"Make America Great Again" and Remembering the Civil War: Competing Narratives and the Role of Memory

By Doctor Comrade

The presumptive nominee for the Republican Party, Donald Trump, claims that he will "make America great again." As has been observed by many commentators, Trump's unfettered taste for 1950s and 1980s nostalgia indicates that he believes in a fictional and idealized version of America where strong, white, politically-incorrect men ruled the day, and all others were subservient to their whims. He believes that this America has been lost, and that it must be reclaimed for the betterment of American culture, society, and politics.

There are many parallels between this line of thinking and the "Lost Cause" narrative that developed after the American Civil War in the South. After the North defeated the South and permanently altered the structure of Southern society, many Southerners saw the prewar era as an idealized past, and according to historian David W. Blight, they attempted to reassert that past in the ways they memorialized the Civil War. The "Lost Cause" was the belief that the North had defeated the South because of its industrial might, not because the South was wrong about slavery or states' rights. The "Lost Cause" was a way to rationalize defeat without compromising belief.

What follows is a brief historiographic review of Blight's 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. In this review, I hope you'll find the familiar narratives propagated by the defeated South that have seemingly emerged in the era of Donald Trump. I believe that the people who think they will "make America great again" are attempting to rationalize the anger and antipathy they feel about the shifting demographics in American society, and the fear they feel about losing power. Much like the defeated Southerners, they see their impending defeat in the Culture Wars as a warning that they must reclaim a lost history in order to restore their previous cultural dominance.

Following the end of the American Civil War, multiple factions competed over defining the master narrative of what the conflict meant to America, to race relations, and to sectional tensions between North and South. David W. Blight’s book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory traces the lineage of the forces that competed over that narrative and how they constructed their story, from Reconstruction to the Civil War’s semi-centennial. The author identified three major elements of thought that formed after the North’s victory: the reconciliationists, who emphasized memorialization of the dead and reunion between North and South; the white supremacists, who sought to undermine the North’s victory and reinstate structures of Southern pride and black oppression; and the emancipationists, who exemplified the diverse memories of former slaves as they struggled towards freedom and equality. Blight concluded that reconciliationists and white supremacists overwhelmed the emancipationists and created a segregated national culture. These three visions of the Civil War and its meaning inevitably shaped political behavior, both by trying to control the memory of Civil War history and by implementing those memories to shape public policy. Ultimately, Blight’s book does not transform the scholarship on Civil War memory, but it accomplishes two goals. First, it underscores the emancipationists’ account; in this way, Blight’s contribution fills in the gaps surrounding the development, evolution, and survival of the emancipationist view. Second, it delivers a more comprehensive account of the reconciliationist and white supremacist positions by expanding on their relationship to each other and to American culture.[1]

Historiographically, Race and Reunion largely falls in step with the existing scholarship on Civil War memory. Blight drew heavily on the works of W. E. B. Du Bois and used him as a spokesman for the emancipationist view in the late-nineteenth century and the early-twentieth century. He asserted that Du Bois understood how “American historical memory was the product of a ‘field devastated by passion and belief.’…. Du Bois wrote in the tradition that assumed nations were built on collective self-understanding. In America… the nation’s central turning point had been misshapen by white supremacy and the necessity of a mythology of reunion.” Du Bois’ work The Souls of Black Folk set the stage for Blight, as Du Bois presented the first unified account of black memory following the Civil War. For Du Bois, emancipation’s aftermath had created “the Negro problem,” which left blacks with “no true self-consciousness.” Resultantly, blacks could only see themselves “through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Without a single consciousness, freed slaves could not unite against white oppression. Instead, they were confined to a “vain search for freedom” that was hindered by the war, lies and contradictory advice from whites, and the Ku Klux Klan, which left the Negro as “the bewildered serf with no new watchword beyond the old cry for freedom.” Du Bois concluded that “all men know: despite compromise, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free.” [2]

Blight echoed this pessimistic sentiment. “Reconciliation” often meant ignoring or obfuscating black memory of the war and its aftermath of racial division. The “cult of the fallen soldier” formed the “basis of a new civil religion” and of “the reunion itself.” Reconciliation recognized “the need to mourn, commemorate, and memorialize all of that death on both sides.” However, reconciliation helped mask the fact that blacks had fought and died, and whites had fought and died in part for their freedom. Instead, whites concerned themselves with war memorials, which formed the master narrative of the noble white soldier, fighting for his country or beliefs (it did not matter which side was being commemorated). For the South, those sentiments created the mythos of the Lost Cause, which was a “public memory” that relied on the cult of the fallen soldier and the beliefs that their “righteous political cause [had been] defeated only by superior industrial might.” That meant Southerners were not morally culpable for the war, and their defeat did not reflect a defeat of their morals. Instead, they formed “a collective identity as victims and survivors.” The Lost Cause also demonstrated that an “evasion [of black experience] would be critical in Southern memory of the war.” In this way, the dominant forces of reconciliation and white supremacy overshadowed emancipation and defined the war as a struggle between two righteous adversaries, instead of a struggle over freedom for slaves.[3]

the Confederate sympathizers had to create a mentality that justified and rationalized their experiences.

The Lost Cause forms a significant concept in the historiography. Historian Gaines M. Foster elucidated the idea in Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South. The monograph is devoted to an analysis of the genesis and progression of the Lost Cause narrative through the First World War. Foster defined the Lost Cause as, “the postwar writings and activities that perpetuated the memory of the Confederacy…. The central institutions… were the postwar Confederate organizations: the memorial associations.... These groups sponsored much of the writing and oratory that helped shape southern perceptions of defeat.” Dealing with the psychological wounds of loss, the Confederate sympathizers had to create a mentality that justified and rationalized their experiences. Southerners believed that they had “acted rightly in the war” and therefore “saw no reason to confess any guilt and seemed convinced of their good standing with their maker.” Subsequently, their rituals and rhetoric “offered a memory of personal sacrifice and a model of social order that met the needs of a society experiencing rapid change and disorder.”[4]

Blight also conceptualized the Lost Cause as rationalization for defeat, but he incorporated it into the reconciliationist-supremacist narrative. Southerners attempted to forget the pains of defeat, and they “converted their defeat into triumphant remembrance.” The Lost Cause allowed them to disguise their humiliation and fear of black freedom while embracing nostalgia about the Old South’s social structure. That nostalgia defined the place for blacks in the ex-Confederate account by allowing them “a place in the Confederate narrative, but only as time-warped, loyal antebellum slaves…. [B]lacks would have to stay in the past, frozen in time, so that ex-Confederates could take their sick souls to a safe place for rehabilitation.” Therefore, Southerners could claim a victory by discursively oppressing freed slaves in their myths. This translated to politics, where stripping blacks of their freedom could reinforce their view of the Civil War’s outcomes, thereby creating a self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling cycle of white power and black suffering. That created “a new cause: a story of redemption and victory that could serve the ends of both diehards and reconciliationists.” The Lost Cause became a vehicle to entrench “white supremacy… patriotic recognition of Confederate valor, and a South innocent of responsibility for slavery were values in search of a history; they were the weapons arming the fortress against the threats of” modernization.[5]

Southerners attempted to forget the pains of defeat, and they “converted their defeat into triumphant remembrance.”

Blight credited the early definitions of each narrative to Paul H. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Road to Reunion: 1865-1900. Although it departed significantly from Du Bois, Buck’s work built upon the notion that memory of the war impacted how each side viewed reconciliation and reunion, race relations, and victory. According to him, the South suffered severe psychological depression until it was able to explain its defeat. In the end, the South had lost because “Northern wealth and power had been invincible. Force, not reason and not right, had been the arbiter. It was easier to admit the strength of the North than to admit its righteousness…. The conviction of the Negro's inferiority remained.” This analysis sketched the beginnings of the “Lost Cause” idea. But, as illustrated by Blight, the Lost Cause was inherently linked to white supremacy, and Buck also connected each by arguing that “the Negro conditioned every Southern reaction. It gave the Southerner the basic premise of his creed…[:] the inferiority of the black man and the absolute need of discipline to keep society in proper adjustment.” The idea of discipline plays constantly in Buck’s analysis of the South’s mentality, which helped define the emancipationist, reconciliationist, and white supremacist narratives for Blight. Buck identified those strands of thought by contending that some Southerners viewed “the menace of Negro domination,” while white emancipationists were “committed by their intervention in the past to securing justice for the inferior race.” Lastly, some “people of the North after 1877 were for the most part in substantial agreement that the Negro was not prepared for equality,” and therefore the South was free to handle the problem. Naturally, the accommodating reconciliationist Northerners cleared the path for white supremacy by allowing the white Southerners to “believe in [their] own superiority.”[6]

From a position of superiority, Southerners could shape their own narratives in order to control and discipline freedpeople. The white supremacist version of emancipation dictated that “blacks had caused the Civil War by their very presence, and that Northern radicalism during Reconstruction failed to understand that freedom had ushered blacks as a race into barbarism, neatly framed the story of the rise of heroic vigilantism [rise of the KKK] in the South.” The barbarous freedman was dangerous, so “Confederates fought back against black conquerors, rapists, and barbarians.” Klan violence succeeded because it used fear.[7]

Northerners cleared the path for white supremacy by allowing the white Southerners to “believe in [their] own superiority.”

The rise in violence against freedpeople also highlighted the competing narratives and mentalities. Emancipationists viewed violence as inherent in the black experience, and reconciliationists tacitly complied with white supremacists in that oppression. In that way, emancipationists had to endure the silencing of their voices. The transformation of race relations after the Civil War can be explained by “a description of the evolution and interplay of three Southern white ‘mentalities,’” according to Joel Williamson’s book The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation. The mentalities that ruled race relations were Liberal, Conservative, and Radical. Williamson’s goal was to complicate and problematize the historiographical conceptions of that South that render it an ideologically monolithic entity, a project echoed by Blight’s tripartite composition of Southern ideology. Blight’s categories overlap significantly with Williamson’s. The Liberals, according to Williamson, believed in “Negro potential,” they were impressed by progress since Reconstruction, they refused to believe that blacks were inherently inferior, and they had a willingness to continue searching for progress. They resembled Blight’s reconciliationists, who had often supported abolition and rarely defended white supremacy. Williamson’s Conservatives did believe in white supremacy and black inferiority, and they attempted to arrange society to define a fixed place for blacks. Furthermore, Williamson’s Radicals emerged in 1889, and they believed there was “no place for the Negro in the future American society, and, moreover, that his disappearance was imminent.” Their views caused whites to “reorder the white world in response to their changing perceptions of the nature of black people,” which included reducing quality of life for black people. Conservatives and Radicals combined to resemble Blight’s white supremacists. Before the war, they had incorporated blacks into society as slaves. But after the war, they built a segregated society to maintain white supremacy. The emancipationist narrative as seen in Race and Reunion is largely absent from Williamson’s analysis, which makes Blight’s contribution of the emancipationist narrative supplemental and complementary to Williamson’s views.[8]

Historian Thomas J. Pressly also wrote an account of Civil War memory in Americans Interpret Their Civil War, which Blight would also supplement. His book gave a detailed and comprehensive overview of the historiography of Civil War memory from 1860 to 1952. He intentionally incorporated the personal records of historians and writers in order to provide valuable insight into their beliefs. He delineated the sharp divide between pro-Northern and pro-Southern historians, like the difference between referring to the Civil War as “The War of Rebellion” and “The War Between the States.” In terms of Southern narratives, he also identified the Lost Cause, stating “the attempt to fasten the war guilt exclusively upon the North, the justification of secession by the compact theory of state sovereignty, and the insistence that the institution of slavery had not been a cause of the war—were still held resolutely by many Confederate sympathizers.” Pressly also outlined the reconciliationist and white supremacist narratives. For one, the removal of federal troops in 1877 signaled to Southerners “partial vindication of the state sovereignty principles.... Moreover, the restoration to Southerners of control over their local governments meant that the ‘Negro question’ was to be left in the hands of Southern whites… made possible primarily by a reversal of Northern attitudes toward the Negro.” This resembled Blight’s analysis on the interlocking futures of reconciliationism and white supremacy. However, Pressly’s work focused specifically on how historians constructed the history of the Civil War (including Marxists, Beardians, and mid-twentieth century revisions), whereas Blight adhered to a social-cultural approach to explaining the problem of race in reunion.[9]

Confederates celebrated their moral victory, but freedpeople’s celebrations symbolized freedom and “converted destruction into new life.”

What was largely lacking in the works of Buck, Pressly, and Foster was the emphasis on race and specifically emancipation’s discursive effects. They had primarily focused on Northern and Southern narratives concerning victory and defeat, almost exclusively from the perspective of whites.[10] Even Williamson’s book concentrated on Southern white and black intellectuals’ responses to black freedom. Du Bois and Blight centered their analysis on black experiences in the aftermath of emancipation. Blight spent ample time on the white supremacist and reconciliationist approaches, which had also been covered extensively before. But his primary contribution was the emancipationist narrative that developed in diverse, disparate, and divergent black experiences.

Blight relied on the writings of Frederick Douglass to form the basis for black reaction to emancipation. On one hand, “Douglass believed that black memory was a weapon and that its abandonment was dangerous to his people’s survival,” which meant that blacks had to not only define their own narrative, but also deploy that narrative for political freedom. That narrative started with the idea of suffering, first as slaves and then as soldiers. Blacks thought that “in equal suffering, if not in natural law, the country might discover the roots of equal rights.” However, emancipation came to mean “the struggle to survive in the new, chaotic social order.” A critical aspect of that struggle was defining the meaning of the Civil War and shifting the narrative from the initial cause of the war (preserving the Union) to the final objective of the war (freedom for slaves). Unfortunately, those outcomes “were rarely accorded equal space.” Instead, Confederate sympathizers battled with emancipationists over how to memorialize the war, and black celebrations were subordinated as a result. Confederates celebrated their moral victory, but freedpeople’s celebrations symbolized freedom and “converted destruction into new life.” That fissure, among many others, brought to light how emancipationist narratives clashed with white supremacist and reconciliationist narratives. Where discourses collided, physical violence against blacks was often the result. [11]

Discursive clashes also occurred within the black community. Douglass fiercely believed that the Civil War’s ultimate purpose was emancipation. To him, emancipation represented the rebirth of the republic. According to Blight, that narrative had to achieve “mythic power… to survive in the national imagination,” which it could do through the memory of emancipated slaves. Employing those memories as weapons would mark “the pathway of most black ideological struggles well into the twentieth century.” On the other side, Booker T. Washington confronted Douglass’ contentions. His “deep investment in ‘progress’ rhetoric, in patriotism, and in an accommodationist approach to race relations” made Washington “America’s ultimate proponent of reconciliationist Civil War memory,” which he “hoped would enable black Southerners to achieve racial peace and economic progress.” Washington had to balance black freedom with white prejudice, so he accommodated reconciliatory views in order to promote racial harmony and peace. Perhaps as a consequence, the emancipationist views of Douglass were buried by Washington’s dogmatic accomodationism, resulting in the segregated society borne out of reconciliationism.[12]

Blight’s arguments are largely convincing. Along with Williamson, he successfully complicated the historical debate about racial memory. Every narrative had factions and intra-narrative competition over definitions, behavior, control over memory, and the future. He also added emancipationism to the historiographical tradition of competing narratives, as well as effectively tracing its roots from 1863 to 1913 and beyond. He would later tackle the reemergence of emancipationism in the writers’ discourse during the Civil Rights Movement.[13] Blight is also supported by most of the existing scholarship on Civil War memory, which separates the various narratives, albeit with different labels.

whites wanted to win back their country and regain pride in their past, part of which included oppression of former slaves.

The focus on race diverges from the existing scholarship on Southern motivations in the postwar decades. He convincingly argues that whites wanted to win back their country and regain pride in their past, part of which included oppression of former slaves. The South’s humiliation at the hands of the North cannot be understated. The South’s defeat marked the destruction of their social, political, and economic systems. The war fundamentally altered the South’s identity. Their resistance to Reconstruction definitely focused on maintaining white power over blacks, so the strength of Blight's argument is in the analysis of how white supremacy was intimately related to the Lost Cause narrative.

However, Blight relies too heavily on black intellectuals to speak for black experience after the war. He cited Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington as the primary spokesmen for the black community. But in many ways, identifying spokesmen contradicted his arguments about how emancipationism developed from newly-freed slaves. Blight is particularly beholden to Douglass and Du Bois, both of whom he has written extensively on, including a biography on Douglass, and edited editions of works from both authors.[14] Even though all three men were prominent figures in the postwar black discourse, and they probably provided the easiest references to that movement, Blight should have emphasized more postwar and post-emancipation slave stories, oral histories from freed slaves, and other resources. The value of his contribution comes from the inclusion of black voices, but he should have included a more diverse set of those voices.

Race and Reunion is a valuable installment in a long line of Civil War memory histories. Most of Blight’s arguments correspond with previous observations, but by tracing the emancipationist narrative, he injected new life into the historiography of this subject. Although weak in some parts in terms of sources, the book demonstrates the postwar conflicts that developed from competing interpretations over the meaning of the Civil War. Blight problematized the traditional North-South division by showing how memory deeply influenced behavior in multiple factions. But the power of memory to shape the future should not be a surprise because, as Blight states in the epilogue, “All memory is prelude.”


[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).
[2] Ibid., 32; W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Bedford Books, 1997), 37–42, 60. This edition of Du Bois’ work was edited by Blight, who also wrote the introduction.
[3] Race and Reunion, 15, 23, 38.
[4] Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South 1865-1913 (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 4–8, 24.
[5] Race and Reunion, 40–42, 79–80, 84, 264, 291.
[6] Paul Buck, The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900 (Little, Brown and Co., 1937), 27–28, 34, 283–284.
[7] Race and Reunion, 111, 117, 147.
[8] Ibid., 108; Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 1, 5–6, 512.
[9] Thomas J. Pressly, Americans Interpret Their Civil War (Princeton University Press, 1965), 18–21, 125, 152–154.
[10] For extensive resources and primary documents concerning the postwar black experience, see Ira Berlin et. al., Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era (New York: New Press, 1997); and Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (New York: The New Press, 1992).
[11] Race and Reunion, 24, 27, 43, 64–67, 319.
[12] Ibid., 108–109, 133, 303, 324–326.
[13] David W. Blight, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).
[14] David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991); Blight, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: With Related Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003); Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk.

Berlin, Ira, et. al. ed. Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War. New York: The New Press, 1992.
Berlin, Ira, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era. New York: New Press, 1997.
Blight, David W. American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.
———. Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
———. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
Buck, Paul. The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900. Little, Brown and Co., 1937.
Douglass, Frederick, and David W Blight. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: With Related Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Bedford Books, 1997.
Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South 1865-1913. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Pressly, Thomas J. Americans Interpret Their Civil War. Princeton University Press, 1965.
Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.