Teaching the Civil War and Reconstruction

My AP classes are now focusing on the entrance of the United States onto the world stage at the turn of the twentieth century.  At the same time we are talking about the emergence of Jim Crow legislation and the rise of lynchings throughout the South.  It’s interesting how our tendency to carve up the past into neat little chapters often obscures the extent to which earlier events continue to inform or shape later events.  I had one of those moments last week as I was preparing a presentation on the rise of Jim Crow.  It hit me that in an important way we were still talking about the Civil War.  I began the class by asking: “Who won the American Civil War?”  Of course the students looked at me with an odd grin, but I decided to go with it and let the silence take hold in hopes of making for an uncomfortable moment.  I eventually followed up by asking my students to think about the war and Reconstruction as beginning in 1861 and ending around 1900.  A few of the students understood exactly what I was asking and we ended up having a very interesting discussion.

My goal with the question was to have my students think seriously about the way in which the Civil War challenged basic assumptions about citizenship and race in the United States.  As a military order the Emancipation Proclamation raised questions that few people were prepared to debate seriously just a few years earlier.  By the end of the war a significant number of black Americans had fought and sacrificed in the Union armies and the institution of slavery was dead.  Emancipation alone, however, did not necessarily imply a certain set of positive civil rights such as the suffrage or equal protection under the law.  Whenever I teach Reconstruction I have my class think about the term from different perspectives.  There were a number of ideas about Reconstruction depending on whether you were a newly freed slave, a Republican in Congress or a white Southerner.  Different ideas of Reconstruction competed with one another during the thirty years following the war and they all hinge on the radical changes that the Civil War wrought.  Military defeat may have ended the war and slavery, but the form in which freedom would take for 4 million newly freed slaves had not been decided.

From this perspective it can be argued – as does Brooks Simpson – that the Civil War did not really end in 1865.  The issues of race and emancipation continued to be fought over within a political context and often through extra-legal means such as the Klan and other terrorist groups.  The Radical Republicans sought to protect the civil rights of black Southerners while many white Southerners hoped to regain control of their state governments and reconstruct them along lines that followed the racial hierarchy of the antebellum period.  This can be seen in the institution of black codes shortly after the war as a means to limit their political and social mobility.   By the mid-1870’s it became increasingly clear that northern Republicans were losing interest in military Reconstruction as western expansion and the challenges of increased industrial development took hold.  In addition, members of the old-guard such as Thadeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were gone while younger Republicans entered Congress never having experienced the political turmoil of the 1850’s.  Even Horace Greely had lost patience with Reconstruction as well as other Liberal Republicans.  While 1877 did not signal the end of black political participation in the South it can be seen as the beginning of a gradual loss of civil rights for black Americans that culminated in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Furgeson and the rise of the Jim Crow South.

This broader perspective makes it possible for teachers to ask questions that challenge our standard outline.  If we acknowledge that the Confederate government was fighting to preserve not just slavery, but a society based on a strictly defined racial hierarchy than we can make sense of the process by which black Southerners gradually lost the basic civil rights that they had worked so hard for during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Reconstruction is one of my favorite time periods to teach since it forces students to deal with the fact that the future of the country was not predetermined.  The subsequent racial story could have gone any number of ways.  The presidential election of 1876 did not close the door on black political action in the South.  The reconstruction vision of black Americans continued to compete with the reconstruction vision of the white South, and while their outlooks were largely mutually exclusive individuals like William Mahone and Ben Tillman continued to offer alternatives that involved bi-racial cooperation.  The rise of Lynchings along with the emergence of Redeemer governments connect directly to the way in the which both the Civil War and Reconstruction evolved.  The war over whether the United States was going to define citizenship along the color line continued as the nation pushed into the twentieth century.  Of course we could argue, as one of my students did, that the issues of race and emancipation continued well into the twentieth century.  This student suggested that we are still fighting the Civil War.  In a sense we are, but it seems to me that we can use the Spanish-American War and the move on the part of the southern states to rewrite their state constitutions in a way that disfranchised the largest number of southern blacks as an end point.  [By 1940 only 3% of southern blacks were registered to vote.]  Consider the above tableau that depicts national reconciliation just as the country geared up for war with Spain.  Perhaps the strong feelings of nationalism and the sweet taste of victory against a nation that posed not threat to this country can be interpreted as the end of the Civil War.

So who won the Civil War?

8 comments… add one
  • Jim Mar 5, 2007 @ 9:32

    To say that “Reconstruction was a failure, but Confederate victory could have been a world wide disaster for humanity” is a fallacy that can be illuminated by saying that if so, then world history was a disaster for humanity. Although the Confederacy incorporated vile slavery into its constitution, the US had legally used the institution from its beginning, just like Egypt, just like Rome, China, Greece, Middle East, Turkey, etc. My point is to put it into historical context, and clearly, the Confederacy is not simply a source of evil which the world has never known and its descriptions should be tempered without sensationalism.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2007 @ 13:42

    Jim, — Your second point does not follow from the first. I agree that the issue of race has always been a national problem and at times more of a problem in the North than South. I have no idea what you mean by “sectional PR” but assume you mean that the war was not prosecuted primarily to end slavery. I agree that the war was not about ending slavery, but about preserving the Union. However, the evidence is clear that many of the soldiers believed they were ending slavery even if they did not personally agree. I think the issue is incredibly complex and wouldn’t necessarily reduce it to any one factor. That significant progress took time is a testament to the strong hold that racism has had on our country’s past.

    In the end, however, slavery did cease to exist and the federal government did in fact take steps to improve the condition of newly-freed slaves during the years of Reconstruction. That doesn’t mean that this was done simply for moral reasons, but it was done and significant change did take place.

  • Jim Feb 27, 2007 @ 13:33

    You have to come to grips with the fact that it took 100 years after the war to establish equal conditions for blacks in America, not just the South. This is a proof that the war was really a power grab between two governments, and that the myth that the North was fighting for liberation of slaves was sectional PR and “justification” of the war in subsequent years. Let’s couch our arguments in truths rather than moral theories.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 13, 2007 @ 6:37

    I also use that image in class, and if someone doesn’t bring me back to my class outline I can go on and on and on about it. Congratulations on your Cliopatria Award – well deserved.

  • d Feb 13, 2007 @ 1:01

    The image you chose for this post provides an answer of sorts — white people won the Civil War. I’m being facetious, of course, but I’ve always been persuaded by David Blight’s argument in Race and Reunion that the “reunion” of the nation (narrowly conceived) depended upon the marginalization of black historical memory as a companion to the liquidation of black political and social rights. This fascinating little image — of Cuba, no less, imagined as a blonde child — is so dense with meaning, implied and distorted and just plain bizarre, that I can usually spend no less than about 30 aimless minutes on it every time I show it in my history survey . . .

  • matthew mckeon Feb 11, 2007 @ 19:58

    It is my native optimism that stretches the Civil War to the Civil Rights era. America has no defeats, only very, very delayed victories! Historically, you’re right, making a “bookend” at 1900 is more valid.

    As far as the South “winning” because it got to re- establish white supremacy for 70-80 years, it was a very partial victory compared to the objectives of 1860. Reconstruction was a failure, but Confederate victory could have been a world wide disaster for humanity.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2007 @ 15:16

    Matthew, — I’m not going to disagree with you as if there is a final fact of the matter here. Obviously, we can analyze this question in any number of ways. My problem with stretching the time frame to 1965 is that too much occurs between 1900 and 1965. We can see the Civil Rights Movement as an extension of the Civil War/Reconstruction, but it would seem to be more accurate to analyze the specific form that it took as connecting to World War II. A. Philip Randolph threatened a march on Washington in the middle of the war, which was later picked up by Vernon Johns in Montgomery, Alabama and then by M.L. King. I also prefer 1900 as a book end because much of the Civil War generation took part in these postwar debates and changes.

    While I didn’t answer the question directly you can infer that I believe the white South won the war in the end. We could easily extend this to encompass other ways in which the content of our memory of the war has been understood along Confederate lines. Think of the prominence of Lee and Jackson. Just take a quick look at the advertisements in any of the popular Civil War magazines. Where are Grant, Sherman and others and what happened to the Civil War as this country’s moment of emancipation? It doesn’t exist in our popular perceptions.

    Finally, that we had to have a Civil Rights Movement points to the extent to which white Southerners succeeded in reshaping their society in a way that closely resembled their antebellum world.

  • matthew mckeon Feb 11, 2007 @ 12:32

    If the Civil War was about ending slavery, and we define slavery as extreme legal subordination of black people, and institutional expression of racism, and we define Jim Crow as the a somewhat milder version of that subordination, then the Civil War ends in ’65:
    1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, that finally mean that the 14th and 15th Amendment are reality.

    The victors of the Civil War? U.S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Gen. Sherman and Martin Luther King.

    Dr. King, after the Selma march famously recites some of the lyrics from “Battle Hymn of the Republic” not by accident, I think.

    If the failure of Reconstruction means that the abolitionists and the Union somehow lose the war, then who wins? Compared to the goals and ambitions of the Confederacy, white supremacy is a poor consolation prize for the Southern nationalists.

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