The crucible of disease: trauma, memory, and national reconciliation during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878

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Author: Edward J. Blum
Date: Nov. 2003
From: Journal of Southern History(Vol. 69, Issue 4)
Publisher: Southern Historical Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 11,962 words

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FEW SOUTHERN WHITES WERE MORE PASSIONATE ABOUT OR MORE DEDICATED to the Confederacy and the Lost Cause than Father Abram J. Ryan, a poet and Catholic priest in New Orleans and other southern cities. During the Civil War he served as a chaplain in the Confederate army exhorting his southern brethren to drive back their northern invaders. After the war he refused to be reconstructed. He championed the Lost Cause and wrote dozens of poems that grieved over the Confederate dead, extolled southern soldiers, and generally lauded southern virtue. "Our heroes in Gray," Ryan wrote in one of his most famous poems, "C.S.A.," would never be forgotten: "Their memories e'er shall remain for us." Moreover, he continued to defend the righteousness of the South. He lionized Robert E. Lee for "Shielding the feeble, smiting the strong, / Guarding the right, avenging the wrong...." Ryan's verses brought him enormous fame. One version of his book-length collection of poems was so popular that it went through twelve editions between 1880 and 1892. By the mid-1870s Ryan had received the title "poet-priest" of the Lost Cause. (1)

Ryan's feelings toward northerners and toward the Union changed considerably after a devastating yellow fever outbreak in 1878 ravaged much of the South and was met by a massive relief effort on the part of northern whites. During the summer and fall the pestilence claimed over 20,000 lives and infected roughly 120,000 people. Northerners rushed to help the suffering South by sending funds, goods, doctors, nurses, and letters. In response, Ryan claimed that the nation had been reconciled. In the aftermath of the epidemic, he put these emotions to verse in his aptly titled "Reunited":

For at the touch of Mercy's hand The North and South stood side by side: The Bride of Snow, the Bride of Sun, In Charity's espousals are made one.

It was a requital for the bitterness of war:

"Thou givest back my sons again," The Southland to the Northland cries; "For all my dead, on battle plain, Thou biddest my dying now uprise: I still my sobs, I cease my tears, And thou hast recompensed my anguished years.["] (2)

In seeking to save the South, rather than annihilate it, the North had brought about a reunification that political Reconstruction had not. The traumatic days of 1878 had both assuaged the anguish that filled Ryan's memories of the Civil War and provided him an opportunity to claim national fidelity.

While historians of post-Civil War sectional reconciliation have generally neglected the 1878 epidemic, they have paid a great deal of attention to intersections of memory and reunion. These scholars, especially Nina Silber and David W. Blight, have detailed the ways northern and southern whites reconciled at the expense of justice and equality for African Americans. Blight's award-winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory shows how memories of the Civil War served as powerful forces in white reconciliation and black marginalization. Indeed, a contest of memories replaced the contest of armies....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A111356786