The Terrible Cost of Reconciliation


Americans could never have won their national independence in 1783 without the naval and military aid of France. Similarly, the Union could not have been preserved in the Civil War if England and France had carried out a tempting and much-debated proposal to recognize the Confederacy and impose a truce that would break the Union’s naval blockade of the South. France’s Emperor Napoleon III strongly favored such joint action with Britain, and both Lord John Russell, England’s foreign minister, and William E. Gladstone, chancellor of the exchequer, advocated recognition of the Confederacy, which, as Gladstone asserted in October 1862, had by a series of military triumphs already “made a nation.”1

The American South had supplied three quarters of the raw cotton for Britain’s textile industry, the very heart of the British industrial economy, and by the summer of 1862 such cotton imports had fallen to one third of their 1860 level. This led to a “Cotton Famine” and widespread unemployment. Yet Britain’s prime minister, Viscount Palmerston, remained cautious in the face of French pressure and reluctant to give formal recognition to the Confederacy until he could be certain of the latter’s impending military victory. After a summer of Union defeats in 1862 and growing pressure from his cabinet for some kind of intervention, Palmerston and the Union were saved, at least temporarily, by Robert E. Lee’s defeat in Maryland, on September 17, 1862, at the extremely bloody Battle of Antietam. It was this longed-for if marginal Union victory that opened the way a few days later for Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The central question, for both Palmerston and later historians, was the issue of British public opinion.

In Divided Hearts R.J.M. Blackett oddly ignores, or takes for granted, the debates over the Civil War in Parliament and Palmerston’s cabinet. But he presents the most thorough and deeply researched study ever done of the British public’s extraordinarily complicated response to the American Civil War. Because of the Britons’ remarkably strong sense of linguistic, cultural, and historical bonds, the public became absorbed with the American Civil War to a degree that surpassed any other external event, even for those who regarded the once-rebellious colonies with contempt and hate. Moreover, like the British government, both pro-Confederate and pro-Union factions knew that the mobilization of British public opinion, including the disfranchised working class, would have a crucial effect on British intervention and thus on the outcome of the American war. Though Britain was surely not a democracy, public pressure had been decisive in such earlier decisions as Catholic emancipation, political reform, and the freeing of colonial slaves.

Even readers familiar with Civil War literature will be astonished by the extent and diversity of British anti-Union opinion, especially during the period from April 1861 to October 1862. As might be expected, the landed aristocracy, country gentlemen, Anglican clergy, and even many lawyers, doctors, and other professionals supported the right of the South to leave the Union. Apart from the pro-Confederate Tories and Whigs, many Liberals had supported the moves for self-determination by Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, and others, and saw an element of hypocrisy when the Northern “children of revolution” took up arms to prevent their Southern brethren from proclaiming independence.2 Liberals were no less antagonized by Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, the imprisonment of political dissenters, and the North’s restrictions on freedom of the press.3 Indeed, such arbitrary actions nearly ignited war with Britain in 1861 when Union naval officers removed two Confederate agents, James Mason and John Slidell, from a transatlantic British mail packet, the Trent. England even sent troops to Canada before Union apologies and the freeing of Mason and Slidell began to mitigate British fury.

Surprisingly, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society refused to take any part in the Civil War debate. By 1861 the first two generations of British abolitionists were dead or decrepit (William Wilberforce’s conservative son, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, supported the Confederacy). The numerous Quaker abolitionists opposed war of any kind, and the British followers of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who had favored secession of the North on ethical grounds, were dismayed when their American counterparts renounced nonviolence and appeared to have been caught in a frenzy of nationalism. Other British abolitionists argued that the slaves’ chances for a genuine emancipation would be better in an independent Confederacy, presumably more subject to British economic and political pressure.

The initial caution and passivity of British abolitionists may well have been related to a subject that has been neglected or underestimated by historians: the drastic “failure” of West Indian slave emancipation. I use quotation marks to suggest that the disappointment and embarrassment did not concern the happiness and well-being of blacks but rather the expectations of whites, including many abolitionists, who often assumed that freed slaves would work harder and more efficiently on colonial plantations. However, wherever freedpeople could find plots of land for subsistence agriculture, they fled the plantations or worked as little as possible. After the end of so-called apprenticeship in 1838, both Britain and the Southern states absorbed a stream of evidence showing that freed blacks did everything they could to escape slave-like gang labor, and that plantation production and land values had plummeted. The evidence showed moreover that Britain had desperately turned to India and other poverty-stricken regions to find thousands of indentured laborers who could be transported to the West Indies, and that Cuba and Brazil, which still imported large numbers of slaves from Africa, had greatly prospered, especially in producing sugar and coffee for the world’s expanding markets.

As Thomas Carlyle summed up the matter in his essay “Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question,” published in 1849, the freed slaves had simply refused to work and the economies of the West Indies had collapsed. Lord Wolseley, Blackett tells us, “was convinced that West Indian emancipation had been ‘a failure in every respect.’” Anthony Trollope and numerous others conveyed the same message of Negroes “squatting” in idleness, an image confirmed by even a former Chartist, Joseph Barker, who became “one of the Confederacy’s most active proponents” after returning from a residence in the United States.

While this point falls beyond Blackett’s purview, American diplomats had deluged Southern leaders with similar tales of West Indian catastrophe, which reinforced the older horrors associated with the Haitian Revolution that took place between 1791 and 1804. Interpreting these disasters as the inevitable results of French and British abolitionism, Southerners greatly overestimated the power of Northern abolitionists and thus escalated their demands in a self-defeating way. This finally antagonized many moderate Northerners and thus contributed to secession and civil war, despite Southern dominance of the federal government from Washington’s time to that of President Buchanan (1789–1861).

James Spence, the Liverpool merchant who led the pro-Confederate movement in Britain and wrote over forty articles for the anti-Unionist London Times, was also aided by the growth in Britain of anti-black racism. Frederick Douglass and other African-Americans who visited Britain were shocked by this transformation in the years between 1845 and 1859. Part of the change can be attributed to the immense and sudden popularity in Great Britain of “Ethiopian Minstrels” and “nigger dancing.” Pro-Confederate Britons tended to see Southern and Northern whites stereotypically as the descendants of noble cavaliers and of oppressive Puritans and regicides. Similarly, minstrelsy stereotyped blacks as happy-go-lucky, monkey-like subhumans. This view of African inferiority was increasingly confirmed, on a supposedly scientific level, by such groups as the London Anthropological Society, founded in 1863, to say nothing of various species of Social Darwinism.

But the influence of Spence, the Southern Independence Association, and other supporters of British intervention began to wane in the summer and fall of 1862. Rumors that the government was seriously considering recognition of the Confederacy alarmed large numbers of Britons who equated a Union victory with furthering social and political reforms in their own land. It was no secret that the strongest supporters of the Confederacy were precisely those privileged minorities who opposed labor unions and the extension of suffrage in Britain. No less important, Lincoln’s commitment to slave emancipation gave a moral objective to the preservation of the Union, a goal that coincided with an abstract and residual British pride in having led the global struggle for the liberty of slaves.

During the first part of the war, most Britons thought that the North had no chance of victory; even the able American ambassador Charles Francis Adams concluded that it was only a matter of time before Britain recognized the Confederacy. Yet defenders of the Union took it as their task to convince the British government to continue on its course of neutrality, and to persuade most of the working and middle classes that a united, democratic America was a symbol of hope for all people favoring political reform as well as a place of refuge for the world’s oppressed. These were the arguments of John Bright, the liberal manufacturer and MP from Birmingham, who helped to overcome the appeal of Confederate agents like the Swiss-born Henry Hotze, who published many articles in the press. Bright’s campaign gained much ground when working-class leaders organized and financed a huge meeting of the Union and Emancipation Society in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall a day before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

While Lincoln’s actions undermined those abolitionists who contended that slaves would have a better chance of freedom in an independent Confederacy, a large cadre of African-American speakers, including J. Sella Martin, William and Ellen Craft, and Henry “Box” Brown, challenged racist stereotypes and kept reminding Britons that slavery stood at the center of the American war. Nothing could embody this point more forcefully than the speeches of William Andrew Jackson, the escaped slave and former coachman of the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis.

Blackett observes that the British public was surprisingly well informed about America; the frequent meetings and rallies concerning the Civil War were not spontaneous but carefully planned and organized. Even so, there was much heckling and disruption, as when pro-Union groups would join in singing “John Brown’s Body” to drown out pro-Confederate speeches. Though pro-Confederate agents succeeded in organizing many unemployed workers in Lancashire, this was not the case in the cotton towns of Scotland and Ireland. A larger than expected number of millowners supported the Union cause, as did an increasingly wider cross section of businessmen and manufacturers. Thus despite the large number of pro-Confederate newspapers, Blackett documents an overwhelming public enthusiasm for the Union during the last years of the war, culminating in widespread acclaim, grief, and huge funeral processions following the assassination of Lincoln, whose portrait would long be a common fixture in British artisan homes.

Though Blackett fails to recognize the importance of free-labor ideology, he makes it clear that a Confederate victory would have created an enormous impediment to the growth of democracy in Britain. This conclusion, underscored by the political and class alignments in Britain, conforms with the grim speculations of the economic historian and Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel. After briefly surveying the plight of most workers in Europe and even England in the 1850s and 1860s, Fogel suggests that a Confederate victory would have delivered a devastating blow to antislavery and progressive politics, replacing democracy and liberal reform with “a drive for aristocratic privilege under the flags of paternalism and the preservation of order.”4

Given the high productivity of slave labor, an independent Confederacy could have exploited its monopoly on cotton by passing on a small sales tax to consumers, a tax that would have financed a huge standing army, along with expansionist, proslavery policies that might well have led to Confederate domination of Latin America and a reversal of Britain’s antislavery pressures on Cuba and Brazil. While Fogel is fully aware that the abolition of American slavery brought “no heaven on earth,” there is much to be said for his argument that Confederate independence would have greatly increased the power of the most conservative movements in much of the world.

Even the South’s military defeat did not prevent British conservatives from raising money to place a statue of Stonewall Jackson, created by a famous British sculptor, at the Capitol Square in Richmond, Virginia, once the state had been “redeemed” from Reconstruction and had elected as governor a former Confederate general. British aristocrats thus contributed to the powerful legend of the South’s Lost Cause and to what I have called the Confederates’ “ideological victory,” which dominated American culture until the mid-twentieth century and still thrives in parts of the South.5


The immensely important but neglected story of “the Civil War in American memory” is the subject of David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion, which has won the third $25,000 Frederick Douglass Book Prize and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize. It will strongly influence the writing of post–Civil War history for decades to come. Indeed, Race and Reunion is surely one of the four or five most important works in American history written in the past decade.

More convincingly than any other historian I know of, Blight explains one of the most troubling questions for the understanding of American history: why it became accepted wisdom from the 1870s to the 1960s, among American historians as well as white students from grade school through college, that states’ rights, not slavery, was the cause of the Civil War or, as many Southerners have long insisted on our calling it, “the War Between the States.” As late as 1947, as I can clearly remember when I was a GI Bill veteran in an Ivy League college, an aging professor of history could teach us that slavery in the American South was a benign and civilizing institution, but uneconomical and thus of minor importance in American history; that the Civil War was a preventable but heroic tragedy, fomented by a few extremists in both North and South; that the war led to the “emancipation” of a people wholly unprepared for such sudden freedom and thus easily manipulated and corrupted by opportunistic “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags”; and that only such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, who played upon the superstitious fears of the “half-savage, half-childish Darkies,” could begin to restore order.

In Race and Reunion Blight explains in imaginative detail how such views became entrenched. He examines the different ways Americans remembered, interpreted, and honored their most divisive and traumatic experience from the turning point of the Civil War, in 1863, to the culmination of the semicentennial of the war’s end in 1915. Because race was so deeply involved in the causes, significance, and outcome of the conflict, Blight skillfully keeps “the problem of race” in view in every chapter, especially as denial of the war’s impact on race became the formula for sectional reconciliation and acceptance of white supremacy.

Blight quotes William Dean Howells’s famous words that “what the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Despite the extraordinarily voluminous literature on the Civil War, few accounts convey the fear, panic, carnage, brutal violence, and suffering that continued to infect the nightmares of veterans,6 to say nothing of the rubble, ruins, desolate landscape, and crowds of black and white refugees seen throughout the South by 1865. As Blight points out, however, both Northern and Southern whites found it much easier to honor the dead and hold ceremonies amid forests of white gravestones on “Decoration Day,” later called Memorial Day, than to confront what Blight terms “the logic of emancipation” and “the stirrings of racial equality.” It was easier to commemorate and sometimes sentimentalize the death of 620,000 American soldiers than to remember that the Union victory depended, to a considerable degree, on the enlistment of nearly 200,000 African-Americans, who, like Henry C. Hoyle, could write home about their “struggle for freedom, liberty and equal rights.”

But by the mid-1890s the romanticizing of Civil War heroism helped to counteract mounting concerns over greed and religious skepticism. The battle-scarred veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who had seen many of his friends and comrades die in the war and was himself deeply skeptical of conventional faith, addressed a graduating class at Harvard as follows:

I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he does not see the use.

Holmes’s words, which seem especially shocking after the twentieth century that he was then approaching, totally ignored the racial implications of his own war.

Blight’s major theme, as he describes the frequent “reunions” of white Union and Confederate veterans, is that the yearning for a “redemptive” sectional reconciliation required a “harmonious forgetfulness” of slavery, emancipation, and even minimal African-American rights. “In this vision of the terms of Blue-Gray reunion,” he writes, “slavery was everyone’s and no one’s responsibility. America’s bloody racial history was to be banished from consciousness; the only notions of equality contemplated were soldiers’ heroism and the exchange of the business deal.”

The quest for sectional harmony drew enormous cultural and psychological support from the novels and eventually the films (such as Gone with the Wind) depicting “the plantation legend,” with its sentimental imagery of faithful and comic slaves. The Virginian Thomas Nelson Page and his numerous popular imitators established the model for the postwar generation. Thus as “Sam,” one of Page’s typical darkies, recalls the blissful times “befo’ de war,” he muses:

Dem wuz good ole times, marster—de bes’ Sam ever see!… Niggers didn’ hed nothin’ ‘t all to do—jes’ hed to ten’ to de feedin’ an’ cleanin’ de hosses, an’ doin’ what de marster tell ‘em to do; an’ when dey wuz sick…de same doctor come to see ‘em whar ten’ to de white folks…. Dyar warn’ no trouble nor nothin’.

In a story by Joel Chandler Harris, written in 1877, the entertaining old black man Uncle Remus saves a Confederate family and even shoots a Yankee who is about to kill his master. Blight points out, however, that in the much more widely read 1880 version, Remus

saves the Union soldier whom he has wounded as a loyal rebel, and then gives himself and his labor to all in happy reunion. Uncle Remus, therefore, was the ultimate Civil War veteran—he fought on both sides, he saved the Union, and as the old representative of his race, he demanded nothing in return.

For Blight one of the few admirable writers of the period was the novelist Albion Tourgée, the author of the Reconstruction novel A Fool’s Errand, who challenged the plantation literature filled with “happy darkies, steadfastly loyal uncles and aunties.” Tourgée perceived that “to the American Negro the past is only darkness replete with unimaginable horrors,” and that “the farther he gets away from slavery, the more bitter and terrible will be his memory of it.”

Blight emphasizes the importance of “the emancipationist vision,” tracing how it originated with black and white abolitionists and was reflected in Lincoln’s revolutionary call for a new birth of freedom. It was a view that was always centered on the “proposition” that all men are created equal. One of the first major events celebrating this tradition occurred when over one hundred black leaders assembled in Louisville, Kentucky, in September 1883. While expressing their gratitude for “the miraculous emancipation” that had brought such seeming promise twenty years earlier, the resolutions of these blacks “threw a bleak picture of African American conditions,” in Blight’s words, “at the feet of the nation.”

In his keynote address at this meeting, Frederick Douglass referred to the “feeling of color madness” and the “atmosphere of color hate” that pervaded “churches, courts, and schools, and worse, the deepest ‘sentiment’ of ordinary people.” “In all relations of life and death,” Douglass testified, “we are met by the color line…. It hunts us at midnight, it denies us accommodation…excludes our children from schools…compels us to pursue only such labor as will bring the least reward.”

Speaking only days before the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, opening the way for later Jim Crow laws throughout the South, Douglass made the telling point that the revolutionary measure of slave emancipation had come “from the hell of war,” including “fields of smoke and fire strewn with…bleeding and dying men.” It was therefore linked with “deadly hate and a spirit of revenge,” which had engendered a Southern determination to reverse the racial revolution by reconstructing the very meaning of the Civil War.

Although blacks and a few white writers continued to defend the emancipationist vision of the war, anticipating the much later civil rights movement, Blight sees the fiftieth anni-versary celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1913, as the ultimate triumph of national reconciliation at the African-Americans’ expense. As Union and Confederate veterans, many of them wearing their old uniforms, shook hands over one of Gettysburg’s low stone walls, “everyone was right, no one was wrong, and something so transforming as the Civil War had been rendered a mutual victory of the Blue and the Gray.” (See illustration on page 50.) As you look at this photograph in Blight’s book, try to imagine German veterans, in full Nazi uniform, shaking hands in 1994 with American veterans in uniform at the beaches in Normandy.

In 1913 American states appropriated $1,750,000 to ensure that every willing white Civil War veteran could travel to Gettysburg for the “extraordinary festival of reconciliation” from the first to the fourth of July. The federal government paid $450,000 to build a “Great Camp” to house and feed the 53,407 veterans, whose average age was seventy-four. In what Blight terms “a logistical and financial triumph,” more than 155 reporters gazed in awe at the five hundred electric arc lights, the ninety modern latrines, the thirty-two “bubbling ice water fountains,” and the thousands of black and white cooks, laborers, and bakers who served the guests 688,000 meals. There is no evidence that any black veterans attended this great event, which Blight terms a “Jim Crow reunion, and white supremacy might be said to have been the silent, invisible master of ceremonies.”

Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern president since the Civil War, addressed this “Peace Jubilee,” flanked by Confederate as well as American flags. During Wilson’s administration racial segregation spread through federal agencies, many blacks were dismissed from government jobs, and the Treasury Department acquired separate lavatories for whites and blacks. At Gettysburg Wilson told the crowd, “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades, in arms,…the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes” (emphasis added by Blight). The Battle of Gettysburg, which had inspired Lincoln to talk of equality and the rebirth of the nation, now seemed like some great athletic event. In 1913, Blight notes, D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon began collaborating to bring to the motion picture screen Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, a virulently racist epic about the victimized South and the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan. Two years later Birth of a Nation delighted President Wilson and conveyed to the public, in Blight’s words, the message “that emancipation had been America’s greatest and most dangerous disaster.”

It is now clear that American slavery was not doomed to some kind of inevitable economic death (“econocide,” to use the term coined by the brilliant historian Seymour Drescher). Nor was the white American public prepared in the mid-1860s for immediate and total slave emancipation. In 1858, in his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln predicted, after affirming the total wrongness of slavery, that “I do not suppose that in the most peaceful way ultimate extinction would occur in less than a hundred years at the least.”7 In other words, he was thinking of 1958 at the earliest, but four years later, in 1862, concluded that the South’s “rebellion” could not be overcome unless the primary cause of the conflict was eliminated.

To return to the absurd thought of Nazi and American veterans in uniform shaking hands, it was clearly the issues of slavery, emancipation, and racial equality, as embodied in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, that led after “the death of Reconstruction” to a Southern ideological victory that would have been inconceivable for Nazi Germany.8 Both Germany and the Confederacy suffered total and unconditional military defeat. They also experienced many years of military occupation. But unlike the Union soldiers in the South, as I can testify from personal experience, the American troops in 1945 and 1946 were warmly welcomed as “occupiers.”

Thousands of young German women were eager to find American boyfriends, and teenage German boys wanted to learn English, adopt American tastes, and even help us track down black marketers and SS officers in hiding. As a West German democracy emerged from the rubble and ashes, the evils of Nazism were repeatedly acknowledged and repudiated. Despite some feeble neo-Nazi attempts to create a Lost Cause, one can’t imagine attempts to build, in the late twentieth century, statues of Hitler, Goering, Himmler, or even Nazi generals. Of course Northerners and Southerners were both Americans and thus susceptible to appeals for reunification. Yet, as Blight makes clear, reconciliation came at the terrible cost of accepting white supremacy and rejecting the emancipationist vision. Unlike the defeated Nazis, the former Confederates had a major hand in shaping the memory and history of their defeat.

  1. 1

    It should be noted that Russia aided the Union by opposing any joint European effort to recognize the Confederacy and break the Union blockade.

  2. 2

    Of course defenders of the Union pointed to Britain’s own oppressive measures in Ireland and especially India, where thousands had been killed in the recent Sepoy Mutiny.

  3. 3

    For important recent works on Lincoln, see William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (Knopf, 2002); The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon, edited by Gabor Boritt (Oxford University Press, 2001); and Ronald C. White Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon and Schuster, 2002).

  4. 4

    Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (Norton, 1989), pp. 414–415.

  5. 5

    See David Brion Davis, “The Enduring Legacy of the South’s Civil War Victory,” The New York Times, August 26, 2001, Section 4, “Week in Review.” For evidence of the continuing power of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups, see Mark Singer, “Never Surrender,” The New Yorker, May 14, 2001, pp. 52–57; Stetson Kennedy, After Appomattox: How the South Won the War (University Press of Florida, 1995); and James M. McPherson, “Southern Comfort,” The New York Review, April 12, 2001, pp. 28–32.

  6. 6

    For evidence of this psychological legacy, see Eric T. Dean Jr., “‘The Awful Shock and Rage of Battle’: Rethinking the Meaning and Consequences of Combat in the American Civil War,” War in History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (April 2001), pp. 149–165.

  7. 7

    See Created Equal? The Complete Lincoln–Douglas Debates of 1858, edited by Paul M. Angle (University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 270.

  8. 8

    For a recent study, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post–Civil War North, 1865–1901 (Harvard University Press, 2001).