Reforging a National Brotherhood, 1876-1917: How national identity was repaired following the fratricidal traumas of the American Civil War

April 14, 2012

History Today:

The Civil War tested the viability of the United States enduring as one nation-state. The strategy of ‘complete conquest’ in which Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan engaged in a ‘people’s war’ – directed not just at fighting ‘hostile armies, hut a hostile people’ – spoke to the depth of the challenge. The generals believed that the will of- a ‘whole people’ needed to be destroyed or else formal war would be followed by untold years of guerrilla warfare. Thus Sherman decided to march into the heartland of the enemy’s country. At the war’s end, the struggle to establish the primacy of the nation- state moved from the battlefield into the arenas of political, economic, and cultural life.

The Civil War determined the survival of the Union, but what it meant to be an American remained undefined. Ravaged by the War, large numbers of Americans were prepared to affirm a common nationalism. Nonetheless, the meaning of national identity and loyalty continued to be as diverse and conflicting as the persisting regional differences. Other issues that complicated national identity included the intensification of class conflict; the growing number of workers who were Americans by immigration rather than by birth; the struggle of black Americans for full citizenship rights; the emergence of an independent women’s movement; and the burgeoning influence of entrepreneurial businessmen seeking national markets. One of the most dramatic regional challenges to a unified nationalism emerged in the white South. Organisations of Confederate veterans refused to accept cultural defeat. Instead, they mobilised mass support for the construction of a southern tradition that rallied behind the Confederate battle flag celebrated the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, and the idea of a Confederate Memorial Day.

Following the Civil War, diverse groups struggled for hegemony over the meaning, language and rituals of patriotism. Neither side had anticipated that the War would develop into a struggle over the meaning of freedom. As Leon Litwack eloquently describes in his hook Been in the Storm So Long, the most important question for the 4 million newly freed slaves, ‘How free is free?’, remained unanswered. Black Americans and white supporters of Reconstruction proposed radical interpretations of citizenship associated with racial equality. As long as Reconstruction held, black southerners played critical role in the debates over the values of post-war America and formed the backbone of patriotic celebrations in the South. Black leaders held America’s republican values up to the nation as a mirror and warned that as long as inequality endured, America would never be able to ‘raise her flag of liberty and spread it out unstained and uncontaminated for the world to look upon and admire’. The assertion of citizenship rights and equal participation in the national culture, however, would not go unchallenged. With Reconstruction’s defeat in the election compromise of 1876, the peripheralisation of blacks from political life became the dominant reality. From the mid-1880s, black Americans largely commemorated patriotic holidays on their own. By the First World War, The Crisis (a journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) would graphically depict black Americans having to fight ‘prejudice’, ‘lynching’ and ‘segregation’ in order to prove ‘Negro patriotism and loyalty”.

The meaning of patriotism and who qualified to be designated a member of the ‘national fraternity’ stood at the heart of the cultural struggle over what it meant to be an American. Each side pursued reconciliation at the same time that cross- cutting allegiances and a profound ambivalence constantly destabilised the movement toward consensus. Motivated by different perspectives and interests, the two former enemies engaged in a process of cultural negotiations over four different but inter-related issues: the extent to which the ‘valour’ of Confederate soldiers should be memorialised by patriots: the meaning of the Civil War and Reconstruction in official histories and popular memory; the terms and conditions under which southern race relations would be returned to the control of the white South; and the place of Confederate symbols and rituals within national life.

The first signs of reconciliation emerged during the Indian Wars as the army pursued a strategy of annihilation toward Plains Indians who refused to be forced onto reservations. Immediately on the heels of the Civil War, the government implemented a new policy of abolishing the Indian Country to clear the way for western expansion. Within a month of General Custer’s defeat in 1876 at the battle of Little Big Horn, some Confederate veterans volunteered to fight against the new common enemy. As important to the consolidation of the nation as the outcome of the Civil War, the destruction of the Indian nations’ military power assured the existence of the US as a continental power by 1890.

Officers both in and out of the army played a leading role in promoting reconciliation. Union officers, mostly trained at West Point, respected their former classmates and recent adversaries. Possibly only the memories of lost comrades kept Union officers from acquiescing to President Johnson’s pro-southern programme for reunification or resisting Congressional passage of a more radical Reconstruction. At the surrender of the major Confederate forces at Appomatox, General Grant refused to insist that General Lee or his officers surrender their swords, and further cautioned his enlisted men against any public outbursts over their hard- won victory. The officer-class closed ranks against demonstrations of a more popular rowdiness, but emotions proved hard to contain. Into the twentieth century, enlisted men continued to assert that loyalty to the Union – not valour – deserved the nation’s recognition…

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