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David W. Blight's book Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War, is an intriguing look back into the Civil War era which is very heavily studied but misunderstood according to Blight. Blight focuses on how memory shapes history Blight feels, while the Civil War accomplished it goal of abolishing slavery, it fell short of its ultimate potential to pave the way for equality. Blight attempts to prove that the Civil War does little to bring equality to blacks. This book is a composite of twelve essays which are spilt into three parts. The Preludes describe blacks during the era before the Civil War and their struggle to over come slavery and describes the causes, course and consequences of the war. Problems in Civil War memory describes black history and deals with how during and after the war Americans seemed to forget the true meaning of the war which was race. And the postludes describes some for the leaders of black society and how they are attempting to keep the memory and the real meaning of the Civil War alive and explains the purpose of studying historical memory.
Memory plays a very important in how history is interpreted. As time goes on and an event slips further into the past some of the memory's that are passed on are distorted and can change entirely. Things that happened during the Civil War that may have seemed important are replaced with things that may seem more important to us now.
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Blight found that people after didn't really care about the meaning of the war which was to free the slaves but rather focus more on the fact that it was just two groups of Americans fighting for what they believed in. The goal of many civil rights leaders was to bring the focus to the fact that the confederacy engaged in this war in order to keep ownership of their slaves. In one of Blight's essays he describes the Civil War semicentennial. He describes the way the government paid the way to any veteran of the war to make the trip to the Gettysburg battlefield. He goes on to talk about the old Union soldiers getting together with the old Confederate soldiers to share war stories and talk about old times. Blight even goes so far as to describe the kind of toilet facilities the battlefield had. There was so much detail and attention put into this celebration but one thing was missing. There were few if any black veterans, north or south, in attendance and the subject of slavery was absence as well. President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech on the final day of the gathering in which he said "We have found one another again as brothers and comrades, in arms, enemy's no longer generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten." The President of the United States was at a Civil War reunion discussing, if not encouraging people to not let the cause of the war bother them but celebrate the courage and honor in which the soldiers fought for their beliefs.
In a different essay Blight goes on to discuss filmmaker Ken Burns and his eleven hour documentary The Civil War. The documentary was very popular when it first aired in 1990. In it Burns identified slavery as the war's root cause, gave occasional attention to African-American issues, and chose Barbara Fields, a black woman, as the only professional historian to appear on camera, Southern apologists denounced his documentary as an exercise in political correctness. Yet as Blight deftly demonstrates, the history in Burns' epic film was more traditional than groundbreaking. Burns emphasized battlefield confrontation over social revolution, and he concluded with the pat assertion that the Civil War made Americans one people conveniently ignoring the fact that the century following Appomattox would see the white majority deliberately exclude the black minority from full membership in American society.
Ken Burns failed to grasp the fact that the tragedy of the Civil War did not end when the Confederate armies laid down their arms. Blight's writings show that the men who lost the military struggle managed to prevail both politically and culturally before the dawn of the twentieth century. As Senator Trent Lott's recent fall from grace reminds us, the battle over Civil War memory continues to affect the state of the nation.1
Frederick Douglass played a big role in not only trying to preserve the proper memory of the Civil War but even before the war was one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement. Douglass served as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and fought for the adoption of constitutional amendments that guaranteed voting rights and other civil liberties for blacks. In an 1884 speech Douglass said "It is not well to forget the past, Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is the mirror in which we discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make them more symmetrical." Douglass urges not only the white people to remember the cause of the Civil War so the reasons for it will never have to be repeated but he also urges his fellow black to remember and to stand up for their rights. Douglass praised Abraham Lincoln very highly and thought of him as the great emancipator though Lincoln mentioned nothing about emancipation in the pre war era, only about preservation of the union. Yet another influential figure in the black community was W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois had much more radical views than a lot of others but he was also striving for racial equality. Martin Luther King Jr. described Du Bois as "a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man." Both Douglass and Du Bois we influential leaders in the post war era and their teachings still remain meaningful today. They are big reasons that the Civil War is still remembered properly, for the emancipation of slaves.
The one negative thing I noticed about this book is the way Blight portrays everyone as people who know exactly what they were fighting for and everyone in the south wanted to keep slaves and everyone in the north wanted the slaves freed. My personal feeling as a war veteran is not everyone is fighting for the same reasons. Some men indeed were fighting for their slaves while others were fighting for their state, some for their brothers and some out of peer pressure. Not all southerners felt as slaves were property but I'm sure some people that fought for the north did.
All in all I feel David Blight did an outstanding job in putting together this book. He wanted to relate memory and how it affects history and he does so very effectively. Most of the Civil War books deal with the battles but Blights book went a different direction, it didn't skip the battles but that wasn't the main focus. His focus on the struggle of blacks after the war and the changing attitudes of whites was something I haven't heard before. It is a very powerful message that Blight delivers, and one with which it is difficult to argue. He effectively presents his case in his own words as well as the white and black participants who fought and wrote. Even as a series of articles, Beyond the Battlefield still succeeds in maintaining the argument, sometimes repetitively in the case of the Gettysburg reunion, that the fifty years of white American memory after the Civil War began to exclude the role that African Americans had in the conflict and their continued oppression after.2
1 Urwin, Gregory J. W. University of Massachusetts Press
2 Cantor, Mike Civil War Interactive