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David Blight: How should the country mark the sesquicentennial?

By David Blight

Professor of American History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Abolition at Yale University


In recent decades powerful new winds have been blowing through Civil War history, from the academy to the furthest reaches of public memory. Revolutions in social, African American, and women's history, as well as new modes of military history - treating the war from the perspectives of common soldiers, home fronts as well as battlefronts, slaves and captive prisoners as well as generals and strategy - have transformed a field once dominated by the "view from headquarters" or the valor of the blue and the gray. The memory of the Civil War in American culture has also emerged as virtually a sub-field. Most significantly, these winds have been felt widely in public history forums. It is not your father's or your grandmother's Civil War history anymore, even - and especially - in the South.

Or is it? The sesquicentennial should first begin with this awareness of all these new scholarly and popular directions. But in its many forums it should do so with an understanding that the Lost Cause tradition - as both a version of history and as a racial ideology - is certainly still very much alive in neo-Confederate organizations, on numerous Web sites, among growing white supremacists groups, and even among some mainstream American politicians. And with states' rights doctrine aggressively ascendant on the U. S. Supreme Court, among leaders such as Gov. Perry of Texas, and for a group of libertarian scholars, we all have work to do educating the citizenry about the costs of that doctrine in our history. Multitudes still cannot bring themselves to confront the story of slavery as both lived experience and the central cause of the war.

But countless others have done so, often overcoming the essence of their early education or family lore. In commemorating the Civil War this time at 150, above all, we need to remember Frederick Douglass's reminder that however great and tragic the loss on battlefields (and we need to know and honor the sacrifice), the Civil War was "fought for something beyond the battlefield." And we can hope that this time we have a good answer to Herman Melville's challenge in the "Supplement" to his "Battle Pieces" in 1866. "Let us pray," pleaded Melville, "that the terrible historic tragedy of our time may not have been enacted without instructing our whole beloved country through pity and terror." In 1961, to the question - had we been "instructed by that catharsis of pity and terror" - Robert Penn Warren famously answered "no." Our challenge is to be able to say "yes" by 2015. As a historian I am cautiously pessimistic, but always delighted to be surprised.

By David Blight  | November 15, 2010; 2:11 PM ET
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