History Channel Does Reconstruction Right

Our tendency to distinguish between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures the fact that fundamental questions of freedom, national identity, and citizenship were left unanswered. According to historian, Vernon Burton:

At stake during the Civil War was the very existence of the United States. The bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War posed in a crucial way what clearly became persistent themes in American history: the character of the nation and the fate of African Americans (writ large the place of minorities in a democracy, the very meaning of pluralism). Consequently, scholars have been vitally interested in the Civil War, searching out clues therein for the identity of America. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction, and the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war. (“Is There Anything Left To Be Said About Abraham Lincoln?, Historically Speaking, [September/October 2008] p. 6)

Part of the problem is that our tendency to remember Appomattox as some kind of love fest or the beginning of reunion obscures the level of violence that continued into Reconstruction.  Much of that violence was perpetrated against southern blacks to reinforce assumptions of white supremacy and prevent freed slaves from exercising newly-won civil rights.  Such a view has grown steadily among academic historians since the 1960s and in recent years can be seen in a wave of more popular titles.  The pervasiveness of this view can be seen in a recent History Channel documentary, titled, Aftershock: Beyond The Civil War.  Based on only viewing the first episode it looks like this particular documentary is not so concerned with the complex political issues that dominated the period, but with the scale of violence that was used to terrorize blacks into submission.  It suggests that perhaps the war did not end in 1865, but took on a different form in the years that followed.

10 thoughts on “History Channel Does Reconstruction Right

  1. boydharris

    I saw this over Thanksgiving break. My Daddy had recorded it and I started watching it late at night. I was drifting off to sleep, when I suddenly heard Jim Hogue's voice. Lets just say that hearing your thesis advisor's voice as you drift off to sleep doesn't exactly create a restful environment. I had to turn it off. I watched it the next day.
    My research focuses on the commemoration of Fort Pillow battlefield. This continuation of violence into Reconstruction, and even after, can be related back to the events that occurred at Fort Pillow. This creates a unique problem at Fort Pillow, particularly in the interpretation of the battle. Battlefields are sites of violence and blood, but there is a sense that after it was over, “it was all left on the field.” This is part of the reconciliation theme seen at nearly every single major Civil War battlefield. Commemoration becomes problematic at battlefields like Fort Pillow, precisely because the violence that occurred there is repeated, in various forms, beyond 1865.

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    1. Kevin Levin

      Nice to hear from you. My interest was peaked early on after seeing Hogue interviewed. His study of the New Orleans street battles during Reconstruction is a first-rate scholarly example of just what the History Channel documentary is getting at. It is fitting that he was interviewed for it.

      You research sounds like it's right up my alley. I assume you are familiar with John Cimprich's recent study.

      Reply
      1. boydharris

        Definitely. I visited the battlefield in 2007 and then read his book that fall. It was the visit and his last chapter in the book, “Public Memory and Fort Pillow,” that got me thinking about battlefield commemoration at Fort Pillow. I returned to the site this past summer for research. The park has copies of several other studies in their main office, but not that one. It is a shame, since his is one of the better, if not the best, studies of the battle and it's aftermath.

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      2. margaretdblough

        Kevin:

        James Longstreet was already under vicious attack for supporting the Reconstruction government of Louisiana but it reached even higher levels after he commanded black militia and city police in an unsuccessful defense of the government against an attack by the White League, mostly composed of former Confederate veterans, in the infamous Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans on September 14, 1874. I know a Longstreet great-grandson (not that old, his mother is the daughter of Longstreet's youngest son's second marriage and was born when her father was 63) and I tell him that there isn't a descendant of any other Confederate general who can find a favorable reference to their ancestor in W.E.B. DuBois' “Black Reconstruction”. The treatment of the events at Liberty Place is another example of struggles over how events should be remembered.

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  2. Charles

    Interesting , my Native Friends see all this very different. They see actions like the Seminole wars, wounded Knee and countless other atrocities committed against their people as bad or worse than Reconstruction. Spend some time at the Crazy Horse memorial and you will see a very different view of men like Phil Sheridan, Sherman, Grant and others. Many times a persons view of history is influenced by their life experiences, just as a viewing of a work of Art. Many can gaze upon a work of Art and walk away with a very different perceptions. I remember seeing Mayan Cities like Tulum and Aulton-Ha the people visiting were over come with their beauty and the great civilization that they once were a part of. Nobody focused on or give much thought to the human sacrifices and other carnage that took place in these culture and these cites. IMO Human history has a linage of non ending human atrocities, Reconstruction is just a drop of water in the sea of human life on earth. Come back to earth a thousand years from now things will not have changed, just a new set of problems humans will have created for themselves .

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  3. Tim

    I have viewed “Aftershock,” and while it makes some great points I would first recommend the PBS American Experience documentary “Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.” It is fantastic.

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  4. toby joyce

    I hope this documentary gets a wide audience. It may counteract the myth (a mandatory boast of American exceptionalism) that “no one has obtained power through violence here”. The way violence was used to suppress black voting rights was a fairly typical example of the type of fascist terror used by Hitler and many insurgencies since the 1870s. In fact the USA is the first modern state where a quasi-secessionist group won local rights through a unashamed terrorist campaign against its opponents.

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  5. margaretdblough

    Kevin:

    James Longstreet was already under vicious attack for supporting the Reconstruction government of Louisiana but it reached even higher levels after he commanded black militia and city police in an unsuccessful defense of the government against an attack by the White League, mostly composed of former Confederate veterans, in the infamous Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans on September 14, 1874. I know a Longstreet great-grandson (not that old, his mother is the daughter of Longstreet's youngest son's second marriage and was born when her father was 63) and I tell him that there isn't a descendant of any other Confederate general who can find a favorable reference to their ancestor in W.E.B. DuBois' “Black Reconstruction”. The treatment of the events at Liberty Place is another example of struggles over how events should be remembered.

    Reply

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