Jeff Davis’s Ghost: The Long Battle over the Memory of the Civil War

History versus heritage? Memory versus history? Whose history and why? These questions are currently brewing a controversy at the University of Texas-Austin campus. The controversy swirls around a statue of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America. The turn-of-the-century statue is being hotly contested because of its association with a certain memory of the Civil War and for the heritage it represents. To opponents of the statue, Davis represents a racist past – one incongruous with a multicultural present. Those battling to preserve the statue, namely the Sons of Confederate Veterans, claim that the Davis statue represents a piece of heritage. Contestations over memory, heritage, and history concerning the Civil War are not new. Indeed, once hostilities ended in 1865, the ideological battle for the war’s meaning and memory ensued for nearly seventy-five years. In most courthouse squares and town commons, both North and South, one can find a Civil War memorial or statue. However, in the present context, the Jefferson Davis statue at the University of Texas (UT) is a microcosm of a broader historiographical debate. With the Sesquicentennial of the war winding down, and in light of the controversy on the UT campus, it is relevant to explore how historians have interpreted the memory of the war from both a Northern and Southern perspective.

The American Civil War receives considerable attention for the historical and collective memories of both the North and the South. These studies, spearheaded by American historians, examined the ways that both the North and the South memorialized, ritualized, and commemorated the Civil War. Many of the works examined in this section focus on how Union veterans constructed meaning and memory of the war. At times, ex-Confederates aided their Northern counterparts in interpreting public memory.

jefferson davis statue UT austin controversy
“How do you like me now?” “Sort of?”

In Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David W. Blight explores how Americans remembered their most divisive experience during the fifty-year period following the Civil War. Blight probes the interrelationship between the two broad themes of race and reunion in American culture and society from 1863 to 1915. Blight is primarily concerned with the ways that contending memories clashed or intermingled in public memory. Blight’s Race and Reunion is considered the opening salvo in memory studies related to the Civil War.

Blight posits three overall visions of Civil War memory that collided and combined over time. One, the reconciliationist vision, which took root in the process of dealing with the dead from so many battlefields, prisons, and hospitals and developed in many ways earlier than Reconstruction. The second vision, the white supremacist articulation embodied in the Lost Cause, took many forms early, including terror and violence, locked arms with reconciliationists of many kinds, and by the turn-of-the-century delivered the country a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms. The third vision Blight articulates, the emancipationist vision, was embodied in African American’s complex remembrance of their own freedom, in the politics of radical Reconstruction, and in conceptions of the war as the reinvention of the republic and the liberation of blacks to citizenship and Constitutional equality. For many Americans, the Civil War is a defining event upon which we have often imposed unity and continuity; as a culture, we have often preferred its music and pathos to its enduring challenges, the theme of reconciled conflict to resurgent, unresolved legacies.[1]


While Blight looks at the ways memory was constructed following the war, Drew Gilpin Faust examines death and the war’s impact on how Americans, namely Union veterans and kin, dealt with the industrialized killing wrought by the war. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Faust argues:

Human beings are rarely simply passive victims of death. They are actors even if they are the diers; they prepare for death, imagine it, risk it, endure it, seek to understand it…The presence and fear of death touched the Civil War Americans’ most fundamental sense of who they were, for in its threat of termination and transformation, death inevitably inspired self scrutiny and self-definition.[2]

Faust elucidates the concept of the “Good Death” prevalent in American society, across religious backgrounds. The Good Death, according to Faust, was a way American middle-class people viewed the proper way to die. A Good Death allowed the individual to go peacefully and provided closure for the kin. The Good Death informed how Union soldiers and those back home foregrounded the carnage witnessed on the battlefield.[3]

Recent scholarship has focused on the experiences of Union veterans after the war and the commemorative activities in which they engaged. In Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration Among Civil War Veterans, M. Keith Harris explores Union and Confederate veterans’ efforts to commemorate national memories related to American valor and fealty. From a Union perspective, reuniting the nation was the driving reason to fight, and veterans of northern armies overwhelmingly embraced the concept both during and after the war.[4] However, as the Lost Cause ideology took hold of the American imagination in both the North and the South, Union veterans began to tie the reuniting of the nation and emancipation into one vociferous interpretation of the war’s meaning. Union veterans increasingly used the platform of commemorative activities to voice their displeasure with how the nation was reconciling under the South’s version of the war’s memory. Harris’s work goes against the grain of Blight’s three separate memories of the Civil War. What Across the Bloody Chasm demonstrates is that by the 2010s, scholarship emerged showing the concept of national reconciliation to be more complex than originally espoused.

The common historical perception of demobilized Union veterans is that they returned home and proceeded to pick up with their lives as if the war did not occur. Brian Mathew Jordan, in Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, constructs a discourse that Union veterans did not in fact return to normalcy, but instead suffered from what a later generation would term post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Jordan, northern civilians subordinated the past to the promise of the future.[5] The bearded old soldiers of Appomattox never belonged to the present; they were relics of a past age, incongruous with a present age teeming with possibilities.

Union veterans’ construction of memories of the Civil War at times intertwined with Southerners’ memories of the war in order to foster reconciliation; at other times, Union veterans held bitter memories of the war’s meaning vis-à-vis Southern recollections. Blight’s interpretations of the war’s memory substantiate a reconciliationist vision of the war’s outcome imbued with racism. In other words, both sides fought heroically for different reasons, but in the end all were Americans. In this interpretation, African-Americans’ meaning and memory of the war was subordinated to the Lost Cause mythology and reconciliation. According to Blight, by the turn-of-the-century, the emancipationist legacy of the war was buried under the hubris of reconciliation in the North and the terrorism of Jim Crow in the South.

What Faust, Harris, and Jordan present are reimagined memories of Union veterans. For Faust, Union soldiers and their kin back home concerned themselves with the proper death and burial, one befitting a hero’s sacrifice. Harris challenged Blight’s interpretations of the war’s memory in that Union veterans, over time, saw the conflict as both reuniting the nation and crushing slavery. Jordan gives voice to Union veterans and challenges the predominant narrative that Union veterans returned home and got on with the business of living. Jordan paints a bleak picture of Union veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, disorientation, and readjustment to civilian life. From Blight’s work published in 2001 to Jordan’s work published in 2014, a discernible paradigm shift occurs in how Union veterans remembered the war.

Scholarship regarding the South’s commemoration and memorialization of the Civil War began in earnest around the turn-of-the-century. The Dunning School dominated interpretations of the war and Reconstruction up until the 1960s.[6] As the field gave way to social history, reimagining of the South’s role in the war and its memorialization efforts shifted the paradigm away from the Lost Cause to a more balanced and nuanced interpretation of post-war Southern memorialization. By the late 1980s, scholars were reevaluating the Southern memory of the Civil War.

Published in 1988, Gaines M. Foster’s Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South challenged previous orthodoxy regarding the South’s memory of the war. Foster argues that post-war Confederate organizations, such as the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, shaped individuals’ memory of the war, but it was primarily a public memory, a component of the region’s cultural system, supported by the rituals of the Lost Cause.[7] According to Foster, the Lost Cause did not signal the South’s retreat from the future, but, whether intentionally or not, it eased the region’s passage through a particularly difficult period of social change. Many of the values championed by the Lost Cause helped people adjust to a new order; to that extent, the Lost Cause supported the emergence of the New South. Ultimately, the Lost Cause fostered an “imagined community” with shared ritualizations and a print culture supporting these rituals.

dixie's daughters cox

The maintenance of Southern heritage and the support for the Lost Cause was gendered. Women played a critical role in commemoration and memorialization of the South’s legacy in the war. Karen L. Cox, in Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, argues that women were longtime leaders in the movement to memorialize the Confederacy and were active participants in debates over what would constitute the New South.[8] Women had long held positions of leadership, whether through ladies memorial associations or through the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in commemorating and preserving the southern past. In this vein, gender and memory and intertwined regarding the preservation of Confederate culture.

Contestation over Southern memory of the war was not only fought ideologically and through print, but spatially as well. During and following the war, Southern cemeteries filled with Confederate dead creating veritable “cities of the dead.” William Blair, in Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, argues that “the Cities of the Dead, or what nineteenth-century Americans called the cemeteries for fallen heroes, provided places for community leaders to reach a mass audiences of like-minded people to reinforce partisan ideals and behavior.”[9] For Southerners, the Cities of the Dead became space where veneration of the Lost Cause could be enumerated through a spatial language. Southern cemeteries served the ideological ends of the Lost Cause through commemorative rituals in a spatial sense.

Nostalgia for a bygone past permeated Southern consciousness following the war. Southerners from 1865 on yearned for a might-have-been, imagined past. According to David Anderson, a “nostalgically remembered past stood against the present and thus invited comparisons. The former was made into a spectacle that was beautiful, bearing little or not relation to the ugly latter. In effect, nostalgia makes the past feel ‘safe from the unexpected and the untoward’ – in other words, making it so very unlike the present.”[10] The impurities of memory – its fallibility, its fragility, and its proclivity for mythmaking – proved to be redemptive by permitting a nostalgic continuity back to an amaranthine Old South.

Charles Reagan Wilson’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 demonstrates how white southerners made a religion out of their history that was suffocating for anyone who questioned southern society, especially the white supremacy at the center of the “southern way of life.”[11] North-South reconciliation, as Wilson suggests, had advanced far by the early twentieth-century, showing how ministers transferred the sense of providential mission from the Lost Cause civil religion to American religion during World War I. Northerners came to accept white southern attitudes toward the war, providing the Lost Cause foundation for national acceptance of southern white supremacy.

lost cause

Scholarship regarding southern memory of the Civil War saw the greatest paradigm shift in its historiography. Recent scholarship from the late 1980s on focuses on the Lost Cause as a catalyst for the acceptance of southern nostalgia and mythology regarding the war. Uniquely, gender appears more frequently in this scholarship than it does with the historiography of the North. Women in the South played a leading role in fostering the Lost Cause at an ideological level and in popularizing the pathos through print media. We also see how spatial arrangements of landscapes of the dead added weight to the enunciation of the Lost Cause. Finally, scholarship regarding the civil religion aspect of the Lost Cause foregrounded the South’s racist hierarchy. Memory in the South closely aligns with Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined communities. In the South, the mythos of the Lost Cause bound southerners to a shared heritage with rituals that only those from the South could understand.

Returning back to the controversy over a statue on the UT campus, we can see that even after 150 years, memory of the Civil War is contested intellectual terrain. The memory boom of the late 1980s and the early 1990s increased scholarly production of how both the North and the South came to view the war’s memory. Longstanding for many years, the romanticization of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war captivated both Northern and Southern imaginations. However, films like “Glory” (1989) and Ken Burn’s PBS series “The Civil War” (1990) gave more credence to the emancipationist memory of the war. Still, as the UT Davis statue controversy attests, the memory of the war is still being waged 150 years later. While unification of the country was solved, reconciliation is still a fraught endeavor.

Steve Bare is a PhD student at the University of Toledo. Bare is an Americanist with a focus on American war and memory from the Civil War through World War I. He lives in Toledo with his dog Kirby and is an avid foodie at heart.

Note: To be clear, ToM’s editorial policy officially supports hanging Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.


[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001), 2.

[2] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), xiii.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] M. Keith Harris, Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration Among Civil War Veterans, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014), 2.

[5] Brian Mathew Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2014), 7.

[6] The Dunning School argued that Reconstruction irredeemably hurt the South. In addition, the Dunning School scholars were proponents of the Lost Cause ideology that stipulated the South lost the war due to a preponderance of Union men and materiel.

[7] Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 5.

[8] Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 1.

[9] William Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 1.

[10] David Anderson, “Down Memory Lane: Nostalgia for the Old South in Post-Civil War Plantation Reminiscences,” The Journal of Southern History 71, no.1 (February, 2005), 107.

[11] Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920, (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2009), x.