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Civil War Memories

, 288 pages
November 2017



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Civil War Memories

Contesting the Past in the United States since 1865

Winner of the Book Prize in American Studies of the British Association of American Studies


At a cost of at least 800,000 lives, the Civil War preserved the Union, aborted the breakaway Confederacy, and liberated a race of slaves. Civil War Memories is the first comprehensive account of how and why Americans have selectively remembered, and forgotten, this watershed conflict since its conclusion in 1865. Drawing on an array of textual and visual sources as well as a wide range of modern scholarship on Civil War memory, Robert J. Cook charts the construction of four dominant narratives by the ordinary men and women, as well as the statesmen and generals, who lived through the struggle and its tumultuous aftermath.

Part One explains why the Yankee victors’ memory of the "War of the Rebellion" drove political conflict into the 1890s, then waned with the passing of the soldiers who had saved the republic. It also touches on the leading role southern white women played in the development of the racially segregated South’s "Lost Cause"; explores why, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the majority of Americans had embraced a powerful reconciliatory memory of the Civil War; and details the failed efforts to connect an emancipationist reading of the conflict to the fading cause of civil rights.

Part Two demonstrates the Civil War’s capacity to thrill twentieth-century Americans in movies such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. It also reveals the war’s vital connection to the black freedom struggle in the modern era. Finally, Cook argues that the massacre of African American parishioners in Charleston in June 2015 highlighted the continuing relevance of the Civil War by triggering intense nationwide controversy over the place of Confederate symbols in the United States.

Written in vigorous prose for a wide audience and designed to inform popular debate on the relevance of the Civil War to the racial politics of modern America, Civil War Memories is required reading for informed Americans today.

Robert J. Cook is a professor of American history at the University of Sussex. He is the author of Civil War Senator: William Pitt Fessenden and the Fight to Save the American Republic and a coauthor of Secession Winter: When the Union Fell Apart.

"The book is full of interesting anecdotes that illustrate the many skirmishes between the competing narratives"

"Cook makes clear the powerful ways that the reverberations of the Civil War still resonate within American political culture. A compelling story told by a uniquely qualified expert in southern history and civil rights."

"The Civil War has occupied a special place in the American psyche, for northerners and southerners, for blacks and whites, ever since General Robert E. Lee’s men stacked their guns at Appomattox in 1865. In his fast-paced, well-researched, and gripping Civil War Memories, Robert J. Cook underscores why and how Americans have remembered (and forgotten) the war’s complex meanings and legacies. Cook’s book is especially relevant at a moment in American history when pro-Confederate symbols remain hotly contested and recurrent racial violence challenges the myth of a post-racial age."

"Cook's work has the advantage of covering the entirety of post-Civil War history, making his the most comprehensive entry in this scholarly debate... His consistent attention to electoral politics across time sets his work apart from that of many other authors and makes the book well worth reading."

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