Once upon a time, long ago, white northerners who had participated in the great struggle to defeat the southern Confederacy in the 1860s told themselves—and others—many stories about their wartime conduct. Referring routinely to “the War of the Rebellion,” they constructed the victors’ narrative of the American Civil War. Unlike the South’s Lost Cause that continues to resonate in modern controversies over displays of the Confederate battle flag and the removal of Confederate monuments, this narrative was lost with the passing of the wartime generation and the rush to reconciliation between the warring sections. But during the 1880s and 1890s its exponents regularly lauded the patriotic service of those brave citizen-soldiers who had saved the American republic from disaster and in the process extirpated slavery from the national domain. They also heralded the importance of preserving the Union as a beacon of liberty and democracy in the world and denigrated the efforts of southern rebels to destroy it. This heroic and in many respects self-serving tale ignored the fact that racism had tarnished the Union war effort, that not all Union soldiers had fought courageously, and that the Lincoln administration’s hard-war policies had caused widespread suffering in parts of the South, including loyal border slave states like Kentucky and Missouri. Human remembrance, however, is necessarily selective, and inconvenient truths are seldom embedded in dominant narrative strains. Although historians have done an excellent job of assessing the creation of the South’s Lost Cause—the losers’ memory of the Civil War—Unionist memory attracted relatively little attention from scholars until the early years of this century. Matthew E. Stanley’s book is a very useful addition to a developing corpus of scholarship on Unionist memory after the Civil War. Focusing his gaze on the southern-tier counties of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, he argues that the “Lower Middle West” forged a distinctive historical memory of the war that he labels “the Loyal West.” (During the mid-nineteenth century Americans regularly referred to the modern Midwest as “the West.”) The origins of this narrative, he shows convincingly, lay in the antebellum period when upland southern whites played a formative role in settling the area. The inhabitants’ embrace of white supremacism and lack of moral concern over slavery made the area a Democratic stronghold in the late 1850s and rendered local Republicans conservative on issues of race. The Civil War, argues Stanley, may have severed the lower West’s ties to the slave South across the Ohio River, but it did not erode the conviction of a majority of its residents that blacks, enslaved or free, were inferior to whites. As a result, many Democrats from the region, including many men serving in the Union Army, fiercely opposed the Lincoln administration’s wartime policies of emancipation and enlistment of African American troops, as well as congressional Republicans’ support for black civil rights during Reconstruction. The last three chapters constitute the most innovative section of the book. Here Stanley argues that Unionists in the lower West, Union veterans in particular, fostered a racist subregional variant of the victors’ memory that marginalized the achievement of emancipation and trumpeted what they regarded as westerners’ leading contribution to the North’s military triumph. This patriotic yet manifestly white supremacist narrative, Stanley contends, fostered speedy reconciliation with the former Confederates and enabled the country’s depressing retreat from equal rights in the final decades of the nineteenth century. By the early 1900s, he writes, the Loyal West narrative had been absorbed by a powerful nationalizing memory that depicted the Civil War as a tragic brothers’ war fought between brave, principled white Americans on both sides. The idea of the Loyal West paved the way for the emergence of the modern Midwest, a region that Stanley describes as “an anti-section marked by the values of the prairie and Main Street, the river valleys and the urban polyglot” (182). Although the book would have been improved by a plainer prose style, it is well researched and makes clear that historians seeking a comprehensive understanding of the postbellum Unionist narrative must be attentive to subregional variations. However, scholars should be alert to Stanley’s occasional tendency to conflate the lower West with the West as a whole. Many veterans and Republicans (often one and the same) living in the upper Midwest and the plains states remembered the Civil War in different ways from the conservative inhabitants of the Ohio Valley. Sharing the postwar views of General John A. Logan, a former Democrat from southern Illinois who became a radical Republican during Reconstruction, they often commemorated the conflict as an emancipationist as well as a nation-saving one and in some cases even championed equal rights for blacks in the era of Jim Crow. The southern Midwest was profoundly racist and supportive of postwar reconciliation between the warring sections, but many white “westerners” in the late nineteenth century, especially (though not exclusively) those who had participated in the New England diaspora, retained a hatred of slavery and white supremacy throughout their lives. Indeed, it was a hatred that in many cases was intensified by their protracted effort to vanquish southern traitors. While this book is a significant contribution to a more textured and therefore more convincing interpretation of the victors’ narrative, it must be read as part of a wider tale. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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