Tag Archives: Reconstruction

A Moment of Insight or Confusion?

1877_6thregimentI’ve always struggled to understand what I’ve assumed to be a radical transformation that took place within the Republican Party between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  As the story goes various pressures within the Republican Party caused them to abandon their Reconstruction agenda along with black civil rights, which allowed white “Redeemers” to reestablish white supremacy.  The emphasis on abandonment implies fundamental change with a moral twist; it doesn’t help that much of what I know about the Gilded Age and industrial revolution comes from the textbooks that I use in my AP classes. Most textbooks divide chapters between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which works to reinforce a sharp distinction between the Republican Party of Reconstruction and beyond.

I had one of those rare insights last week when it finally dawned on me that it is my preoccupation and interest in race and emancipation that has clouded my ability to more fully understand the history of the Republican Party beginning in 1855 and through the rest of the nineteenth century.  We tend to forget that the Republican Party was organized primarily around an economic agenda following the demise of the Whig Party and in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The Party initially took shape around the Great Lakes, which pushed hard for internal improvements and a federal government that would encourage and protect the development of industry.   Most Republicans had little interest in racial issues and insisted on preventing slavery from moving into the western territories so as to encourage white Americans to settle and free labor to thrive.  I recently finished reading Marc Egnal’s fine study of the economic origins of the Civil War.  He spends a great deal of time on the formation and evolution of the Republican Party’s platform through the war and into the early 1880s.  The book has helped me to place the focus back on the core pieces of the Party’s economic philosophy and the way in which their position on slavery reinforced it.

My aha moment occured when I realized that in the same year that federal troops were ordered back to their barracks in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana as part of the Compromise of 1877, they were ordered by Repubican President Rutherford B. Hayes into the North.  This was in response to what one politican called “the overwhelming labor question” which could be seen in the country’s first national walkout–the Great Railroad Strike.  In the aftermath of 1877, the federal government constructed armories in major cities to ensure that troops would be on hand in the event of further labor difficulties.  In 1892 the governor of Idaho declared martial law and sent militia units and federal troops into the mining region of Coeur d’Alene to break a strike, and in 1894 federal troops were sent to Chicago to help suppress the Pullman Strike led by the American Railway Union, whose 150,000 members included both skilled and unskilled railroad laborers.    Rather than see the abandonment of the South as a betrayal of Republican values it now seems more accurate to suggest that their movement of federal troops north reflected a continued commitment to the protection of the new engines of economic expansion: Carnegie Steel, Standard Oil, and the railroads.  By 1880 foreign workers and unions constituted more of a threat to the future of capitalism than unreconstructed white Southerners.  In short, the Republican Party was carrying out the policies that had defined it from the beginning.

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.

It’s Only Satire If You Ignore the History

You would think that a party that has struggled to attract black voters would be extra careful when it comes to the distribution of material that could be construed as racist. That didn’t seem to be a concern for Chip Saltsman, who distributed a CD to RNC members that included the song, “Barack the Magic Negro.” Saltsman is a former chair of the Tennessee Republican Party and a top adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist; he most recently managed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign. Click here if you haven’t heard the song. “I think most people recognize political satire when they see it,” Saltsman told CNN. “I think RNC members understand that.” Don’t get me wrong, I have a high threshold for political satire and for political comedy generally. That said, this little spectacle does nothing more than remind me of the sad history of how white Americans have used stereotypes as a means of racial control and as a means to maintaining a political system steeped in white supremacy. We can go back to Reconstruction for an example..

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or even to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Given that there are still plenty of people in this country who continue to hold tight to their racist beliefs it is inexcusable that a prominent member of the Republican Party would distribute such a song. It’s one thing if a lard ass such as Rush Limbaugh wants to play it on his idiotic radio show, but intelligent people with even a modicum of good taste ought to steer clear of what is potentially hurtful and insulting to many. What I find most striking is that this individual apparently didn’t think twice about the broader historical context into which such a song must be placed. And the RNC – the party of Lincoln and emancipation – wonders why they struggle to attract African Americans.

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home”: The Demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia

I’ve gotten quite a bit done over the past few weeks, including a very rough draft of my essay on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia which will appear in Virginia at War, 1865, edited by William C. Davis and James I. Robertson (University of Kentucky Press, 2010). This has not been an easy project given the dearth of sources that specifically address the journeys home for those who surrendered at Appomattox.  I’ve made good use of a number of published studies that examine the social dynamics of the Army of Northern Virginia as well as community studies.  Overall, I’ve enjoyed playing around with our tendency to draw sharp distinctions between the war and Reconstruction; needless to say that distinction has become much more fluid for me.  Anyway, this should give you a sense of some of the questions I’ve been thinking about.  Feel free to offer your own observations.  More importantly, I would very much appreciate references to any primary and/or secondary sources that you think may be helpful.

Lawrence Taliaferro’s civil war should have ended on very familiar ground when he crossed the Rappahannock River by Fredericksburg shortly after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.  Instead, Taliaferro was struck by the drastic changes to the landscape.  Abandoned and rusting war machinery littered the ground as well as the bones of old mules and horses.  The surrounding forests had been leveled to serve the needs of warring armies throughout the conflict.  As Taliaferro traversed those final twelve miles to what he hoped would be the comforts of his family’s estate he became disoriented by the numerous paths that obscured a well-known road.  Eventually he lost his way and was forced to ask for directions.  An elderly black man, who Taliaferro later learned was an ex-slave of the family, escorted the confused and tired young man to his home.

Once home Taliaferro reunited with his father and sister and shortly thereafter an older brother who also served in Lee’s army.  With only a mule, horse, and a few ex-slaves who remained with the family the Taliaferro’s began the process of rebuilding their estate by collecting old bones and iron from the surrounding area, which they resold.  The Federal army, in recognition of the family’s hospitality during the war, supplied mules and food, which no doubt furthered the process of rebuilding and perhaps even a sense of optimism that a brighter future was possible.  No amount of succor from the Federal army, however, would have blinded Lawrence Taliaferro as well as his family to the challenges they would face in the immediate future.

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Thomas Nast’s Reconstruction

Today my AP classes started Reconstruction.  I always enjoy teaching this section of U.S. History and given that we are using a text by Eric Foner, my students get the latest historiographical trends.  On the first day I try to present and engage my students in a discussion of the challenges that Reconstruction presents.  We examine the perspectives of the newly freed slaves, Republican Party, and white Southerners.  The first point I make is that the distinction between the Civil War and Reconstruction is an artificial one used by historians to more easily carve up the past.  Well, perhaps that is to go too far, but my point is that the issues involved are in large part a continuation of trends from the war years.

Thomas Nast’s images are some of the most useful sources for the classroom.  For example, the image to the left is titled “And Not This Man (August 5, 1865) and can be used to examine the debate about civil rights for black Americans and especially those who fought for the United States.  I ask my students to think about the intention of the illustrator and the message that he hopes to communicate.  Without sharing the title of the image I ask the students to imagine the words spoken as this crippled veteran is presented to the nation.  Students are able to connect Nast’s early work with the goals of the Republican Party, especially during Military Reconstruction.

The nice thing about Nast’s work is that it can be used to track the progress of Reconstruction or  the commitment on the part of Republicans to continue the policies that led to important political inroads made by black Americans.  As many of you know some of the most committed Republicans grew weary of their ability to bring about change forcefully in the South.  Younger Republicans who had not lived through the turbulent decade of the 1850′s were more concerned about an expanding capitalist economy and Northerners generally gravitated to the allure of reunion and reconciliation.  All of this comes out in Nast’s later work.  Compare the dignified soldier in the first image with the conduct of black politicians in a reconstructed state.  Did portrayals of black politicians in the South make it easier for Republicans, that were at one time committed to social and political change, to abandon Reconstruction?

Part of the problem in teaching Reconstruction is that there is simply too much good material that can be used.  Let me know what you do.