Unreconciliation in the US – Civil War, Statues  and Slavery in 2020

Detail from the Robert Gould Shaw, 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Boston Massachusetts. The memorial commemorates Col. Shaw and the members of his regiment, the first all-black volunteer unit to fight in the US Civil War, who died in the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, 18 July 1863. Photograph: James Gow ©
James Gow

Unrest and iconoclasm  spread across the United States  — and the world — in June 2020. The immediate prompt was video of a white police officer killing a black man in Minneapolis.  In a wider sense, however, the eruption of anger is evidently, a manifestation of unreconciliation — it is the continuation of the unreconciled US Civil War. It is a product of the post-Civil War reconciliation  between the North and South. That reconciliation between Unionists and Confederates, in the United States, apparently so successful, was, in truth, incomplete and at the expense of those whose profoundly unequal status had been the cause of the war: Americans of African heritage, over four million of whom had been slaves.

Reconciliation and reunion were sealed across the Unionist -Confederate  divide. The country was reunited, as fraternal engagement among former enemies and the interests of business and economy, both North and South, urged reconciliation. This movement was also fuelled by Unionists’ weariness of the hard work of enforcing emancipation . Finally, rebellion and recalcitrance in the defeated Confederate states, a factor in the North’s weariness, shaped the  reconciliation that occurred. As a result, the past was accommodated and the future became the focus. Five decades after the end of the war in 1865, the sides appeared to be reconciled and to share an understanding that, somehow, both sides had fought nobly in a family feud that had been necessary for national development, but was over and everyone could move on together.

The reconciliation achieved set aside the issues of slavery and black freedom , suggesting a blurred moral equivalence between the Northern and Southern sections. By the time President Woodrow Wilson was speaking at a Peace Jubilee on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the first southern President in half a century, slavery was forgotten and not mentioned; race was a single, passing mention among other issues dissolved in the reformed nation. By that time, white domination had been largely restored de facto in the South, despite the compound effects of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution, which, along with the Union’s programme of ‘Reconstruction’ to enforce emancipation, proved insufficient to prevent the emergence of ‘Black’ codes and ‘Jim Crow’ laws and practices across the South. These constrained the electoral and civil rights of black citizens, and left them economically shackled, even if the legal bonds of ownership had been removed.

The reconciliation that occurred was possible because it was made between equals — the white soldiers and business people on either side. Black soldiers were increasingly overlooked, forgotten and excluded from reconciliation ‘soldier only’ events, focused on heroism and honour. And just as black soldiers were overlooked, forgotten and excluded, so was the issue at the very core of the war — emancipation.  In a sense, this was the reconciliation that was possible. It was also the reconciliation that was necessary to America’s growth as a continental empire. That empire enabled the US to become an economic giant. These were undoubtedly its strengths and made it desirable. It was the ‘right’ reconciliation because it was the one that was achievable in a short time. Yet, it was also the wrong reconciliation, leaving those who had been saved from slavery behind. The key issues of slavery and race at the heart of the civil war were unreconciled.

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 is based on research for ‘James Gow and Rana Ibrahem, ‘The Unreconciled US Civil War’ in Rachel Kerr, Henry Redwood and James Gow eds. Reconciliation After War: Historical Perspectives on Transitional Justice New York: Routledge, 2021.

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.

New Article: ‘What Works? Creative Approaches to Transitional Justice in BiH’.

The latest article on Art & Reconciliation research is now out and available for free download. Featuring in a Special Issue of The International Journal of Transitional Justice, guest edited by Cynthia Cohen, on ‘Creative Approaches to Transitional Justice: Contributions of Arts and Culture’, the article by Tiffany Fairey and Rachel Kerr discusses two arts-based initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina. You can download the article here.


Scholars and practitioners of transitional justice have begun to seek alternative approaches in the arts and culture as a means to pursue core goals of peace and reconciliation. This Special Issue asks what creative approaches can do that conventional transitional justice mechanisms cannot, and invites us to reflect on the possibilities, and the potential challenges, risks and constraints. In response, this article discusses two arts-based initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one involving a national museum, the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one with a Bosnian peacebuilding organization, the Post Conflict Research Centre, that provided opportunities for plural, dialogical and localized forms of transitional justice. Analyzing the question of what worked in these two distinct initiatives, we highlight four common qualities and offer them as non-prescriptive ‘good-practice principles’ in strategic arts-based peacebuilding practice: iterative working over time; carving space for plural, locally driven narratives; amplifying the capacities and networks of local actors; and context-driven project design.

Art & Reconciliation activities delayed due to COVID-19

Art & Reconciliation have won follow on impact funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Global Challenges Research Fund to build on our collaboration with the Post Conflict Research Centre (PCRC). Over 2020 and into 2021, PCRC will be producing two new publications with their Balkan Diskurs correspondents covering national and regional topics ranging from Bosnian fashion designers to arts and music festivals and youth activism. The new publications build on the success of the 2019 publication of the Bosnian edition of ASBO magazine and will be disseminated thorough out BiH. Art & Reconciliation researchers will be working alongside PRCR to research and evaluate visual peacebuilding strategies. Activities have been delayed due to COVID-19 but it is hoped they will be underway soon.

AFZ installation joins the permanent collection of the History Museum of BiH

A permanent installation curated by Crvena on the Women’s Antifascist Front of Yugosalavia opened at the History Museum of BiH on December 5th 2019.  Titled, “What has our struggle given us?”, the installation is part of The Living Museum commissions which has seen artists critically engage with artwork and materials from the History Museum archives. The installation critically explores and reflects on the heritage of Women’s Antifascist Front of Yugoslavia presenting photographs, documents, posters and newspaper articles in a series of themed sections. The exhibition represents a rich and vital contribution to the telling of the history of women’s organising and struggle.

Read more about the exhibition in this feature in the Oslobodenje.

Living Museum exhibitions feature in Bosnian media

Living Museum commissions and exhibitions have garnered extensive coverage in the Bosnian press including an editorial written by the British ambassador, Matthew Field, in Oslobodjenje.  See via the links below or go to English translations:

Mi Gradimo Prugu, Pruga Gradi Nas’ (We Build the Tracks, the Tracks Build Us)

Friday 1 November saw the opening of our 6th exhibition in collaboration with the Historijski Muzej (Historical Museum) of Bosnia and Hercegovina in Sarajevo. This exchibition, ‘Mi Gradimo Prugu, Pruga Gradi Nas’ (We Build the Tracks, the Tracks Build Us) is the second in the series for the ongoing ‘Living Museum‘ project, which began in February 2019.  The project is a collaboration between the Muzej, King’s College London and University of the Arts London, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council/Global Challenges Research Fund as a follow-on from Art and Reconciliation.  It seeks to excavate, curate and open new conversations about Yugoslav history through the Museum’s extensive collection of socialist art.

The opening was a tremendous success, with very many people attending and even made the front page of Oslobojenje!  It showcased the work of four students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, Esnar Hadžić, Faras Ramadanović, Stefan Savić and Marina Krsmanović, together with work by artist-in-residence, Milena Michalski, ‘In a different light’.

The students’ work was in response to the art collection held by the Museum, some of which is currently exhibited in the ‘Living Museum’, together with  artworks commissioned in response to it, in the exhibition ‘Savrameni Kontekski: Oslikavanje Socijalističkih Slika (Contemporary Contexts: Reimagining Socialist Images) by Dženan Hadžhasanović, Smirna Kulenović, Milena Michalski, Andrea Mirnić and Meliha Teparić (more details to follow!).

Visit the Museum’s facebook page for more photos and info: https://www.facebook.com/histmuzbih/



VEM+ Exploring Exclusions

The VEM network based within the Faculty of Social Sciences & Public Policy aims to create spaces of knowledge-exchange and research excellence around visual, embodied and art-based methodologies within, across and beyond Social Sciences. The network was founded by Drs Negar Elodie Behzadi and Jelke Boesten, both in the Department of International Development at King’s College London. It expanded over the summer to include other scholars in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Public Policy at King’s.

Rachel Kerr and Henry Redwood were part of the VEM’s first major project, VEM+, where collaborating artists were invited to take up residency at King’s for 2 weeks in July 2019 in Somerset House studios, working directly with researchers.

Henry Redwood worked with Belgrade-based artist Vladimir Miladinović on the project //Undiscernible//. 

//Undiscernible// builds on a two year collaboration, which began with Art and Reconciliation when Vladimir was one of the artists commissioned by the Historical Museum. It explores how aesthetic approaches to the legacies of war might open up new modes of engagement with, and ways of imagining transitions to, peace.

Henry and Vladimir focus on a series of intercepted cables linked to the case at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia against General Ratko Mladic. About a third of the intercepted cables are described in the documents as ‘undiscernible’. This leads to questions both about the nature of this ‘proof’ and the question of the role that this proof plays in contemporary society.

The project draws inspiration from Vladimir’s use of ink-wash drawings based on archival material relating to the war in the former Yugoslavia, to ask difficult questions about how particular knowledges of (past and present) violence are produced, and what this means for how societies reconstitute themselves after violence.

Photograph by Lyanne Wylde

The results of the collaborations are currently being shown in The Exchange space in Bush House (until 7 November).

Exhibition: Exploring Exclusions

1 October  to 7 November 2019

This exhibition presents the work of four artist/researchers collaborations (below) on questions of exclusion, stigmatisation, marginalisation, conflict and violence at the School of Social Science and Public Policy (SSPP).

Find out more here.

Art and Conflict Panel hosted by LSE Festival

Saturday 02 March 2019 12:45pm to 2:00pm
Hosted by LSE Festival: New World (Dis)Orders

Wolfson Theatre, New Academic Building

The panellists will discuss the role of art and visual representation in response to conflict and dealing with its consequences.

Text Illuminations is an art installation by artist Nela Milic of the University of the Arts London (UAL) produced through inter-disciplinary collaboration with political scientists Dr Denisa Kostovicova, Dr Ivor Sokolic and Tom Paskhalis of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

This artwork is an interactive representation of a search for the meaning of reconciliation after mass atrocity through debates including people from all ethnic groups involved in a decade of conflicts in the Balkans. The artist and the political scientists join together to discuss the process of interdisciplinary collaboration to convert quantitative text analysis into art. The exhibition is part of a major AHRC-funded project, ‘Art & Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community’, led by King’s in collaboration with the University of the Arts London and the London School of Economics.

The work will be contextualised in relation to the early findings of a DFID-funded project, the Conflict Research Programme, led by LSE, which explores conflict in relation to notions of identity, civicness and the political marketplace. Contemporary conflicts often combine attacks on civil society, culture and cultural heritage. The panel will also explore how, in responding to this civicness, art and the defence of cultural heritage can come together.

Denisa Kostovicova is an Associate Professor in Global Politics at the European Institute and the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She studies post-conflict reconstruction and transitional justice with a particular interest in the bottom-up perspective on transitions from war to peace.

Nela Milic is an artist and an academic working in media and arts, and is Senior Lecturer and Year 2 Contextual and Theoretical Studies Coordinator in the Design School at London College of Communication.

Tom Paskhalis is a PhD candidate at the Department of Methodology, LSE. His research is focussed on comparative politics and the development and application of new approaches to quantitative text analysis.

Dr Ivor Sokolić is a Research Officer at the European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He works on the ERC funded project “Justice Interactions and Peacebuilding: From Static to Dynamic Discourses across National, Ethnic, Gender and Age Groups”.

Denisa Kostovicova, Ivor Sokolic, Tom Paskhalis and Nela Milic discuss the process of interdisciplinary collaboration, which turned a political science method into an art installation in their blog piece Text Illuminations: From the Method to the Artefact.

Henry Radice is a Reseach Fellow in the Department of International Development, LSE.

Twitter hashtags for this event: #LSEFestival #NewWorldDisorders

This event is part of the LSE Festival: New World (Dis)Orders running from Monday 25 February to Saturday 2 March 2019, with a series of events exploring how social science can tackle global problems.

Book your ticket here.

Reconciliation as Activity: Constraints and Possibilities

Ivor Sokolić and Denisa Kostovicova, London School of Economics and Political Science

Reconciliation is proving to be a problematic concept for both practitioners and academics: it is laden with normative expectations and is often rejected by local publics. Ivor Sokolic and Denisa Kostovicova report on the exchange with civil society in Kosovo on reconciliation as activity. Participants shared their experiences of how interethnic contact between individuals through a variety of activities often had unintended positive outcomes for intergroup relations.

On 05 March 2018 the London School of Economics and Political Science, as a part of the ‘Art and Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community’ project (artreconciliation.org), held a collaborative workshop in Prishtina titled “Activity as Reconciliation: Lessons from Practice”. The event was organised together with our local partner in Kosovo, the Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication (CRDP), who work on, and research, themes of peace, justice and truth in Kosovo. There was considerable overlap with the CRDP’s work on human security and reconciliation and our own, which made for a natural partnership for the workshop organisation. The workshop was attended by representatives of local and international civil society organisations who conduct a range of activities within communities and across ethnic lines. Some dealt directly with reconciliation issues (for example, efforts in coming to terms with the past), but many did not (for example, youth dialogue programmes).

The workshop dealt with one of the key research questions behind the AHRC-funded project, ‘Art and Reconciliation’: how to reconceptualise reconciliation? Our partner’s findings on reconciliation show the importance of this question in the post-conflict context in Kosovo. They find that projects under the label of reconciliation were initiated too early, are simultaneously both unclear and too ambitious, and favour one side of the conflict (the full results can be found here). This has often resulted – mirroring experiences in other post-conflict contexts – in the rejection of the concept on normative grounds. The biggest challenge, then, is how to reconcile this rejection with the necessity, as well as the desire expressed by many who themselves have suffered from violence, to work on social repair for the sake of peace.

The workshop addressed this conundrum by reframing reconciliation as activity. The premise here is to focus on activities that, sometimes labelled as reconciliatory and sometimes not, lead to better relations between groups. Underpinning this was the idea that activities that involve contact between different groups – be it physical or symbolic (such as interaction with outgroup symbols), intentional or unintentional – can lead to positive outcomes for intergroup relations. Many of these activities are missed in traditional appraisals of reconciliation, which are loaded with specific expectations of what the process and outcomes ought to look like. This focus on activity, then, helps to reconceptualise and critique reconciliation. Together with civil society organisations, we shared experiences of what types of activity can aid reconciliation and what is it about these types of activity that make them conducive to transforming interethnic relationships. We questioned if this concept was useful, and if not, what concept would be more useful from a practice-oriented point of view?

Representatives of civil society exhibited a readiness to acknowledge the problems associated with the normative load of reconciliation, which had become an impediment to the work they were undertaking. Some felt trapped, since they needed to adhere to labels to attain funding, but these labels hampered their work. Organisations experienced hostility towards their work, if they labelled it as reconciliatory. At the same time, numerous examples were provided of activities they had undertaken that had positive outcomes on intergroup relations, but which did not fall under the label of reconciliation. Participants also noted a number of macro and micro factors that inhibited these types of activities from taking place. Three key themes, with clear policy implications, underpinned the discussions on the day.

Structural barriers to activity

First, the structural dimension of activities that can aid, or hinder, reconciliation was highlighted. On the macro level, dynamics between the global and the local; donors and civil society organisations; and civil society and the state, all defined the structural framework within which organisations operated, and by which they were often constrained. The ghettoisation of minorities, segregated educational systems and regional divergence in state capacity within Kosovo made it easier for organisations to conduct activities between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs from Serbia, rather than with Kosovo Serbs. These macro level differences also fed into other issues. Differences in education provisions meant participants noted that the language barrier between Serbs and Albanians, who do not speak each others’ language, which is often seen as an intrinsic barrier to cooperation, could be overcome through the shared understanding of English. This was, however, found to disadvantage Kosovan Serbs who lacked sufficient English skills to communicate with Albanians. An inability to communicate within Kosovo thus forecloses opportunities for reconciliation even when reframed as activity.

Generational focus of activity

The generational dimension, with an emphasis on youth and the transgenerational dimension of reconciliation, was the second key theme underpinning discussions. Many civil society organisations targeted their work at young people and saw positive outcomes between groups. These organisations defined success in their work as educating young people about opportunities to travel, to converse with other groups and, sometimes, as enabling such travel and exchanges. They believed these activities provided participants with new information that questioned dominant narratives about the conflict, as well as an invaluable opportunity to meet members of the other ethnic group. These situations did not involve discussions about politics, society or violence at first, but through socialisation outside of the core activities of travel or exchanges (for example, over drinks) and in the pursuit of common interests (for example, interests in the arts or music), these conversations began to occur. They “talked about the war incognito”. This finding contradicts the commonly assumed premise that the divergent, ethnically-centred, representations of conflict are an obstacle to discussions about the most delicate issues concerning the conflict. In this respect, activities that are not primarily addressed at reconciliation, through challenging dominant narratives about the conflict, facilitate exchange on the most challenging issues dividing Serbs and Albanians.

Formal resistance to reconciliation

Much of the activity with positive intergroup outcomes that organisations had undertaken occurs in the informal domain, which emerged as the third key theme of the day, but these processes meet resistance from formal institutions and societal norms. Informality, across all levels of society, was seen as a space where friendships were created. The informal spaces at the margins of reconciliation efforts contained some of the most meaningful interactions between groups. They were spaces where constraints surrounding interaction across ethnic lines disappeared. Civil society organisations believed there was a readiness to reconcile, observed through informal activities that resulted in restoration of torn relations between members of the two communities. This trend was also documented in the LSE-based research (available here), that found that Albanians’ and Serbs’ participation in Kosovo’s informal economy that cuts across ethnic lines leads to creation of friendships, and was reflected in the above-mentioned study by the CRDP (available here). The positive will to change was, however, obstructed by societally defined boundaries that formal institutions reproduce. Organisations cited examples of cultural programmes, exchanges or interethnic sports events that were literally halted by politics. They also highlighted the reproduction of ethnic division through textbooks, nationalist political rhetoric and the political instrumentalisation of minorities. The effect was that individuals often made friends with members of the other ethnicity in the informal setting or away from their home or in spaces where they would not be exposed to public scrutiny, only for these interactions to be sanctioned by their own ethnic communities.


Overall, the workshop provided a forum for dialogue based on evidence deriving from academic research and experience from practice focused on reconceptualising reconciliation as activity. This recognised the paradox of people’s desire and need for normalisation of relations, dignity and reckoning with the legacy of conflict and the hostility towards the concept of reconciliation. The resulting outputs will be both academic publications (including a journal special issue edited by I. Sokolić) and a policy brief for local and international policy makers. The policy suggestions will focus on the roles of education, youth and cultural activities. Improved English language teaching across ethnic lines can provide a lingua franca for future generations. Youth exchange projects will be recommended since they are cost-effective and not typically labelled as reconciliatory. Furthermore, activities in the cultural sphere, such as the arts, will be highlighted due to their potential to help younger generations from different ethnic groups meet each other and bond over shared interests.