Time to flag up a new cause?

Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory - Race and Reunion
June 14, 2002

On April 17 2001 nearly two-thirds of the voters in Mississippi voted in favour of retaining the state's current flag - which includes the battle flag of the Confederacy in its upper left-hand corner - rather than adopting a new banner, which would have replaced the Confederate symbol with a circle of white stars. Proponents of the new flag, including many political and business leaders as well as the majority of the state's African-Americans, contended that the older flag - in use since 1894 - was a vestige of the state's turbulent past, associated with slavery, secession, war and white supremacy. Many voters supported the current flag in the name of preserving the traditions of their state.

The vote in Mississippi was the most recent episode in a continuing contest over Confederate symbolism that has been waged across the states of the former Confederacy. As in Mississippi, the debate has pitted African-Americans, civil-rights advocates and business leaders against conservative whites anxious to defend the traditions and identity of their rapidly changing region. The advocates of change seem to be winning this war. In the past year, the governments of South Carolina and Georgia have voted to reduce - but not eliminate - the official use of the Confederate battle flag. Mississippi is the only state where the question has been put before the public in the form of a referendum. The result of the vote - as well as the display of the battle flag in private homes and businesses - suggests that identification with the Confederacy remains strong among many white southerners. Both titles under review here consider how Americans remembered the civil war in the two generations after the conflict. The manner in which the war was remembered and commemorated established a pattern that, recent events suggest, still resonates today.

From eloquent abolitionists such as Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass, to military heroes such as Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant and to literary figures such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Walt Whitman, the American civil war does not lack dynamic and significant characters. Towering above them is Abraham Lincoln. The study of Lincoln has emerged as a cottage industry within the larger enterprise that is civil war publishing. It was not always thus, as Barry Schwartz demonstrates in Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory , in which he considers the development of Lincoln's reputation between his death in 1865 and the end of the first world war. At first sight, his study seems similar to Merrill Peterson's wonderful Abraham Lincoln in American Memory (1994). But Schwartz writes: My "study... seeks to encompass, not enlarge, Peterson's work. Peterson's history of commemoration has asked the what of Lincoln's reputation; my work... deals with the how and why."

Schwartz, a sociologist by training, seeks to explain the development of Lincoln's reputation. He argues that Lincoln was extremely unpopular before his assassination and contends that the president's violent death, combined with prolonged public mourning and funeral rites, helped to transform him from an unpopular political leader to a sacred national symbol. But the martyred president remained a problematic symbol in the latter half of the 19th century when the civil war was a living memory for most Americans.

According to Schwartz, Lincoln's reputation improved as the generation that fought and lived through the civil war died out and the immediate causes and consequences of the conflict faded. By the turn of the 20th century, his reputation underwent a transformation. Schwartz demonstrates that in a period of upheaval - the US confronted urbanisation, industrialisation and mass immigration at the end of the 19th century - Lincoln seemed to epitomise rustic and democratic virtues and helped Americans adapt to social change. When the US asserted itself as protector of democracy during and after the first world war, Lincoln assumed his pre-eminent position in the American pantheon. Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory is a complex, important, sociological study that demonstrates and explains how public memory is created. The use of sociological language occasionally clutters Schwartz's analysis. Nevertheless, it should command the attention of students of American history interested in the development of American society after the civil war.

Although Schwartz notes that African-Americans and white southerners responded to Lincoln in different ways, his focus is Lincoln's place in a broader American memory. As his title suggests, memory acts as a constant - a forge in which the image of Lincoln is shaped. By contrast, competing memories of the civil war are at the heart of David W. Blight's Race and Reunion . According to Blight, three different memories of the civil war emerged in the two generations after the conflict. The first of these was a reconciliationist memory that stressed the need for North and South to reunite and for an improved, united nation to emerge. This interpretation, articulated by Lincoln at Gettysburg, sought to make sense of the scale of death and destruction wrought by the conflict. This memory resonated in the North where mass death was palliated by victory.

Many former Confederates remembered the war differently. They came to see the Confederacy as a heroic "lost cause" whose objectives were liberty and independence, not slavery. According to this view, the Confederacy was vanquished because the North simply had greater resources with which to smother the South. These two memories of the war competed with a third, emancipationist interpretation nurtured by African-Americans and a small number of white abolitionists and political radicals. According to this tradition, the war had been a crusade for black liberation. For those who embraced the emancipationist interpretation, the expansion and protection of black civil rights was essential in the aftermath of the conflict.

According to Blight, these three postwar memories collided, competed and, to some extent, combined in the 50 years after Appomattox. Ultimately, the reconciliationist and white supremacist memories combined as whites made peace with each other and the past. The price of peace was black civil rights. White northerners turned their backs on the plight of the former slaves and allowed white supremacists free reign to wield political power and to rewrite the history of the war until the lost cause took root throughout the South and beyond.

Blight's analysis is compelling. His writing has a lyrical quality that underscores the tragic story he has to tell. This is an important book that should command a wide readership among those interested in race relations in the US. It should be required reading in Mississippi.

Francis D. Cogliano is senior lecturer in American history, University of Edinburgh.

Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory

Author - Barry Schwartz
ISBN - 0 226 74197 4
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 367

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