Thoughts On David Blight’s Race and Reunion

A view this morning of I-29 between Fargo and Grand Forks.

A view this morning of I-29 between Fargo and Grand Forks.

This morning Molly and I drove north from Fargo to Grand Forks, and now we’re waiting at the GF Byron L. Dorgan International Airport to board our flight to lovely Las Vegas, Nevada. I got family in Vegas, so that’s where we’re setting up for the holidays.

While we wait for our flight, I’ve been revisiting David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001). As the title suggests, Blight looks at how aspects of the Civil War were and were not remembered in the post-Civil War era from 1865 to 1915. At the turn of the 19th century, as the self-fulfilled WASP theory of Social Darwinian thinking — also known as racism — gripped many political leaders, old Union and Confederate veterans tried to find a “happy ending” to the divisive Civil War. To do this, they decided to talk about a lot of the Civil War, but they decided not to talk about emancipation and race. They certainly turned away from memorializing it in icon and statue. In chapter 10 of this work, Blight turns out attention toward the 1897 monument dedicated to the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth. This all-black regiment was commanded by Robert Gould Shaw, a Boston Brahmin. In the context of Civil War memorials, at least in the eastern 1/3 or 1/2 of the United States, Blight says,

The Shaw Memorial was (and still is) different… the Shaw Memorial moved people emotionally. The events it commemorated compelled viewers to acknowledge that wars have meanings that go beyond manly valor. Saint-Gaudens’s relief forced the thoughtful citizen to ask how a struggle in the 1860s between white Northerners and Southerners over conflicting conceptions of the future became a struggle for blacks over whether they had any future in America at all. The monument also asserts with majestic anguish that in the nation founded by the Declaration of Independence, black men had to die by the thousands in battle or of disease in order to be recognized as men, much less as citizens. 

I think about this quite a bit. At least since 2009, I’ve been absorbed by how that same Union army carried out punitive campaigns against the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota, and how these campaigns have been remembered in regional and national history. So those are my thoughts for now. Back to the book. And back to waiting to board our flight. Happy Christmas all.


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