Ask for a book recommendation on Reconstruction and you are likely to get Eric Foner’s masterful synthesis, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.
It’s still a great place to start, but there has been a good deal published about the period over the past few years and much of it takes us beyond the traditional time-line and spatial framework outlined in Foner.
What follows is a list of books that have pushed me in various ways to think anew about the standard list of events during the postwar period and a host of new ones. Of course, this is not intended as an exhaustive list.
Feel free to add suggestions in the comments section below. Continue reading
For those of you who are history teachers looking for professional development opportunities this summer, I encourage you to check out what Ford’s Theatre is offering on the Reconstruction Era. This is still one of the most misunderstood periods in American history and yet an argument could be made that a deep understanding of this history and its legacy has never been more important.
The program will bring you to the nation’s capital for one week to work with historians in a classroom setting and on site at places such as Arlington National Cemetery, the National Archives and the Frederick Douglass House. While the workshop focuses on the broad history of Reconstruction it will use the D.C. as a case study to examine such topics as the postwar push for civil rights and the lives of slaves in area contraband camps and in the Freedman’s Village at Arlington.
I will lead a session on the final day, which will examine the long-term legacy of Reconstruction with an examination of the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” as well as ways that teachers can connect more recent events to the study of Reconstruction.
Move fast as there are a limited number of spaces.
Last night at the Democratic Town Hall Meeting in Iowa Hillary Clinton offered up a reminder of why a solid grasp of Reconstruction is essential to our understanding of American history. While the 150th anniversary of the Civil War received a great deal of attention from historic sites, museums and a host of educational institutions, very little is being done to commemorate Reconstruction. Continue reading
Set in South Carolina and released 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” glorified the Ku Klux Klan as defenders of white Southerners against a black population that was deemed to be unfit for citizenship in the United States.
Last week a photograph taken at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina showed cadets dressed in Klan hoods, who were reportedly singing Christmas Carols.
Of all the places for this to happen, especially after the racial violence perpetrated by an individual who identified closely with another symbol of this nation’s racist past. Most, if not all the Democratic candidates have called for the removal of a Confederate Navy flag from The Citadel’s Summerall Chapel.
I would be happy if the school’s instructors spent a bit more time on Reconstruction.
Update: After you finish reading this post check out Brooks Simpson’s thoughtful response to Gordon-Reed’s essay.
One of the most common tropes embraced in reference to the post- Civil War period is the idea of a ‘white Northern retreat from Reconstruction.’ For many, the shift occurred during the mid to late 1870s for a number of reasons, including the threat of labor strikes, the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny or the realization that the South’s racial problems could only be solved locally. Reconstruction’s abandonment followed significant gains on the civil rights front from the passage of three constitutional amendments to military intervention that led to black political action. The white North’s abandonment of Reconstruction points inextricably to missed opportunities and our own inability to deal honestly with deep racial problems. Continue reading
The New York Times has a feature up today in which they ask a group of historians to reflect on how Reconstruction ought to be remembered. There are some interesting suggestions to consider from the importance of acknowledging “Juneteenth” to preserving historic sites on Hilton Head island to recognizing the importance of strong voting rights legislation.
What I find interesting is the way in which these individual reflections are introduced:
As Americans deal with some of the same racial issues that tore apart the nation then, how should we commemorate Reconstruction and what can be done to create a public memory of it?
What exactly does it mean to ‘create a public memory’ of Reconstruction 150 years later? More importantly, is it possible?
It’s been noted on this blog more than once that we currently do not have a historic site devoted to Reconstruction. Today in the Atlantic Greg Downs and Kate Masur announced that the National Park Service has undertaken a study to rectify this oversight. As the authors note, this project is fraught with challenges associated with the complexity of the history itself and the many myths that still influence how we remember this period in our history. The larger problem is that Reconstruction has largely disappeared from our collective memory.
So, where should such a site be located? Given the time period that needs to be covered (roughly 1863 to 1877) the site needs to be flexible in its potential to cover more than just an event. It needs to be able to convey change over time and multiple narratives. The site will also need to convey both the successes and setbacks of Reconstruction. Continue reading
Sallie A. Brock’s narrative of the final days of the Confederacy in Richmond was published in 1867 and based largely on Edward Pollard’s The Last Year of the War. The author’s description tells us quite a bit about the drastic changes that took place beginning on April 2, but it also tell us as much (if not more) about how Brock and others chose to remember so soon after the Confederacy’s fall.
The morning of the 2d of April, 1865, dawned brightly over the capital of the Southern Confederacy. A soft haze rested over the city, but above that, the sun shone with the warm pleasant radiance of early spring. The sky was cloudless. No sound disturbed the stillness of the Sabbath morn, save the subdued murmur of the river, and the cheerful music of the church bells. The long familiar tumult of war broke not upon the sacred calmness of the day. Around the War Department, and the Post Office, news gatherers were assembled for the latest tidings, but nothing was bruited that deterred the masses from seeking their accustomed places in the temples of the living God. At St. Paul’s church the usual congregation was in attendance. President Davis occupied his pew. (p. 362)
The clearness of the morning sky, a quite military front and a city headed to church helps to create a defined space between four years of war and the final chapter that is about to be unleashed on the city. It’s a moment that the reader can’t help to anticipate, but Brock also hopes to evoke the innocence of the Confederacy and the virtuousness of its cause. It is the Confederacy’s that is about to be swarmed by overwhelming numbers of Yankees, who had been kept at bay for so long. It is their civilization that is about to be upended. Continue reading