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A Yankee Apology for Reconstruction

A Yankee Apology for Reconstruction
A Yankee Apology for Reconstruction

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A 2021 study of memorials in America counted 5,917 monuments that memorialize the Civil War. In that total, only 1 percent include the word slavery; Yale’s Civil War Memorial is not among that 1 percent.

The memorial stands in one of the busiest corridors on campus. Four bas-relief figures—symbolizing courage, devotion, peace, and memory—surround tablets bearing the names of Yale men who fought and died for both sides. Verses of a poem, “The Blue and the Gray,” are etched into the floor. The poem, first published in The Atlantic, is by the 1849 Yale graduate Francis Miles Finch. He wrote songs at Yale, including student favorites such as “Gather Ye Smiles” and “The Last Cigar,” and after graduation became a lawyer and a judge. As the story goes, Finch wrote “The Blue and the Gray” because he was deeply moved by an incident he read about in the spring of 1866, when white Southern women in Columbus, Mississippi, had gone to a Civil War cemetery and adorned with flowers the graves of both Confederate and Union dead buried there. The poem was a paeon to mutual valor and a symbol of the reconciliation of North and South.

No more shall the war-cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever,
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;—
Love and tears for the Blue;
Tears and love for the Gray.

The inscriptions, worn by foot traffic, are today hidden beneath industrial-strength carpets. But when they were carved in 1915, at the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, those words perfectly encapsulated the culture of reconciliation that had come to dominate American society. A close reading of the monument and its creation shows that it is not just a memorial to soldiers’ sacrifices; it is a memorial to the deliberate forgetting of the deepest meanings of the war.

In 1895, the Yale Daily News had run editorials calling on the university to create a memorial to the “heroes” of both the American Revolution and the Civil War. The student paper provided a list of Yale alumni among the dead on its front page and announced it “humiliating” that these men had not been properly commemorated, as their comrades had been at other universities. The paper made frequent reference to the huge Memorial Hall at Harvard, constructed in the 1870s to honor its Union dead. Such memorialization, said the editors, should be created as “inspiration to student life.”

By 1901 the university had officially declared Memorial Day part of its calendar, and in 1909 planning for a memorial officially commenced. A committee was formed. Yale’s own William Howard Taft, recently inaugurated president of the United States, presided over its first meeting. A Yale Daily News editorial anticipated the gathering as a “beautiful thought—this unprejudiced appreciation of men” regardless of what cause they supported. Henry E. Howland and William W. Gordon, both of the class of 1854 and who had served on opposite sides in the war, were named co-chairs. The remaining 11 members consisted of an equal number of northern and southern Yale graduates. Howland set the tone, admitting that, immediately after the war, “it would have been ill-timed to have suggested that sons of the South should have been remembered in such a memorial.” But now that “the passions of that time have died away,” he spoke of the “propriety of commemorating the men of both sides who gave their lives in the great struggle.” “Both sides” became a clarion call.

The committee sent out press notices in the South to solicit names of fallen Confederates educated at Yale. Gordon, the head of the Savannah Cotton Exchange, a plantation owner and a bank vice-president, published a call for fallen Yale Confederates in the Savannah News. He claimed that compiling northern names for the memorial was relatively easy but feared that “the names of some Southern soldiers have been overlooked.” Former Confederate officers and representatives of the United Daughters of the Confederacy helped Yale determine an accurate list of the Confederate dead.

But how to refer to them? Committee members argued for two years over the language of inscriptions and whether to include military titles and units. Anson Phelps Stokes, of the class of 1896 and from a wealthy Yale donor family, suggested that all ranks and titles be avoided, because some former Union soldiers might object to seeing southerners so recognized. But southerners were deeply offended by the idea of leaving out the military titles. All deserved “equal tribute,” Gordon argued, and the memorial should declare to the world “that the mingled dust of both armies created a solid foundation for the future of the nation.”

In April 1910, Talcot Russell, the secretary and spokesman of the committee, delivered a lecture, soon printed as a pamphlet, to the New Haven County Historical Society in which he laid out an explicit neo-Confederate, reconciliationist case for the war memorial. Russell—a Yankee whose father ran the well-known military academy that had trained so many future Union army officers—chose to call the conflict the “war between the states” and notably not the “War of the Rebellion” or “Civil War.” Much of the pamphlet reads like a speech at a Confederate reunion to which some northern veterans might have been invited out of courtesy. “No memorial now erected will breathe any spirit of exultation in the victory of one portion of a common country, or the defeat of another,” he wrote. Only the “heroic sacrifices of the sons of Yale” ought to be remembered.

Thus, Yale in its official wisdom could not and would not create a memorial to Union victory nor to the end of slavery. All causes and consequences of a war that had freed 4 million people from bondage, slaughtered as many as 700,000 people, laid to waste large swaths of the South, saved and reinvented the American Constitution and nation, and made possible the freedom of the mind that a university celebrated in its very essence had to be dissolved into misty sentiments about unity and the strained image of “mingled dust.”

Such sentimental deception in the interest of national unity was widespread in both the South and the North at the time. Russell took his ideology straight from the Lost Cause manual of approved concepts. Slavery was a “cause” of the war, but not the reason it was fought.

Some of these Yale men may have even known that their logic was splintered and lame. “The armies of the North did not fight for [slavery’s] extinction,” Russell contended, nor should any southerner’s memory be sullied with the claim that “they died for the perpetuation of human slavery.” The real issue, Russell said, imbibing the drug that Lost Causers have always taken when needed, was states’ rights. Surely, in this corner of the American highly educated class, the Civil War had nothing to do with race, especially if one just said so.

But Russell was not finished taking sides where there were to be no sides. “We of the North have much of error to confess,” he sprightly announced. “It is fair that we should ask forgiveness of our Southern brethren for the disasters and needless humiliation caused them by many of our acts during the so-called ‘reconstruction’ period.”

Southerners on the committee should have been overwhelmingly pleased with Russell’s pamphlet, but debates over the details of the memorial ensued nonetheless. Charles Strong, who was president of the Yale Southern Association of Alumni, urged Russell to hold firm to a “both sides” approach to the inscriptions. Strong wanted southerners to embrace a new American nationalism even as he demanded that Yale exhibit its proud “Southern ancestry.” Gordon fought vehemently for use of the label “War between the States” on the memorial, a battle he would ultimately lose to the term “Civil War” by what appears to have been a 7–4 vote. He kept warning of any hint of discrimination “between Federal and Confederate” motives or sacrifice. “Both sides believed their view was right,” he wrote.

In the spring and summer of 1912, the committee announced to alumni that it had reached a definitive plan with artists in place. That September, President Arthur Twining Hadley gave a “matriculation sermon” for incoming students on the theme of “Grant and Lee.” Just why Hadley would choose to stress this theme to freshmen is hard to discern. The impending war memorial may have been a reason, but likely an even more compelling one was that more southern students were coming to Yale, and many hailed from wealthy families. “Both were calm men,” he assured the students. They were “not unduly exalted by victory nor unduly depressed by defeat.” In such saccharine rhetoric, Hadley set the stage for the memorialization to follow. No one need be blamed for all the bloodshed; everyone who fought with courage and died for devotion to a cause was equal and heroic in death. Had Ulysses Grant survived to hear that, he might have spit out his cigar in laughter.

On June 20, 1915, in an elaborate ceremony, Yale’s Civil War Memorial was dedicated. No one uttered a word of what the Civil War had been fought about, with the exception of a discussion of states’ rights. No one named the war’s transformative result of the emancipation of 4 million American slaves and their rebirth in freedom.

Instead, the ultimate memorial, in its content and form, served as an institutional Yankee apology for Reconstruction, which had been America’s first sustained effort at legal, interracial democracy. The committee demonstrated that it had bought in fully to a basic premise of the Lost Cause ideology: that the Confederacy’s story was not about loss at all but about victory over Reconstruction and racial equality.

The day after the memorial was dedicated, on June 16, 1915, the French Tenth Army launched an attack at Vimy Ridge that would cost it 100,000 casualties and the Germans 60,000. Those numbers paled in comparison with the slaughter to come. Perhaps the Yale men needed to convince themselves that if they could make history itself calm and unifying on walls, on floors, and in marble, they could do the same with their university and their country. But never again through the 20th century, the most violent in human history, would they be able to so comfortably think of war and warriors as above and beyond victory or defeat.

If the members of Yale’s war-memorial committee had been paying attention at all to the coverage of celebrations held all over America to mark the anniversary of emancipation, they might have seen the great commemorative poem “Fifty Years,” by James Weldon Johnson, published in The New York Times. Seven verses in, he struck his central theme:

Then let us here erect a stone,
To mark the place, to mark the time;
A witness to God’s mercies shown,
A pledge to hold this day sublime.

And let that stone an altar be
Whereon thanksgivings we may lay—
Where we, in deep humility,
For faith and strength renewed may pray,

With open hearts ask from above
New zeal, new courage, and new pow’rs,
That we may grow more worthy of
This country and this land of ours.

For never let the thought arise
That we are here on sufferance bare:
Outcasts, asylumed ’neath these skies,
And aliens without part or share.

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

Johnson claims an African American birthright by the right of soldiering, of “blood” and devotion to the “flag”: “We’ve bought a rightful sonship here, / And we have more than paid the price.” Then, in a subtle jab at ex-Confederates, Johnson calls out the Lost Cause:

And never yet—O haughty Land,—
Let us, at least, for this be praised—
Has one black, treason-guided hand
Ever against that flag been raised.

The tragedy of America’s Civil War memory is that it is impossible to imagine that sublime poem etched into the floor of the Yale memorial in 1915.


This essay is adapted from David Blight’s new book, Yale and Slavery: A History.

By David W Blight


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