Tag Archives: Ed Ayers

Discovering Reconstruction

reconstruction_congressI am doing quite a bit of reading over this holiday break. One of the books I am making my way through is Capitol Men by Philip Dray. The book tells the story of the principal black leaders in Congress during Reconstruction. It’s well written and does a thorough job of explaining both the backgrounds of the individual subjects as well as the tumultuous times in which they lived. Actually, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Reconstruction and the postwar years generally, and there is a great deal to choose from. One can’t help but be impressed by the selection of books on Reconstruction that have been published over the past few years. [Click here for Ed Blum's overview of this literature.] Just a few years ago you would be lucky to find the abridged version of Eric Foner’s magisterial history of the period. But the recognition of a spike in interest in the subject also begs for explanation. This influx of new books couldn’t have come at a better time given the election of our first black president. That said, this welcome change probably has little to do with the recent election.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the historiography of Reconstruction. I’ve read a bit of U.B. Phillips, and others who studied under William Dunning at Columbia; Dunning reinforced a rather narrow view of Reconstruction as a failure and one that reinforced white supremacy at the height of Jim Crow in the early twentieth century. It’s important to keep in mind that although this school of thought was challenged by scholars beginning in the early 1950s, and even more so in the 1970s, these debates were largely confined to the academy. To the extent that Americans know anything about Reconstruction, my guess is that they learned it from movies such as Gone With the Wind as well as other popular cultural forms. Scores of books and journal articles slowly chipped away at an interpretation, which viewed Reconstruction as an example of unjustified intrusion by the federal government, corruption in state legislatures at the hands of newly-freed slaves, and a dismissal of the black perspective generally. However, it was not until the 1988 publication of Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (and shortly thereafter, the abridged edition) that a broader audience was offered a readable account that synthesized much of this scholarship. In addition to winning a number of academic awards it also received a great deal of attention in the pages of popular magazines and newspapers. It’s hard to say how much of an effect Foner’s book had on our popular perceptions of the Civil War and Reconstruction – probably little to none, but it is difficult to deny his importance to this new crop of recent historical studies. Most of these authors acknowledge Foner’s scholarship as invaluable in their own quest to better understand the period.

But if Foner’s work constitutes perhaps the best example of a scholarly reconfiguration of our understanding of Reconstruction than it is the war in Iraq, which has introduced that scholarship to a broader demographic. It should come as no surprise that a resurgence of interest came at a time when the public discourse was centered around the reconstruction of Iraq. Historians such as Ed Ayers chimed in with op-ed pieces, which highlighted the challenges of such a venture and reminded the American people of an earlier attempt at trying to reconstruct a deeply-entrenched political, social, and racial hierarchy. Following a list of lessons that one should take away from that “First Occupation”, Ayers concludes with the following:

A hard paradox lies at the heart of all reconstructions: the reconstructor must transform a society in its own image without appearing selfish or self-righteous. An effort at reconstruction, our nation’s history shows us, must be implemented not only with determination and might, but also with humility and self-knowledge — and with an understanding of the experience of defeat that attention to Southern history can give us. Otherwise, America risks appearing as the thing it least wants to be, a carpetbagger nation.

It is not a stretch to imagine scholars and writers of various sorts following up their reading of these editorials by taking a more in-depth look at what went wrong with the federal government’s earlier attempt at Reconstruction, even as our public officials struggled to explain to the America people why there was so little progress in Iraq. For those of us who had an understanding of the difficulties involved in reconstructing a society, the president’s declarations, which reduced the challenge down to the conviction that all people desire freedom seemed grossly naive and even reckless.

The street fighting in Baghdad and Falujah echo those that took place in New Orleans, Memphis, and elsewhere, and while Americans were shocked at the indiscriminate killing among religious sects the postwar terrorism against newly-freed slaves rivals anything to be found in the Middle East. Recent studies of postwar violence include Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War (2007) and Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2007). Two books, one by Charles Lane and the other by LeeAnna Keith, explore the Colfax Massacre of 1873. This does not include the numerous scholarly of Reconstruction violence against African Americans, and even newer editions of older studies, that have been published over the past few years. Collectively, these books can be seen as a vindication of Ayers’s warning that a nation engaged in so difficult a project as the reconstruction of another country ought to proceed with “humility and self-knowledge.”

If there is a silver lining in this resurgence of interest it is that a much larger audience now has access to books that present Reconstruction in a much more sophisticated light, one that takes seriously the steps that Americans took to extend and protect basic civil rights regardless of race. It not only involves moving beyond the overly simplistic language of scalawags and carpetbaggers, but involves giving voice to black and white leaders who worked to extend the franchise and other political rights to former slaves and even the vast majority of poor whites who had been excluded from the polity. Recent book include Garrett Epps’s Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (2007), Eric Foner’s Forever Free, as well as Dray’s Capitol Men. American Experience’s recent documentary on Reconstruction also reflects this newfound interest.

Finally, this could not have come at a better moment in the history of this country. With our first black president set to take office in a matter of weeks it is comforting to know that a solid body of historical scholarship is available for those who are interested in placing Barack Obama’s candidacy within a broader historical context. It is important for us to understand the struggle that led to this moment in our history, and in doing so, we should acknowledge that while it is a momentous step in a new direction, it is but one step on a long road that involves appreciating the extent to which race has shaped this nation’s political, social, and economic hierarchy. We should ask the tough questions related to the timing of Obama’s candidacy, why it didn’t or perhaps couldn’t happen sooner, and why so few African Americans have served in the federal government since Reconstruction. We should ask these questions not with the goal of self-hatred, but because we are all part of this larger national narrative, and because Democracy is a constant struggle. I am under no illusion that large numbers of Americans will flock to the bookstores to purchase these recent titles; however, the fact of their availability suggests to me that our society is in a much better place to ask some of these tough questions that at any time before.


Ayers v. McPherson or Another Straw Man Argument

While I appreciate that Dimitri mentions me in the same post as James McPherson and Ed Ayers it is not at all clear as to exactly how I fit in. More importantly, this supposed dichotomy between Ayers’s contingency and McPherson’s Whiggism is way off the mark. Dimitri would have us believe that McPherson assumes a broad view of American history as both inevitable and heroic. I couldn’t disagree more. There is indeed an element of this in Battle Cry of Freedom, but it is clear to me that McPherson maintains a distinction between the contingency on the battlefield and the outcome of the war more generally. Back up a little and a close reading of McPherson on secession and war reveals even more contingency. Even after the states in the Deep South seceded, McPherson does not conclude that war was inevitable. There is plenty of contingency in this book and others if you read closely. McPherson does celebrate the outcome of the war and why shouldn’t he; after all, the end of the war brought an end to slavery. It wasn’t inevitable that this should have happened; in fact, few people would have predicted the end of slavery as late as 1860. McPherson’s celebratory stance seems to me a function of contingency and not some whiggish view of history in general. Emancipation did bring this nation closer to its founding principles.

In reference to Ayers I think it is important to remember that his comments on McPherson’s work are meant for the field as a whole. Ayers’s “deep contingency” sinks deeper than McPherson’s grand narrative in Battle Cry. He is interested in the view from the ground, which means that broader conclusions about the meaning of the war take on a different tone. From this far down there are as many interpretations of what the war means as there are people to interpret. This in no way implies some fundamental disagreement with McPherson. They have different research agendas.


E-Article on the Valley of the Shadow

Just a quick follow-up to yesterday’s post on the Valley of the Shadow. You may be interested in an article based on the Valley project written by Ed Ayers and William G. Thomas, who used to run the Center for Digital History at UVA. The article was published in the American Historical Review, and is titled, “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities.” I recommend checking this out as it is an innovative way of using the internet to construct historical interpretations. As you will see, the reader is able to follow all of the references back to the original sources, which are contained on the Valley database. As for what the authors hope to achieve, I will let them speak for themselves:

“This article is an applied experiment in digital scholarship. Over the last decade networked information resources have come to play a large role in the work of historians; most of us have become accustomed to augmenting our library research and professional discussion through digital means. Despite these changes, scholars have only begun to craft scholarship designed specifically for the electronic environment. In this article, we attempt to translate the fundamental components of professional scholarship-evidence, engagement with prior scholarship, and a scholarly argument-into forms that take advantage of the possibilities of electronic media.

We apply these methods to a long-standing issue in American history: how slavery divided American society and culture in the years before the Civil War. Our close study of two communities near the Mason-Dixon Line, a comparison designed to isolate the role of slavery in shaping societies of similar location and histories, shows significant differences in demography, agricultural strategies, and industrial development but broad commonalities in economic outlook, political structures, and cultural orientation.” Happy Reading!


Valley of the Shadow

No doubt many of you are familiar with the Valley of the Shadow, which is an online database created by Edward L. Ayers and maintained by the University of Virginia’s, Center For Digital History. The site is essentially an online archive that compares two Shenandoah Valley counties in the years leading up to and through the Civil War. Needless to say, it is an excellent site for classroom use, and makes it possible for anyone to do serious historical research. The focus on the county level forces you to set aside broad assumptions and appreciate the role of contingency in people’s everyday lives. As the counties were both located in the Shenandoah Valley, you see clearly the difference slavery made to the lives of each county’s residents.

This year I decided to use the Valley project as the centerpiece for my Civil War class. My class is essentially a research seminar. We meet four times a week, but two of those days are spent online doing research. Students go through the entire research process from choosing a topic to developing a thesis to writing the final draft. They are also responsible for sharing their research with others in the class. In fact, today the students will spend the class updating one another on their progress. This allows each student to offer criticism and advice in a scholarly environment. The best part is that my students learn independence. Since they are working on a full range of subjects they are essentially the experts. They must think through what the evidence means rather than relying on the instructor. So far its worked out well. Here is a list of research topics:

Secession in Augusta County

Unit history of the 5th Virginia (analysis of soldier’s dossiers)

Reconstruction in Augusta County

Death in a Civil War community (how residents deal with death on a large-scale)

Jedediah Hotchkiss (how a Northerner became an enthusiastic Confederate)

Camp Life in 1864-65

Fathers and their Children (how fathers maintained connections with their children)

I hope to post the best papers on my personal website.