Where Should We Commemorate Reconstruction?

4-reconstruction-cartoon-grangerOne 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?

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20 comments… add one

  • Lori-Suzanne Dell Jul 27, 2013

    Although I find your question, “Where Should We Commemorate Reconstruction?” to be a very good question, I have issue – or at least some confusion – as to your articles statements. First, the American Civil War is broken down into three sections. 1. The Antebellum of 1820-1861. 2. The Civil War of 1861-1865. And, 3. Reconstruction of 1865-1877. Your article seems to describe reconstruction as 1864-1865 as you wrote, “it becomes much more difficult to ignore the challenges and messiness of Reconstruction, which is well under way during those final two years.” This statement would be wholly inaccurate, if I take its meaning literally. Also, the final two years of the bloody war was just as “dramatic” as the previous years, though possibly not as celebrated, to be sure. The Battle of Cold Harbor, the Seige of Petersburg, The Atlanta Campaign, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, etc, etc. However, since the ultimate aim of reconstruction was to bind and heal the wounds of the entire nation, as well as to rebuild the war torn South, the ultimate aim was also to fix a problem in our Democracy, our United States, that our founding fathers bequeathed to us through their inability to do so at the time of the formation of our nation; and that was to eradicate America of a viscous and cruel “peculiar institution” of slavery. Since this aim was the entire point of Reconstruction, then it seems to me that Washington, D.C. is the proper place to begin the conversation.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2013

      Thanks for the comment. What I said is that we need to recognize that Reconstruction begins during the height of the war. Of course, the final two years of the war includes some horrific fighting, but these campaigns do not attract the kind of interest that earlier campaigns do and I suspect it has something to do with the nature of war during this final phase and the sense that Confederate hopes have significantly dwindled.

      However, since the ultimate aim of reconstruction was to bind and heal the wounds of the entire nation, as well as to rebuild the war torn South..

      I can think of a number of Republicans who would have disagreed with this statement. D.C. is definitely an interesting suggestion.

  • Ben Railton Jul 27, 2013

    Really interesting and important questions, Kevin.

    I guess my instinct is to go with a more national site, such as a Freedmen’s Bureau Historic Site in DC. Could include the same dark histories of racial violence and Black Codes and etc., but also some of the ideals, the political debates, the 1876/1877 end to federal Reconstruction, and so on.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2013

      Excellent suggestion, Ben.

  • Keith Muchowski Jul 27, 2013

    I don’t know if I would go this far, but Barney Schecter argues argues in “The Devil’s Own Work” that Reconstruction began with the Emancipation Proclamation because that is when the war went from just about Union to fulfilling the promises of the Declaration of Independence. Interesting premise.

    For where we commemorate Reconstruction, I would argue for New York City. People underestimate the tenacity of the opposition to Republican policies here in the city. Grant actually sent troops here to monitor elections here in the city, especially the off-year elections of 1870, though federal oversight continued for years. It is revealing that the three Democratic candidates for national office during Reconstruction–Horatio Seymour, Horace Greeley, and Samuel Tilden–were all from New York State.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2013

      Hi Keith,

      If my memory is correct Lincoln’s own plan for Reconstruction took shape in 1863, no doubt, fueled in part by the implications of the Emancipation Proclamation. I like the suggestion of NYC, but I think the site needs to be in the South for a number of reasons.

      • Keith Muchowski Jul 27, 2013

        Kevin, you are probably right, though whatever happens I do hope we think “holistically” and remember the entire country. I think, too, we should think wider that the standard chronologies we tend to use: 1861-63; 1863-65; 1865-77. History isn’t that neat, with things beginning and ending in clearcut lines.

        • John Bennett Jul 27, 2013

          I’d point out the race issues are TODAY as bad in the Union states as in the Confederate states. A holistic consideration of Reconstruction should be across the entire country!

  • Boyd Harris Jul 27, 2013

    Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. I have just finished a week-long Public History Institute Seminar at Yale along with two other park rangers from Appomattox. It was an amazing experience to interact with other institutions, including the National Museum of African History and Culture. Our intent at the seminar was to find ways in which to include the African American story and the emancipation story into the park. Through many wide ranging conversations, our focus has begun to emphasize the uncertainty and chaos that emerged at the end of the war. Our interest has also shifted to better understand the situation on the ground in Appomattox County through the experiences of northern troops, southern veterans, freedpeople, and the white civilians. Reconstruction begins on April 10 at our site. We actively interpret the summer of 1865 and are now in the beginning phases of crafting our new program, entitled “Emancipation Realized.” The past week has highlighted for us the challenges facing people at the end of the war as well as the challenges facing our park in interpreting that to visitors. I do not think we would be the most appropriate site to commemorate the entire Reconstruction Era, but in the present sequester environment our site may be the one best equipped to at least discuss the challenges facing the nation following the Civil War.

  • I would vote for South Carolina (partly because I wrote a book about historical memory of Reconstruction there). For the last ten years or so, there has been an on-and-off plan to create a National Park Service site at Beaufort and Port Royal that would focus on Reconstruction. I’m not sure what the status of that is at the moment. I also think that the site of the 1868 Constitutional Convention in Charleston, S.C. would be appropriate since it was one of the first times that African Americans and whites met on an equal political footing in the South to govern. The site is now a small park just behind the main post office on Broad Street in downtown Charleston.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2013

      Hi Bruce,

      Excellent suggestion and a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

  • Samantha Jul 27, 2013

    I third (fourth?) the suggestion of South Carolina. I did not know of the potential park in Beaufort area, but there or Charleston would be my specific choices. My reasons are more mercenary, because I am not a historian. I feel that these areas would have more potential visitors. Tourists to Charleston and Beaufort (by way of Savannah) would be more likely to be interested in such a marker of history. While NYC and Memphis are certainly appropriate, there are too many other things to see on a limited vacation!

  • Al Mackey Jul 27, 2013

    I’d lay wreaths at places like Memphis and Colfax, Louisiana and use that as an occasion to highlight racial violence by white southern terrorists during Reconstruction.

  • Alan Skerrett Jul 27, 2013

    For the former Confederate and Border states, the state capital is a vital place to visit. This is where the many black legislators of the era served. Also, it was there that laws were passed which shaped the nature of the Reconstruction or Redemption eras.

    One of the more interesting public history sites in Atlanta is the “Expelled Because of Their Color” monument. It commemorates the 33 African-Americans who, though elected, were expelled from the Georgia legislature because there was no law which stated that blacks could hold office in the state house. The black legislators were eventually reinstated after federal intervention.

    Stories like that are essential to know and understand. The state capitals were at the center of it all.

  • edabney Jul 28, 2013

    This conversation came up at the March 2013 Future of Civil War History conference. I’ll maintain that there are sites that already encompass this historical time period and just perhaps need better promotion of that.

    On the Federal level:

    Any Civil War National Park with a Federal or Confederate cemetery (examples: Arlington, though clearly the cemetery is still managed by the Veterans Administration; Colonial NHP, Petersburg National Battlefield, etc.)

    Andrew Johnson National Historic Site (this is a no brainer)

    President’s Park/The White House (again, no brainer)

    James A. Garfield National Historic Site (to discuss Garfield’s Reconstruction-era Congressional service)

    The Capitol in D.C.

    Within the states, whomever they are managed by: any plantation site.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2013

      You are absolutely right and I should have mentioned some of these places, but I still think it is important to select a site where Reconstruction is the central focus.

  • Doug didier Jul 28, 2013

    Their is no NPS Reconstruction site . 1999-2000 study was done blight foner local historians .. Recommended beaufort county SC. If recall correctly over 60 sites. Was effectively killed by Sons of Confederate Veterans.. ” why would the nation comemerate such a terrible period?”
    When local historians went to Columbia for funding. Guy they talked to had SCV button on lapel. End of that thread.
    There was a follow on study by the NPS under the Bush administration . Essentially died in committee .

  • Lyle Smith Jul 28, 2013

    Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. It’s the NPS in New Orleans. New Orleans had a couple of major events. It was the administrative headquarters for Reconstruction in Louisiana and Texas I believe. New Orleans was also the place Federal authorities failed to take action after the Colfax event.

  • Todd Arrington Jul 29, 2013

    Thanks to edabney for mentioning James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. I am the National Park Service’s Chief of Interpretation & Education at this site, and we do quite a bit of interpretation of Garfield’s congressional service during the Reconstruction years. We do this through exhibits, personal interpretation while leading guided tours of the Garfield home, and special programming (including presentations on Garfield and black civil rights, his role in the 1876 Hayes-Tilden electoral commission, and more). Garfield was in the House of Representatives for the entirety of Reconstruction, so we absolutely interpret his role. Thanks.

  • TF Smith Jul 29, 2013

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