Thursday, January 05, 2006

Vicksburg's Long Shadow - A Review

I just finished reading Christopher Waldrep’s Vicksburg’s Long Shadow, The Civil War Legacy of Race and Remembrance (Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield: 2005) Cloth 304 pages, Bibliographic Essay, Chapter Endnotes, Index. $26.95

Other than an introductory chapter on some of the major military engagements of Vicksburg’s Campaign, including the conflicting accounts of black troops at Milliken's Bend, Waldrep has not written a military history of the Vicksburg Campaign. Instead the author attempts to use the history of Vicksburg’s Civil War Battlefield to show how the Federal Government surrendered whatever “weak and timid vision” it had of the Civil War as an act of racial justice. By citing examples of state memorial dedications where “racists proclaimed their creed”, where the National Park Service celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday and organized segregated Memorial Day and Forth of July celebrations, and the Government’s intervention in keeping the Lost Cause alive when many white southerners lost interest, Waldrep portrays an image of Vicksburg that casts a long and far reaching shadow on racial relations and national memory coming out of the Civil War. (pg 291)

Using the development of the Vicksburg National Military Park as a central backdrop Waldrep traces the evolution of national memory towards the war, sectional reconciliation, and how in the end, although a Union military victory, final northern victory coming out of the Civil War was only achieved by embracing almost every element of southern white society towards race.

Waldrep devotes a chapter to discussing the meaning of reconstruction and the Civil War pension system as evidence that any “utopian dream” of a national system that defended the civil rights of all citizens was torn to shreds by the end of the nineteenth century. To Waldrep the reality of lynching by white mobs, the pass system, compulsory labor and the application of white based moral standards in determining pension worthiness, were all evidence of how the legacy of Reconstruction became one that promoted the lost cause and social welfare, not equal rights. As Waldrep writes the National bureaucracy proved more capable of providing social security through pension payments than in aggressively promoting equal rights.” (pg 94)

If I have one detraction from this book I would have like to seen more numerical evidence to support Waldrep’s claim of discrimination in how pension eligibility was determined between white and black veterans. Waldrep states that “black Civil War veterans found it harder to collect their pensions, and then did their white counterparts,” and he states that 92% of white veterans made at least one successful application, while 75% of blacks had comparable success.” To his credit Waldrep states that a deeper examination of how black Vicksburg veterans actually fared in the pension system is something that needs deeper examination. (pg 86)

Not all coming out of Vicksburg’s Civil War landscape was bleak in regards to the progress of racial relations. The contribution of black soldiers to the Union victory could not be completely overshadowed. Black soldiers were buried within the National Cemetery, and while even in death they were segregated the establishment of this place of honor gave black veterans a lasting and tangible place to commemorate their sacrifice and recall the promise of emancipation. It was a federally protected status that could not be taken away by white southerners. Waldrep recalls that inclusion in the National Cemetery was the one privilege blacks had over white southerners after the Civil War and that they made the most of it. For decades after the war black veterans would come to Vicksburg and read Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and would use their place within the National Cemetery to be included in the commemorative events that recognized Union veterans. Black veterans would not be denied their place at the table no matter what southern white society and the federal government did to move away from the ideals of emancipation and civil rights. (pg 82)


Trying to encapsulate the entire impact of the Civil War and the pursuit of national meaning by focusing on battlefield is risky but Waldrep does an admirable job in pulling his thesis together. One of the best jobs I think Waldrep does is tracing how the effort to memorialize the Civil War at Vicksburg was directly tied into the issues of the day facing the nation. Waldrep does a good job in positioning the 1917 Reunion at Vicksburg to highlight how the organizers including the Federal Government put the need promote sectional reconciliation and patriotism in the face of impending war in Europe over the need to promote the ideals of emancipation and racial justice. As Waldrep writes at the reunion “speaker after speaker ignored racial disharmony to hail the nation’s sectional unity, suggesting that geographic reconciliation made an effective war effort possible.” (pg 227)

In a possible parallel to the decline in the popular appeal of the Civil War today, Waldrep highlights that as the reality of the First World War came to the United States it drove a decline in the desire to memorialize or celebrate the memory of the Civil War in the 1920’s. As Waldrep writes “in the 1920’s, turning the Civil War into ‘an affair of moonlight and romance’ seemed more revolting than ever before” as the “realists saw the war as grim, hard, and bloody.” (pg 250)

To summarize his work Waldrep explores why the National Park at Gettysburg has emerged as the nation’s premier Civil War battle site and why Vicksburg was not destined to become the representative Civil War battle site. Waldrep discounts arguments that say Gettysburg had dramatic infantry movements, while Vicksburg evolvement into a siege lacked the drama to make this battlefield primary focus of the Nation’s Civil War memory. To Waldrep the primary cause for Vicksburg’s second place finish is that in abandoning ideals of emancipation the nation wanted to seek meaning for the Civil War in nonracial terms, to see it as a white man’s war. Gettysburg did not have black soldiers involved, it was fought on Northern soil and through Pickett’s Charge and it’s representation of the South’s “high-water mark” better supported the ideals of the Lost Cause. Because Gettysburg could more easily suppress the unwanted elements of the Civil War, namely elements of race it more easily grew in prominence because it was more adaptable in supporting regional reconciliation over racial emancipation. (pg 292)

If someone is looking for a book that highlights how the landscape of Civil War memory was continually sculpted and changed to meet the need to place meaning of the war within an accepted national context then I would recommend this book. Waldrep’s approach in using Vicksburg as the focal point for his description of the Civil War’s legacy on race, national memory and the balance of power between the states and the Federal Government is admirable and worthy of attention.

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