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Book Review: Remembering the Civil War

By Gordon Berg
2/24/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation

 Caroline E. Janney, University of North Carolina Press

On the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, former Confederate soldier and then-Virginia Governor William H. Mann declared, “There is no North, no South, no rebels, no Yanks.” Mann was repeating a shibboleth, familiar to many hearers, that “all is one great nation.” Caroline Janney’s account of how the war has been remembered and memorialized shows just how wrong Mann was. Her revisionist study  argues that the Lost Cause mythology and rush to reconciliation was much less pervasive than previously thought.

Janney points out that historical memories associated with terms such as “emancipationist,” “reunionist” and “reconciliationist” should be understood through a widely focused sociological lens that changed over time and were understood differently by different groups of people. “Perhaps most important,” Janney contends, “these stories remind us that the memory of the war had profound implications for partisan politics, government policy, citizenship, ideas about gender and race, and the  future of the nation.” Even as the nation commemorates the sesquicentennial, Janney reminds us, “divisiveness and competing memories have not disappeared.”

Janney’s earlier study of Ladies Memorial Associations throughout the South strengthens her argument that women played a prominent role in shaping memorialization of the war. “In the fifty years since the  war,” she maintains, “veterans seemed to have found reasons to shake hands with their former foes in the name of reconciliation, but the women—of both sides—would not be so quick to join forces.” By making Lost Cause mythology synonymous with family, home, moral righteousness and female virtue, organizations such as the United Daughters of  the Confederacy ever so slowly began to overshadow the Union Cause.

Though ending slavery was an integral component of the Union cause, Northerners did not necessarily support civil and political rights for newly freed African Americans. Janney explains how Union veterans “could embrace both reconciliation and emancipation” because, for the Union cause to triumph, “the victorious North had to welcome white southerners back into the national fold.” Union veterans, Janney asserts, “never forgot that they had fought against treason” and, while they might shake hands across a stone wall, “they never sold out to Confederate memories.”

Janney also describes how African Americans have “waged their own battles to control the war’s memory.” For them, race and slavery could never be separated. African Americans extolled the vital role “colored troops” played in preserving the Union, attended Memorial Day ceremonies, advocated a national Emancipation Day and collected money for memorials. Perhaps the wreath sent by President Barack Obama in 2011 to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which lists the name of every black soldier and sailor, represents the nation’s 21st-century commitment to grappling with the war’s complexities in order to better understand its legacy for all Americans.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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