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

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Woodrow Wilson's presidency represented a huge setback for civil rights in America. Segregation was introduced into government departments, and the hiring process for federal jobs actively discriminated against non-white applicants. Wilson, despite being a former college professor, also subscribed to the romanticized, distorted view of the Civil War and its...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Woodrow Wilson's presidency represented a huge setback for civil rights in America. Segregation was introduced into government departments, and the hiring process for federal jobs actively discriminated against non-white applicants. Wilson, despite being a former college professor, also subscribed to the romanticized, distorted view of the Civil War and its aftermath put forward by numerous Southern writers, academics, and journalists.

Wilson's skewed perspective on the Civil War is starkly illustrated in Race and Reunion by the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, which the president attended. In keeping with his general thesis, Blight presents the whole event (and Wilson's speech at the commemoration in particular) as deliberately ignoring what the Civil War was really about.

Wilson's speech reveals the essentially mythological view of the war widely shared at that time by white Americans in all parts of the country. He celebrates the degree of reconciliation that has been brought about in the past 50 years or so between North and South, yet omits any mention that such reconciliation was only brought about on the backs of African Americans, subjected to the indignities of lynch-law and Jim Crow.

On Wilson's view, the Civil War was a white man's war, fought between white men in a white man's country. Reconciliation, therefore, means white men—North and South—coming together to reestablish the "natural" order of things in the United States. In practical terms, this means that not only is the issue of slavery, which brought about the Civil War in the first place, forgotten, but that the slaves's ancestors can safely be marginalized and their civil rights ignored.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team