepts of war. Some of the first widely read accounts appeared in newspapers, but were later compiled into such volumes as the Philadelphia Weekly Times's 800-page collection of articles by soldiers and civilians titled Annals of the War, which was published in 1879. Century Magazine also compiled articles into a volume of reminiscences published in 1887 called Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

A leading historian of the reconciliation movement observed that the authors of these accounts "unabashedly declared their own pursuit of impartial 'truth' and 'facts"' (Blight 2001, p. 164). White Northerners and Southerners were equally complicit in rewriting the history of the war in such a way that African Americans were included in only the most peripheral roles. This literature began a national healing process but also perpetuated the myth of the loyal slave and the Lost Cause's insistence that the war was not about the continuation or abolition of slavery.

The rise in public interest in the war caused some veterans to write regimental histories that emphasized bravery, heroics, and adventure, often leaving out the grim and gory details of battle. Oliver Christian Bosbyshell (b. 1839) documented his recollection of the war in his regimental history of the Forty-eighth Pennsylvania Infantry. Bosbyshell admitted that his memories "may be somewhat twinged with partiality…,but remember, it is the way that it came under my own observation" (Bosbyshell 1895, p. 14). R. M. Collins, a lieutenant in the Fifteenth Texas Infantry, recorded his wartime experience in 1893. The Confederate veteran's reminiscence featured a description of a singing contest between Union and Confederate soldiers, commenting that, "for the time Federals and Confederates were all one" (Collins 1893, p. 72). Like many veterans, Collins described white soldiers, Northern and Southern, as a brotherhood who would pass away and "answer to roll-call with Lee, Johnston, Bragg, Hood, Grant, Meade, Hancock, and the long unnumbered list of soldiers brave, who quit this life" (Collins 1893, p. 93). Collins's list of famous Union and Confederate generals indicates his belief that all soldiers had a common bond regardless of the side for which they had fought. This simplified understanding of soldiers' motivations glossed over the fact that resentment, condescension, and hatred often fueled the violence that had occurred on the battlefield.

Civilians also recounted their experiences and often used their stories to romanticize the war without placing any blame or fostering antagonism. Adelaide Smith (b. 1831) volunteered as a nurse during the war and published her story in 1911. Smith's first chapter, "A View of the Situation," contained the same simplistic explanation of the war's causes as many other Northern reminiscences. The former nurse began her narrative with the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter, without mentioning the events leading up to that day. To Smith the war was a tragic accident, which "caused the separation of hitherto devoted families" (Smith 1911, p. 11). The portrayal of the war as a family squabble, intense yet easily patched up, became popular in the writings of the reconciliation movement. Just like the war veterans who had seen battle, Smith was proud of the part she played in the conflict and declared, "I had done at least what I could in that fearful struggle to save our Union and glorious country" (Smith 1911, p. 263).

White Veterans' Reunions

Veterans played an essential role in reconciliation in the 1880s and 1890s, when white Union and Confederate veterans began to talk about forgiveness and unity. These veterans recognized one another's bravery and devotion, while conveniently forgetting the actual causes of the war. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans, held meetings featuring speakers who promoted reconciliation. In Chicago, Illinois, the Daily Inter Ocean printed a summary of a GAR meeting on January 29, 1880. A GAR official summed up the reconciliationist sentiment growing within white veterans by stating that "long before the northern troops had marched back over the imaginary Mason and Dixon's Line, they had forgiven the soldiers of the South." The speaker continued by telling his fellow Union veterans that politicians were slow to forgive, but soldiers "did not wish to shake hands over a bloody chasm, but over a saved country" (January 29, 1880).

During the reconciliation movement, white Union and Confederate veterans gathered in major cities to remember past battles and celebrate the role they played in the fighting. In Atlanta, Georgia, exposition organizers invited 300 Union veterans to attend a reunion of the blue and gray on Kennesaw Mountain in 1887. TheDaily Inter Ocean informed its readers on August 28, 1887, of the event, pointing out that the day would include barbecues, fireworks, and tributes to both Union and Confederate generals (August 28, 1887). Many of the white veterans in Chicago who listened to the call for reconciliation from their brothers-in-arms found their former adversaries willing to return the sentiment. The news of these reunions spread across the nation, informing citizens of the results of these events. The Wisconsin State Register printed an article on September 24, 1887, that declared a blue and gray reunion in Evansville, Indiana, to be a huge success, with 10,000 Union and 3,000 Confederate veterans in attendance. Indiana's governor was present and expressed his feelings about the reunion's significance, stating that "the issues upon which that unfortunate struggle were based are buried" (September 24, 1887). As the news spread about veterans forgiving their former enemies, some Americans began to look at the war differently. White Americans could conveniently forget the causes of the war and the continuation of inequality in the South, but other Americans could not.

Black Veterans' Reunions

Black veterans also gathered in 1887, but their assemblies did not share the laudatory tone of the blue and gray reunions. In Boston, black veterans gathered and drafted statements declaring it "to be the duty of the government to remedy the evils, until the colored man shall have equal protection under the law." These statements were printed in The Daily Inter Ocean on August 3, 1887, shortly before the paper ran the article about the white veterans' reunion in Atlanta (August 3, 1887). Black Union veterans didn't ignore the efforts in the 1880s to rekindle the memories of the war, but they organized separate reunions that advanced their own understanding of the war's legacy. On June 18, 1887, the New York Freeman announced the meeting of black veterans and declared that, "it will do these noble survivors of the tremendous conflict which brought the race freedom and citizenship a vast deal of good to meet again in precious times of peace" (June 18, 1887). In spite of African American efforts to draw attention to black participation in the war, however, the reconciliation movement eventually rewrote the history of the war, omitting the centrality of slavery to the conflict and neglecting to mention the sacrifices of black soldiers.

Reconciliation and Segregation

As the movement for reconciliation strengthened among white veterans, black veterans were excluded from reunions and commemorations. The most prominent example is the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg, which organizers named the "Peace Jubilee." In 1913, around 53,000 white veterans attended this function, which celebrated the bravery of both Union and Confederate soldiers while ignoring the causes or consequences of the conflict. Although some participants claimed that there were black veterans present, there is no evidence of black GAR members in attendance. Instead, the event, like the nation at the time, was segregated. The only documented black participation was that of the hired laborers who distributed blankets and erected tents for the white veterans. On July 3, 1913, Union and Confederate veterans of Pickett's charge reenacted the pivotal moment on the third-day of the Battle of Gettysburg by meeting at the infamous stone wall and shaking hands. This commemoration of the anniversary of the unsuccessful Confederate charge that ended the battle signaled the success of reconciliation and the establishment of the war as an apolitical moment in American history of which Southerners and Northerners could both be proud.

Reconciliation dictated that white Americans selectively remember the war, leaving out the aspects that contradicted the myth of the Lost Cause or invoked the legacy of emancipation and the struggle for civil rights. During the Peace Jubilee at Gettysburg, then-President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) gave a speech to the assembled veterans and spectators that reiterated the meaning of reconciliation. Wilson praised the healing brought about by peace, and proclaimed that "We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valour, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each others eyes" (Brown 2004, p. 21). Wilson was quick to proclaim an end to the feelings of hostility, but the event did not properly reflect the feelings of African Americans who had experienced the war.

It was no coincidence that so many white veterans embraced Gettysburg as a symbol of reconciliation. The battle was a Union victory but was also considered the high-water mark of the Confederacy because it was the most ambitious of the few Confederate offensives into Union territory. Moreover, the recently raised black Union regiments played no role in the fighting, enabling Southerners to emphasis the struggle between white Northerners and white Southerners, thereby conveniently forgetting that emancipation had been a major objective of the war. The agreement to celebrate Gettysburg as the ultimate battle of the war has led to the conclusion that the battle was the turning point upon which the war's conclusion ultimately hinged. The war continued for almost two years after Gettysburg; however, and the lengthy sieges of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863 and Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864 and 1865 were arguably more decisive in bringing the war to a close. Nonetheless, Confederate veterans commemorated Gettysburg as the crucial moment of the war when rebel troops advanced against overwhelming odds and courageously stood their ground against a larger force.

Monuments and Memorials

Reconciliation was also a visible process that changed the American landscape, often paying homage to famous generals and important battles while glossing over the war's devastation and the lack of equality and freedoms for black Southerners. Monuments were initially placed on battlefields by veterans and community groups to commemorate the participation of soldiers from a particular state or locality. As the reconciliation movement grew, state and local governments also built monuments to commemorate the soldiers. On April 7, 1898, the Milwaukee Sentinel announced the completion of a bronze monument depicting Wisconsin soldiers charging into battle, with one soldier taking up the regimental colors from a fallen comrade. Like most monuments, this show of pride in the soldiers who fought and died was not a threat to reconciliation but rather a depiction of the shared glorification of the war. The newspaper article noted that in order to raise the $30,000 needed to pay for the monument, a collection of autographs, sketches, and quotes would be available for purchase. This commemorative album included comments from Southern officials, and the Milwaukee Sentinel's editor commented that "It is certainly a sign of the times when ex-Confederates are contributing to the success of a monument to Union soldiers." A Virginia congressman wrote in that album that "a soldier of the Old Dominion in the war between the states, a representative of the suffering and heroic people of Richmond, Va., wishes you success in commemorating your heroic slain." When Northerners celebrated battefield heroics, they were acknowledging the Southern contention that the war was primarily a military event without any political or social dimensions. The Virginia veteran asserted the legitimacy of the Confederacy by referring to the conflict as "the War between the States" instead of using the name Northerners preferred—"the War of Rebellion." As white Northerners and Southerners reconciled by remembering the war as a disagreement between Northern and Southern states, the debate over the roles of slavery and secession was effectively silenced.

White Southerners made a conscious effort to recast the meaning of the war by celebrating Confederate military leadership as the embodiment of Southern honor and sense of duty. Proponents of reconciliation chose General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) as the representative of the Confederacy instead of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), whose prewar career as a planter and slave owner undermined the Lost Cause interpretation of the war's origins. Although some white Northerners scorned Confederate commemorations as romanticizing treason, many white Northerners accepted and admired commemorations of Lee. When the city of Richmond, Virginia, unveiled a prominent equestrian statue of Lee, Northern newspapers commented on the significance of the event. The New York Times reported that although Lee chose loyalty to his state over loyalty to his country, "There is no question at all that his conduct throughout the war, and after it, was that of a brave and honorable man" (Brown 2004, p. 98). The Minneapolis Tribune used the opportunity to criticize Lee because "at the time when his services were most needed he deserted his post and took up arms against his country." The editors of the Tribune, however, admitted that "the Lee cult is much in vogue, even in the North, in these days" (Brown 2004, p. 97).

The movement for reconciliation met resistance, but those who sought to romanticize and depoliticize the Civil War eventually won the battle for the war's meaning. Most of the nation forgot the sacrifices of black soldiers and the efforts of slaves to realize their freedom. For white Northerners, the failures of Reconstruction faded away and the Civil War became a renewed source of pride. Meanwhile, white Southerners took satisfaction in the fact that despite technical defeat, the reconciliationist history of the war and its causes had been written by the Confederacy.


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Stephen Rockenbach

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