The Central Event of Our Past’: Still Murky

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Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images
James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte in Montgomery, Alabama, during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, March 1965

Is there a decent way to commemorate war? May and November holidays, parades and monuments, placing wreaths, playing Taps? At Gettysburg, a few months after some 50,000 men and boys had been killed or wounded there, President Lincoln spoke of “our poor power to add or detract” from their heroism. One suspects he knew we would always do better at the latter than the former.

David Blight has long been preoccupied with how Americans have remembered and misremembered the cataclysm that took place between 1861 and 1865. His Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) was a valuable book about how civic leaders, historians, and writers of the early twentieth century erased what Lincoln had called “the cause of the war”—namely, slavery—from the national consciousness. At the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Blight wrote, “the ghost of slavery” was “exorcised” by a “Blue-Gray fraternalism” that featured handshakes between former enemies (staged for photographers) over the same stone walls across which they had tried to kill each other with bullets and bayonets.

Veterans from both sides were invited, but there is no evidence that a single survivor from the 200,000 black men who had enlisted in the Union army showed up. Black workers delivered supplies and cleaned the latrines. President Woodrow Wilson spoke of the “wholesome and healing” half-century of peace, and said it would be an “impertinence to discourse on how the battle went, or how it ended,” much less “what it signified.” It was as if the Civil War had been a schoolyard quarrel that turned into a brawl—and no one could quite remember, or wanted to be reminded, why.

In his new book, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, Blight returns to the question of Civil War remembrance. This time he focuses on the nation one hundred years later, and approaches the subject not by surveying cemetery ceremonies, political speeches, and newspaper editorials, but through four authors—Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin—whose writings on the legacy of the war reached a large national audience at the time of the Civil War centennial.

The National Civil War Centennial Commission, appointed by Congress and President Eisenhower in 1957, was trying to resume—more or less where the fiftieth anniversary had left it—“the consensual evasion” of what the war had been about. The commission included serious historians (Bell Irvin Wiley, Allan Nevins), but it was cochaired by the great-grandson of General Ulysses S. Grant, whom Blight describes as a “staunchly conservative superpatriot and racist,” and Karl Betts, a “media-savvy” businessman who wanted the observance to be mainly a matter, as it had been last time around, of “patriotic pageantry.” For the opening event in April 1961, thousands converged on Charleston, South Carolina, to commemorate—or celebrate …

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