Late last year, Glenn W LaFantasie came up with The top 12 Civil War books ever written for Salon magazine. A bold list with a lot of caveats (no biographies, no series or multivolume works, no fiction.) And if you’re interested, you can check out his choices, and the four dozen comments about the same.
But I came to a dead stop when he described his #5 book, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory” by David W. Blight (2001), which I have never read. It’s because the description seems so important to our 21st-century lives in America:
[It] explores how the past is connected to the present by looking at the ways in which Americans have remembered the Civil War. His deeply researched and carefully crafted study argues that after the war white veterans, Union and Confederate, facilitated the reconciliation of the two sections by consciously avoiding the fact that slavery had brought on the sectional conflict, choosing instead to celebrate the courage that they and their comrades had brandished in battle. Less consciously, they and their fellow Americans found this new narrative — this rewriting of history based on a kind of historical amnesia — comforting and restorative. Reunification became a joyful event, but it came at a steep price. After Reconstruction, Northerners and Southerners alike took hold of a “Lost Cause” ideology that showed pity toward the South in its defeat, accepted Jim Crow policies that deprived blacks of their civil rights, and pushed for policies and practices that would ensure white supremacy across the land. Blight carefully avoids grinding axes as he makes his argument, which taken as a whole helps to explain why America today continues to wrestle with the seemingly endless and divisive issue of race, even while a black man resides in the White House. Here is a powerful book, artfully written by a scholar of learned poise who believes that by knowing the past we might better know ourselves.
I was wowed by the description, and if the book is as good as its review, it seems evident that I, and perhaps many of us, should be reading it.