Southern Reconstruction and Constructed Memory: Anne Marshall Talks Veterans, Heritage Groups, and Reconcilation

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Anne Marshall History professor environmental portrait
Anne Marshall. Image courtesy of Mississippi State University

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with Anne Marshall, Associate Professor of History at Mississippi State University. Marshall’s most recent publications include Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), and “The Jack Burden of Southern History: Robert Penn Warren, C. Vann Woodward, and Historical Practice,” in Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South, ed. by Jason Phillips (Louisiana State University Press, 2013).

CWI: What role did memory, memorial associations, and the prolific creation of Civil War monuments play during the Reconstruction era?

MARSHALL: The efforts of both former white Confederates and white Unionists to commemorate the memory of the dead and surviving soldiers played a significant role in helping the American public deal with the trauma of war. Monuments and veterans associations became about much more about honoring the past, however. They also served as an effective way to shape the present during Reconstruction. Union veterans associations like the Grand Army of the Republic served as an advocacy group within the Republican Party, while black Union veterans often drew upon their service in the U.S. Army as grounds for obtaining and retaining the rights of citizenship in the post-war era. Most notably, white southerners created an entire worldview surrounding the concept of the Lost Cause, which they wielded to turn back the tide of federal Reconstruction and maintain white supremacy. In many ways, the very different aims of memorial groups who channeled the memory of the Civil War toward different ends became a way of continuing to fight the war in culture and in policy well after the fighting on the battlefield was over.

CWI: What role did women play in the promotion of Civil War memory?

MARSHALL: Women played a large role in public efforts to remember the Civil War. Before the study of history was “professionalized” in the late 19th and early twentieth century, promoting public history was seen as an extension of women’s civic responsibility. Many Confederate and Union monuments were the result of the efforts of groups like the Women’s Auxiliary of the GAR and especially, southern Ladies Memorial Associations and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). The UDC also exerted influence over the content of textbooks adopted by public schools in southern states well into the twentieth century. In this way, women, exerted a huge cultural and political influence during a time in which they had few political rights.

Lee monument (Marshall)
Unveiling of the Robert E. Lee Monument, Richmond, VA, 1890. Image courtesy of The Valentine Museum, Richmond, VA.

CWI: How was Civil War memory contested, revised, and reshaped between the end of the war and the early twentieth century? What impact do these early contests of their first memorial efforts still have on contemporary understandings (or misunderstandings) of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and of nationhood today? Why is studying the memory of the war so important in today’s society?

MARSHALL: Americans, North and South, African American and white, offered varying and competing understandings of what the war meant and how it should be remembered just as soon as the fighting ended. While their interpretations were far from monolithic, white Americans had, by the end of the nineteenth century, ceased waving the “bloody shirt” and embraced (at least publicly) a civil patina of sectional reunion and reconciliation. As many historians have argued, however, it was no coincidence that good feelings between whites came during the Jim Crow era, at the expense of African Americans who faced severe violence, as well as legal and economic discrimination.

This is true also for the historical memory of the Reconstruction period. By the early twentieth century, the American public had largely adopted a version of Reconstruction history that portrayed white southerners as victims of vindictive northern policies, and newly-freed African Americans as ignorant, hapless, and even dangerous. Viewing the Civil War and its aftermath in this way had a profound effect on U.S. culture and public policy and led to the tolerance and promulgation of racism well into the middle of the twentieth century.

As very contemporary battles over Confederate symbolism show us, Americans seem no closer to agreeing on a common meaning or interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This is precisely why this is such a relevant topic of study today.

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