Memory Matters

We should remember the Civil War and Reconstruction for what they were: periods of liberation that were snuffed out by white elites.

"The Gallant Charge of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Colored Regiment," July 18, 1863. MPI / Hulton Archive / Getty

In 2009, in the early days of the Obama administration, several prominent historians petitioned the president not to send a wreath memorializing Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. Scholars like James McPherson — best known for his one-volume work on the Civil War era, Battle Cry of Freedom — argued that the tradition needed to be broken so the nation could finally come to grips with what the war had truly been about: the Southern states’ quest to defend slavery. That Obama’s presidency began with this somewhat forgotten request, and ended with a national debate over the fate of hundreds of Confederate memorials dotting public spaces, is a reminder of how much memories of the past still color contemporary politics.

In This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, historian Nina Silber takes us back to another era of American history when scholars, public intellectuals, activists, and ordinary workers all argued about the purpose and the lessons of the American Civil War.

During the Great Depression, African Americans were more assertive than ever about their interpretation of the war and its aftermath — as a period of liberation that was snuffed out when white Northern elites turned their back on Reconstruction. While most white Americans wanted to remember the Civil War as a tragic misunderstanding between sections of the nation, punctuated by heroism on both sides, African Americans refused to succumb to such an easy reflection on the past.

American leftists, both black and white, also understood the stakes involved in debating the past. Silber’s father, for example, was a Communist who saw the seeds of American radicalism in the abolitionist movement and the leftist elements of the Reconstruction era. Such a memory of the past, Silber writes, “served specific political objectives with regard to interracial alliances and the struggles against Jim Crow and fascism.”

But the American left — which backed productions like Battle Hymn about John Brown in Kansas and organized the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which sent antifascists to fight in the Spanish Civil War — was not the only force trying to reshape the memory of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The federal government was too.

Helmed by Franklin Roosevelt, the American state used the interpretations of others — African Americans, the Left, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a cavalcade of historians — to craft a vision of the past best suited for its needs. Roosevelt invoked President Lincoln to assert the importance of decisive presidential leadership, while at the same time extolling Confederate General Robert E. Lee as “one of our greatest American gentlemen.” With the Lost Cause implanted in mainstream white understandings of the past, and the “Solid South” a crucial component of the Democratic Party, Roosevelt and other Democrats shied away from criticizing the Confederacy.

The role of black Americans in creating memory looms large throughout Silber’s book. Like the chorus from a Greek tragedy, figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Sterling Brown reminded the rest of America of the root causes of the war — whether or not anyone else was comfortable with it. Often, African Americans found themselves speaking only to African-American audiences. Most white audiences were blissfully unaware of publications like the Journal of Negro History or African Americans’ vibrant celebrations of Emancipation Day.

Yet the limits of the politics of memory come into play as well. Even though the Left celebrated works like Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, they too were susceptible to expedient uses of the past — inadvertently ignoring, for instance, the unique nature of chattel slavery in the United States. When writers and artists who operated under the Popular Front umbrella embraced the idea of a modern slavery involving white wage workers, they risked “los(ing) sight of the historically specific conditions that defined black enslavement, gave more attention to the plight of modern-day white ‘slaves,’ and minimized the present-day exploitation of blacks.”

In this sense, anyone using the past for contemporary debates should be careful. Whether scholars or activists, we shouldn’t sacrifice historical accuracy and nuance simply to make a political point. Looking back to the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement solely to develop a ‘usable past’” should give us all pause.

At the same time, the terrain of the past should not be ceded to the Right. Reactionaries’ use of Confederate paraphernalia in both the United States and Europe throws into sharp relief the actual stakes involved in using memory of the past.

Fortunately, the history of Reconstruction furnishes plenty of relevant examples of African Americans and white Americans working together for common cause. Instead of celebrating the Lost Cause and Robert E. Lee, we can emphasize James Longstreet’s post–Civil War loyalty to the Republican Party, and his leading of African-American troops against the White League at the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place. Instead of statues to Wade Hampton III in South Carolina, we can hail the example of Congressman Robert Elliot, an African American who led the fight for the 1875 Civil Rights Act. History shows us, time and again, the value of solidarity in political, social, and cultural movements.

The Civil War and Reconstruction eras live with us in 2019. Both for people in the Depression and the here and now, arguing about history and memory is not merely a sideshow to larger debates about political economy. Instead, it is another critical front in reshaping American society for the better.