One reason why the final two years of the Civil War is so difficult to commemorate is that it offers little in the kinds of dramatic battles that still captivate the imaginations of so many. Many of us are seduced by the success of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and how close they brought the Confederacy to independence. Whether we acknowledge the inevitability of Confederate defeat or not and with the benefit of hindsight, the final two years of the war appear to be a gradual deterioration of all things Confederate.
The other factor is that it becomes much more difficult to ignore the challenges and messiness of Reconstruction, which is well under way during those final two years. While it can be argued that our popular memory of the war has undergone a positive shift in recent years, our understanding of Reconstruction remains in the dark ages. It will be very sad indeed if the Civil War 150th ends in 1865.
The very questions that the war raised are anything but settled and with relatively new books by LeAnna Keith, Charles Lane, James Hogue, Stephen Ash and others we know that racial violence continued. This is a point that has been raised numerous times by a good friend of mine, but one of the biggest gaps in our National Park system is that we don’t have a site where Reconstruction can be properly interpreted in the same way that the Gettysburg Visitor Center does for the entire Civil War.
I would be happy if the 150th led to such a site, but that raises the question of location. It might be tempting to think of one of the Reconstruction battlefields such as Colfax, LA, New Orleans or Memphis as a proper site, but emphasizing the scale of racial violence may turn off visitors, especially African Americans. Perhaps South Carolina would be a more appropriate location given the role that African Americans played in the state legislature during part of Reconstruction.
What Reconstruction site would you highlight?