In Race and Reunion by David Blight, how is the Civil War being commemorated 50 years later, when Woodrow Wilson was at the anniversary?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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This question refers to the beginning of Chapter One of Race and Reunion, when President Wilson speaks at the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. (The event is also described at the close of the book.) The occasion was marked by what was billed as a reunion of Confederate and Union veterans, whose old animosities were to be set aside in a spirit of reconciliation and nationalism. Accordingly, Wilson's speech emphasized the fifty-year period of healing and national growth that occurred since the battle, as well as the heroism and valor of its participants. Blight characterizes the speech as a mixture of "idealism and ambiguity" that characterized Wilson's rhetoric. The crucial point, though, was that Wilson never mentioned race, or slavery, or any of the ideological issues that occasioned the Civil War itself. Indeed, the event was segregated, with no black veterans invited. Blight contrasts Wilson's speech with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which, he says, directly sought to explain "why it happened." This vignette serves as a powerful example of the thesis of Blight's book, which argues that whites increasingly remembered the Civil War in terms that tended to occlude the importance of slavery and race in the conflict even as Jim Crow became institutionalized in the South. The desire for "reconciliation" or "reunion" outweighed the imperative to "do justice to the four million emancipated slaves and their descendants." Indeed, Blight aruges, "sectional reunion" was to some extent dependent on the "resubjugation" of these very people. This bitter irony is highlighted in the contrast between Lincoln's and Wilson's speeches. By removing race from the commemoration of the war, whites altered its meaning in fundamental and ultimately tragic ways. African-Americans, on the other hand, didn't see it that way, and their "emancipationist" memory of the war and its meaning emphasized freedom and equality. 

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