Cecilia Elizabeth O'Leary in The Paradox Of American Patriotism (1999), writes that at an early observance of Memorial Day, in 1871, Frederick Douglass spoke before a memorial to the unknown dead: “we are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation's life, and those who truck to save it—those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.” But he warned, we must never “forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted and bloody conflict.”
Douglass maintained until the day he died that the Civil War had been an ideological conflict with profound moral consequences. Against the spirit of sectional reunion and the celebration of martial heroism, Douglass continuously insisted that it had been a “war of ideas, a bottle of principles—a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization.”
Christian Fleetwood, an Afro-American recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, speaking to Grand Army men in 1894, also urged them to remember that until Emancipation the flag had meant “nothing to five millions of her children, but the lash of the master, and the blood-stained back of a beaten slave.” The flag's “grand march” must proceed, he urged, “until every man, what or black” is assured its full protection.
“LIES AGREED UPON”: REWRITING CIVIL WAR HISTORY
Negotiation of a mutually acceptable interpretation of the Civil War did not begin to emerge until professional historians at the turn of the century sought a consensus around a “usable past.” Most Southern historians grudgingly accepted the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) demand that the unconstitutionality of secession be recognized. Northern historians, while maintaining a pro-Union view, were increasingly influenced by Social Darwinism and found common ground with their Southern colleagues in a shared racism. They willingly made concessions, softening, even romanticizing, and their depictions of slavery, condemned Reconstruction for its “excesses,” and expressed admiration for General Lee.
O'Leary posits that within the emerging historical profess, Woodrow Wilson and John Burgess led the vision of Civil war and Reconstruction history at the turn of the century. Wilson, in A History of the American People, eliminated the role of black Union soldiers altogether from his narrative of the Civil War. Instead, he wrote about the “extraordinary devotion and heroism” of men from both armies who shared the “same race and breeding.” Taking the view that Reconstruction was a tragic aberration, Wilson described the early Ku Klux Klan as “frolicking comrades” and titled his chapter on the end of Reconstruction “Return to Normal Conditions.” At last, Wilson wrote, “the hands of political leaders were free to take up Wilson wrote, “The hands of political leaders were free to take up the history of the country where it had been broken off in 1861.”
John Burgess revised U.S. History along similar lines. “Slavery was a great wrong, and secession was an error,” he conceded, “but Reconstruction was a punishment so far in excess of the crime that it extinguished every sense of culpability upon the part of those whom it sought to convict.”
Burgess identified the “change of mind and heart on the part of the North” as the critical causal element in the “now much-talked-of-reconciliation.” These patently racist reinterpretations of Civil War and Reconstruction history would not be significantly challenged until the 1930s, when W.E.B. Du Bois condemned the degeneration of history into “lies agreed upon.” Far from depicting Reconstruction leaders as scoundrels whose corruption led to their failure. Dubois argued that white fear of black success had fueled reaction and led to Reconstruction's defeat.
In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois complied essays he had written since 1897 to counter the racism in American social, political, and cultural life into the Souls of Black Folk. It was in his essay “Of the Dawn of Freedom” that Du Bois declare, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” In juxtaposition to the national metaphor of veterans clasping each other's hands in mutual respect at Blue and Gray reunions, Du Bois presented his readers with the disturbing image of “two figures”: an old confederate, “who stood at last, in the evening of life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes,: and a slave woman, “a form hovering dark and mother-like,” who had come “to see her dark boy's limbs scattered to the winds by midnight marauders.”
These “two figures,” wrote Dubois, represented the “saddest sights of that woeful day,” a deepening of the American tragedy. “No man clasped the hands of these two passing figures of the present-past; but, hating, they went to their long home, and hating, their children's children live today.”
As David Blight eloquently notes, the legacy of slavery lives in Dubois image of the meeting of the “present-past,” showing that “radical reconciliation, unlike sectional reconciliation, demands a series confrontation with the hostility rooted in rape, lynching and racism.” This was a confrontation that white America was unwilling to undertake at the dawn of the new century.