The Civil War in American Memory

By David W. Blight, Yale University

"History is what you can't resign from." Robert Penn Warren

A turn-of-the-century Decoration Day postcard showing Union and Confederate veteran draped by and American flag
A turn-of-the-century Decoration Day (now know as Memorial Day) postcard

Robert Penn Warren, a Southern born and bred poet-novelist-historian, tells us that he grew up in Kentucky with a sense of the Civil War as the "emotional furniture of life." For many Americans still, at the 150th anniversary, those horrible and transformative events of 1861-65 are still deeply embedded in our national story and in our personal psyches. Warren said the Civil War was "our felt history, history lived in the national imagination... It draws us as an oracle, darkly unriddled and portentous, of personal as well as national fate."

Ten years before Warren was born in 1905, and began listening to his former Confederate veteran grandfather tell him haunting stories of the war, Frederick Douglass, the Maryland-born slave and most prominent African American leader and writer of the 19th century, died in Washington, DC. Douglass had lived a life from slavery to freedom, and in the final third of his life, from 1865 to 1895, he had contributed mightily to the national memory of the Civil War, which he considered the pivotal event of his own life and that of the United States.

In an 1883 Decoration Day speech, Douglass soared to oratorical heights as he asked his audience to remember the war's deepest meanings and out of them forge a "common memory." "I seem even now to hear and feel the effects of the sights and the sounds of that dreadful period," Douglass declared. "I see the flags from the windows and the housetops fluttering in the breeze. I see and hear the steady tramp of armed men in blue uniforms. I see the recruiting sergeant with drum and fife calling for men, young men and strong, to go to the front and fill up the gaps made by rebel powder and pestilence. I hear the piercing sounds of trumpets." Douglass was very much a Northern and African American partisan, but he had good reason to be worried by 1883. The great promises of Reconstruction for the freed people hung in the balance as the Supreme Court was about to, in effect, overturn the legal establishment of black civil rights. Disfranchisement and the earliest segregation laws were on the immediate horizon in the South. And the nation as a whole was soon to acquiesce in the repeated lynching of African Americans. So in Douglass's pledge to "never forget" rang the hopes and fears of a people, and much of the "cause" for which the war had been fought and won on the Northern side. "Whatever else I may forget," Douglass proclaimed that day, "I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it." Those words carried much of what Americans have struggled over ever since in determining the place of the Civil War in our national and cultural memory.

As much as any event in American history, the Civil War wrought almost endless short- and long-term consequences. The first profound burden for all people in both sections was dealing with death and suffering on a scale no one had ever imagined. The 620,000 dead and more than a million wounded caused an unprecedented logistical, emotional, and spiritual challenge. The war had freed more than four million slaves to a new status yet to be determined in law and in the hearts and minds of an embittered and defeated white South as well as an often ambivalent and weary white North. African Americans had just experienced the dream of a long-anticipated "jubilee," encountered through great suffering and hardship, but also explosions of hope and expectation from the United States "Government" (a word many of their leaders now began to capitalize) as never before.

At least at first, the war had forced a new consolidation of the country, and over time, solidified a single nation on the North American continent. In so doing, the war and emancipation forged a kind of "Second Revolution," codified especially in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. In those amendments, as well as in the Reconstruction Acts and their short-term enforcement, the United States underwent a second founding, a "re-birth" of the republic as Abraham Lincoln had signaled in the Gettysburg Address. But as in all great periods of progressive change in American law and life, the second founding stimulated a counter-revolution in the South, led by the white supremacist Democratic Party, and ushered in a long-term trend toward Constitutional conservatism and legal racism in America. The Civil War is also a major turning point in the growth of industrialization, mechanization, and in the evolution of modernity generally. And long-term, one can see the genuine roots of America's eventual rise as a world military and economic power in the results of Union victory and expansion of commerce. The great upheavals in the struggle between capital and labor in the Gilded Age of the 1870s to the 1890s find their wellsprings in the bloodletting of the 1860s.

Events of such profound consequences also had to be processed and transmitted in history, in schooling, in storytelling, and in the great myths and narratives by which people choose to live. The demands Douglass made on the national memory were in fierce conflict with many other versions of the meaning and memory of the Civil War. In the 1870s and beyond, former Confederates began to forge a Lost Cause Tradition, arguing that the South had never really fought for slavery, that they had only been defeated by superior numbers and resources, and that the their noble defense of home, hearth, and "way of life" was an heroic epic that all the nation should admire.

The Lost Cause became a potent cultural force in American life. With Southern women in Ladies Memorial Associations leading the activism and building monuments, the legend spread far and wide of an Old South of benevolent masters, and faithful slaves who became the main characters in bestselling stories by Thomas Nelson Page and others. An honorable South that fought only for the principles of self-determination and home-rule offered a romantic, sentimentalized road to reunion in the popular culture for Americans in all sections. With time, much of the nation did come to admire Robert E. Lee, the South's legendary military leader, and a shaky but lethal national consensus developed, enabling North and South to reconcile around the mutual valor and sacrifice of their soldiers, while allowing the rights and aspirations of blacks to first erode, and then be destroyed, by legislation, public rituals, and social violence.

Northerners responded with a Union victory narrative, arguing that Federal troops and ingenuity, as well as Lincoln's astute leadership, had saved the country from division and ruin, and at least in some circles for a long time, they also argued that they had freed the slaves and expanded the possibilities of American freedom forever. And African Americans for many decades kept alive the visceral memory of their own freedom in Emancipation Day celebrations and a growing oral and written literature of emancipation. But within 40 to 50 years of Appomattox, the dominant national story of the war was one of glory on both sides, a nation reunited, and a new racial system of apartheid somehow justified as a long-term necessity to contain and solve the "Race Problem" left over from the war and Reconstruction. The power of the Lost Cause and the impulses of sectional reconciliation reverberated in the very heartbeat of Jim Crow America by the turn of the 20th century, and they endure today in modern tastes for Civil War memorabilia, such as the continuing popularity of the epic Gone with the Wind, the 2003 film Gods and Generals, in many re-enactor organizations, and in uses of the Confederate flag to oppose civil rights and affirmative action.

Above all, Lost Causers, whether in the late 19th century, or ever since, have advocated a story not at all about loss, but about what one historian has called a "victory narrative." This victory was what they have seen as the nation's triumph over the racial revolution and constitutional transformations of Reconstruction. In his 1881 memoir, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis argued that slavery "was in no wise the cause of the conflict" and that slaves had been "contented with their lot." He also declared the Lost Cause not lost: "Well may we rejoice in the regained possession of self-government... This is the great victory... a total non-interference by the Federal government in the domestic affairs of the States." To this day, whether they realize it or not, all advocates of states' rights doctrine, and resistance to federal authority, must get right with Jefferson Davis. And one can hope that informed Americans will remember that the significance of any exercise of states' rights is always in the cause to which it is employed.

In the struggle over Civil War memory, both in its immediate aftermath and long term, Americans have faced an overwhelming task: how to understand the tangled relationship between two profound ideas - healing and justice. On some level both had to occur, but given the potency of white supremacy in 19th-century America, as well as much of the 20th, these two aims never developed in historical balance in our commemorative culture. If the war itself had been "irrepressible," as so much writing has maintained, then perhaps a sectional reconciliation was also irrepressible. Human reconciliations - when tragically divided people can unify again around common aspirations, ideas, or the bonds of nationalism - are to be cherished. But sometimes reconciliations come with terrible costs, both intentional and unseen. The sectional reunion in America after so horrible a civil war was a political triumph by 1900, but it could not have been achieved without the re-subjugation of many of those people the war had freed from centuries of bondage. Reunion trumped race as a unifying element of American culture. As the sections reconciled the races divided, with lasting consequences. This is the sense of tragedy, which most Americans still do not like to face, that infested the heart of our country's history from Appomattox until World War I and well beyond.

For many whites, especially veterans and their families, healing from the war was simply not the same proposition as doing justice to the four million emancipated slaves and their descendants. On the other hand, a simple justice, enforcement of the Civil War Amendments, and a fair chance to exercise their basic rights and secure access to land and livelihood were all most blacks ever demanded of Reconstruction and beyond. The rub, of course, was that there were simply so many warring definitions of healing in the South and the North, and the people's collective psyche had never been so shattered.

In the wake of the Civil War, and for that matter ever since, the United States has never devised `truth and reconciliation" commissions through which to process memories of either slavery for blacks or the experience of total war for Southern whites. Defeated white Southerners and black former slaves (often related intricately by blood) faced each other on the ground, seeing and knowing the awful chasm between their experiences, unaware of any path that would lead to their reconciliation. Union and Confederate soldiers would eventually find a smoother path to bonds of fraternalism and mutual glory, the elements of which can still be viewed in some of the National Park Service's National Battlefield parks. But as is always the case in any society trying to master the most conflicted issues in its past, healing and justice had to happen in history and through politics. Americans have had to work through the meaning of their Civil War in the only place it can happen - in the politics of memory. And as long as we have a politics of race in America, we will have a politics of Civil War memory, and likely a politics of how we forge that memory on the sacred ground of our battlefields.

Douglass, like Warren, saw the Civil War as an oracular event. The former slave had lived many of its terrors and joys (he recruited two of his sons into a black regiment, and they survived), and certainly its immediate consequences; the Southern poet had inherited, learned, and even breathed in its legacies from his deep family memory. They stood for two generations that could never put the war out of their consciousness. Future generations have found the same dilemma as well as inspiration. We all need the reminder that history can be both dreadful and inspiring; a war with such hideous casualties and transformative results should never be merely our source of entertainment. Our past is sometimes that burden we try to dispose of with all manner of mythology, and illusionary and idealistic devices in our creation of memory. But Douglass surely understood, as we all should, what Warren later wrote about the Civil War: "History is what you can't resign from."

This essay is taken from The Civil War Remembered, published by the National Park Service and Eastern National. This richly illustrated handbook is available in many national park bookstores or may be purchased online from Eastern at

National Parks with Major Resources Related to the Civil War in American Memory

Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, Antietam National Battlefield, Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, Boston African American National Historic Site, Cane River Creole National Historical Park, Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Ford's Theatre, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, General Grant National Memorial, George Washington Carver National Monument, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Homestead National Historical Park, Independence National Historical Park, Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Lincoln Memorial, Marsh - Billings - Rockefeller National Historical Park, Natchez National Historical Park, Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site more »

Last updated: February 3, 2015