Reconciliation, then, by-passed the core matters of the war — issue of the status of black citizens that some would perceive as continuing as de facto slavery and of emancipation. It represented suppression of emancipation, the very essence of the struggle, and it came at the expense of the Union’s programme of ensuring compliance in secessionist states as a condition of their rehabilitation in the Union.
It was also accompanied by notions of ‘Redemption’ in the South and the emergence of a story telling of victory in defeat, the narrative of the ‘Lost Cause’. These were factors that undermined the reconciliation, making it partial, and, despite the declarations and celebrations that accompanied it, left the country unreconciled.
The compromised and partial reconciliation rendered emancipation unfinished, fermented un-reconciliation and engendered a continuing struggle. That struggle included violence at Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when three individuals were killed in protests about removing a statue of Robert E Lee — even though Lee, commander of Confederate forces, was a great figure of the reconciliation. Those killed there were, indeed, the latest victims of the US Civil War, albeit none was killed in a Blue Unionist, or Gray Confederate, uniform. Nor were they killed by anyone wearing those uniforms.
But, they were losses in a cold war that continued after the formal end of armed hostilities in 1865, under the umbrella of incomplete, if not derelict, reconciliation — linked to the failure fully to address the status of those who had been the very reason for the war. Collective emotion can take a long time to change — far longer than the intellectual process of acknowledging evidence and changing one’s mind — and far longer than the rational acceptance of physical loss. Hurt can last.
A century after Lee surrendered his forces, effectively ending the Civil War, President Lyndon B Johnson finally ensured full legal emancipation with voter rights legislation in 1965. The longer-term effects of the 1965 full guarantee of electoral freedoms and voting rights included the election of President Barack Obama, the first black person to hold that office, and also of black office holders in many Southern cities, elected by black majorities. Mayors and legislatures, representing ideas and sentiments among their communities, sought to remove statues that were taken to symbolise the Confederacy and white domination. They rejected those symbols; and debates swirled around Charlottesville, Richmond, Dallas, New Orleans and other cities, where Confederate memorials were being challenged and, in some cases, torn down.
These acts of popular democracy were hard to deny — even if considered historical reflection might offer alternative paths and frames. Whichever the path to reconciliation, the undeniable truth was that the US remained unreconciled, over a century and half beyond the end of the Civil War and its limited postbellum reconciliation.
That reconciliation was purchased at the price of the continued subordination and suffering of African Americans. That devil’s deal came to be exposed in the twenty-first century, as a consequence of the full legal protection of emancipation finally cemented in 1965.
A true — perhaps third — redemption will recognise the essential historical contributions of the enslaved to the prosperity and success of the American state. The history of African Americans’ contribution to American success is not marginal, but, rather, underpins the American story. Not only their history, but their self-respect and also that of whites must be redeemed, possibly in some tangible form. America can redeem itself — its history and its future — by including all American history and all the American people. The reconciliation of all persons will require the integration of African Americans into commercial and cultural life. For they are as yet unreconciled.
This article was first published by Art & Reconciliation, and is based on research featured in 'Reconciliation After War: Historical Perspectives on Transitional Justice' by Rachel Kerr, Henry Redwood and James Gow.
James Gow is Professor of International Peace and Security, Co-Director of the War Crimes Research Group at King’s College London, and Non-Resident Fellow at the Liechtenstein Institute at Princeton University.