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.


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.

Views: 44

Comment by Ron Powell on October 13, 2018 at 11:20am

The unwillingnessof white America  to undertake the healing moral confrontation between the right and wrong of slavery and racism on the one hand, and freedom and social justice on the other, persists to this day....  

Comment by mary gravitt on October 13, 2018 at 1:29pm

This is Trump's America.  You see I have very few readers interested in discovering the truth about why Blacks have a disjointed view of American and the lies it must tell itself to remain humane in their outlook and go about the world selling arms and financing war in South America and the Middle East.  But what is important is that Karma and History are twins.  Once the poison of Slavery was adjusted to Christian Standard and Capitalism, it was seen as God's work and word.

However, if you don't acknowledge your history, you are bound to repeat it but not in Black and White, but in White only.

Comment by Maui Surfer on October 13, 2018 at 6:38pm

As Eric Holder, and who would know better, clearly stated, Whites are COWARDS when it comes to confronting racism and the legacy of Slavery. This is doubly pathetic as until this occurs they will not be able to HONESTLY confront the genocide of the Indigenous folks they found here on arrival.

Comment by mary gravitt on October 15, 2018 at 1:24pm

We have all been cowards at times because we think if we hold our heads down, things will blow over.  Now we are being tested like we were prior to the Civil War.  The country is divided along the same lines.  People forget that Native Americans were caught up in this fight as well.  Blacks have always been able to fight back easier than indigenous folk because we were not rounded up and sent outside society on Reservations.  Black also were all classed together due to segregation and this gave us more space to unify.  And then too some enslaved Africans were part of the White Masters' families, and their fathers loved them and freed them.  So that there was always a black invisible underground.

But now I am afraid that unlike after the Civil War, the United States will not be able to reunite itself.

Comment by Maui Surfer on October 15, 2018 at 10:54pm

Myself, I for one have no interest to "reunite" with the last gasp of the Nixon Voters, the scum we used to call "The Man", the pieces of dirt who wanted us to kill our Vietnamese cousins for no reason whatsoever. I fought them with fists, rocks and pipes as a young man, I fight them with words and votes now, and would be happy to get back in the ring which is why I still spend at least three nights a week at the dojo.


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