Where Should the National Park Service Interpret Reconstruction?

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. 

My choice: Beaufort, South Carolina

Beaufort and the Sea Islands offer any number of interpretive opportunities. Its location is ideal for understanding individuals such as Robert Smalls, the broad expanse of Reconstruction, including Union occupation, the Port Royal Experiment, emancipation, recruitment of USCTs, the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its influence on the lives of former slaves during Reconstruction and beyond. The question of property distribution can be interpreted through a close examination of the land and the lives of slaves and masters before and during the war. The presence of Northern philanthropists (or carpetbaggers, if you prefer) can be examined as well. A location in South Carolina is also ideal for the interpretation of larger issues associated with black political action on the state level and white resistance.

Overall, Beaufort is an ideal place to interpret the fluidity of the Civil War and Reconstruction as outlined in Greg Downs’s new book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War, which makes a compelling case that the United States remained on a war footing well into the latter part of the 1860s.

There are also practical concerns as well, most importantly the site’s accessibility by the general public. Located in close proximity to Hilton Head, Savannah, and Charleston will likely add to the region’s heritage tourism.

This just scratches the surface of the benefits of such a location. What do you think?

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28 comments… add one
  • Hugh Lawson May 2, 2015 @ 15:46

    The best place to remember reconstruction is Washington DC, where the battle over reconstruction was lost. The collusion of northern Democrats, the connivance of many Republicans, and a series of disastrous federal court decisions ensured that the conservative Democrats in the former slave states would win locally.

  • Buck Buchanan May 1, 2015 @ 6:01

    There are too many stories to have a centrally located interpretation site. And sponsoring sites should provide downloadable content for sharing with other sites and consumers.

    Fort Smith should interpret the role it played in the Southern Treaty Conference to deal with the 5 Civilized Nations as well as provide downloadable content to share elsewhere.

    DOD should be involved by having exhibits in installations (almost all have a museums….FT Lee, FT Bragg, FT Jackson, Charleston Navy Yard, FT Polk, FT Stewart, FT Campbell, FT Knox, FT Riley, FT Sill, FT Hood, Orlando Naval Activity, Pensacola Naval Air Station, FT Rucker) in those areas and discuss the Army’s role in Military Reconstruction…as well as the impacts of the continuation of the Indian Wars as Americans continued moving West.

    The United States Capitol should have an exhibit in the Rotunda interpreting Congressional Reconstruction.

    And while a post Reconstruction event…the new Southside Rail Station in Petersburg has to tell the story of the Readjusters…which is a continuation of the outcomes fo the Civil War.

    In other words, the NPS should have the oversight…but they should not be the only ones executing the interpretation.

  • Justin Nystrom Apr 30, 2015 @ 16:39

    Bias alert: New Orleans.

    Reconstruction starts there almost as early there as it does in Beaufort but with far greater ramifications. I argue this, of course, in New Orleans after the Civil War (JHUP2010). Here we find the most meaningful black political participation in the South, significant and early black recruitment and leadership during the war, the essential Riot of 1866, the Radical state constitution of 1868, the fundamental challenges and contradictions of Republican rule, the White League, and the Compromise of 1877. Then there are the key court cases like Cruikshank (which stems out of Colfax but is tried in New Orleans and has important local ramifications) the Slaughterhouse Cases, Sauvinet v Walker, DeCuir v. Hall. All of this is local and state jurisprudence with fundamental implications for the US Constitution. I would assert that Plessy is also part of the long demise of Reconstruction. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to look at any newspaper that aspired to national significance and go a week without some sort of political story out of New Orleans. Events there shaped the way the rest of the nation felt.

    Moreover, from an interpretation standpoint, much of the infrastructure of Reconstruction remains visible. You can visit Camp Parapet where runaway slaves became soldiers or Eagle Hall where the White League massed before the Sept 14, 1874 insurrection. You can go to the Custom House where so much action took place or sit in the old courtroom in the Cabildo on Jackson Square where the Louisiana State Supreme Court met. Have a coffee in Teddy’s Cafe in the Roosevelt Hotel sometime – it is roughly where the “absolute massacre” called the Riot of 1866 took place.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Apr 30, 2015 @ 9:06

    I have some ideas we here in Middle Tennessee (specifically the Battle of Franklin Trust) will be rolling out over the course of the next 1-3 years. Our plan is to offer each of these in some capacity in various interpretive elements (both static and on tours). So maybe Middle Tennessee is as good place to start as any:

    1. Freed slaves and labor contracts in Williamson and Maury Counties
    2. The burial of Confederate dead in Franklin and the creation of National Cemeteries in Murfreesboro and Nashville and the public perceptions of each.
    3. The creation of the Klan in Pulaski in 1866 and its impact on the area.
    4. The Franklin Race Riot of 1867.
    5. Gov. Brownlow’s tenure as Governor of Tennessee.
    6. The impact of disenfranchised former Confederates.
    7. The impact of U. S. troops in this area and how they were shipped to hotbeds of discontent.
    8. The nighttime attacks and murders of blacks and whites as things boiled over in 1867-68.
    9. The election of Sampson W. Keeble to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1873. He was the first African-American to serve in that body.
    10. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the Supreme Court’s ruling that it was unconstitutional in 1883.

    • Pat Young Apr 30, 2015 @ 16:01

      That sounds exciting Eric.

  • A. Jackson Apr 30, 2015 @ 7:52

    Existing Civil War Parks can take up the slack by addressing Reconstruction until the decision is made as to whether a new site is feasible due to budget concerns. Any of you near the Richmond area might be interested in attending Ranger Emmanuel Dabney’s driving tour addressing the aftermath of the war on May 23rd from 1-4 p.m.. It leaves from City Point and ends at the Petersburg Battlefield Park. Check the park website, the Facebook page, or NPS.gov and follow the prompts.

  • Lyle Smith Apr 30, 2015 @ 6:45

    I would totally support some kind of NPS presence at Colfax. Nevertheless, even with NPS people nearby in Natchitoches and at the Cane River place, the idea of it being a national site probably won’t work.

    Why? Because it would be in Colfax, Louisiana.The interstate doesn’t run exactly through there and the closest airport is probably in Shreveport. New Orleans is four or so hours away. No one will ever make it there. I am originally from Louisiana and I have never once been to the place.

    New Orleans, because of the amount of tourism the city has would be a better place to have a slavery or Reconstruction museum/center.

  • Chris Lese Apr 30, 2015 @ 4:05

    The Penn Center on St. Helena Island, SC is an excellent living example of the Port Royal Experiment. Students and I stayed in one of the historic dorms on the campus and it provides a clear vision of the hope for Reconstruction. It has its own museum that interprets slavery, Reconstruction and Civil Rights but it needs financial help and our group questioned why this is not a National Park. It tells the whole story. Here is the link: http://penncenter.com/history.

  • Rob Baker Apr 30, 2015 @ 3:54

    Colfax is good place and so is Opelousas, however, there is an issue about reaching the public broadly as Kevin pointed out. It is possible that the NPS might need to place markers/museums in places where other museums already exist or in major cities. There is a Museum of the Confederacy in New Orleans as well as some other NPS controlled sites. That might make a good starting point.

    Another good place would be Atlanta (bias, the site would be close to me), due to the political nature of Reconstruction. The new constitutional convention was held in Atlanta in ’65, instead of the capital at Milledgeville. The newly elected governor refused to approve of a racially integrated Constitutional Convention in the state, leading General Meade to dissolve the government. Forrest visited Atlanta to plan Klan resistance and John Brown Gordon led the Georgia Klan (later became Governor). In Camilla in ’68, a group of whites attacked a Black republican rally killing 12 people. Georgia was put under mil. rule afterwards. Amos Akerman, who was from the North but moved to Georgia and became a slave owner and Confederate, ‘abandoned’ the Southern Cause after the war and became a “scalawag.” He eventually ended up on Grant’s cabinet as Attorney General. His investigations eventually led to the Grant administration passing laws against the Klan’s masks and robes. To end things, the “Carpetbagger” administration attempted to maintain military rule in the region which only made things worse for their own Republican Party. Georgia became the last Southern state re-admitted to the Union after ratification of the 15th Amendment. Shortly after, many of the politicians fled as redeemers came to power. Black legislatures were run out, Abram Colby was whipped by an angry mob.

    The point being is this:

    Atlanta is a deep south crossroads, it used to be called Terminus after all. Many people already visit for various reasons. This makes it an appropriate place to put a museum or attach it to one already in existence.
    Atlanta has several narratives about Reconstruction that are both atypical and typical that can be explained at the national and local, cultural and political level.
    Atlanta displays the failure of Reconstruction policies in the South from the top down and bottom up.
    Huge, national names (like Forrest) can be used which provide more broad context.
    And ultimately, it is decent example of the failure of Reconstruction to bring about any type of equality, ushering in the era of Jim Crow. The final exhibit can include a map to get to the Civil Rights museum.

  • A. Jackson Apr 29, 2015 @ 14:02

    I think a site needs to be closely tied to the war, since that was what prompted Reconstruction. I don’t see a connection to Wyoming or Angel Island myself, even though I think these are both worthy places to contemplate, but I think it would be a real stretch.. As a woman I am ofcourse interested in the history of women’s rights, and since I lived in California from birth to 1994, I am acquainted with the abuses suffered by Chinese immigrants, but I think Reconstruction is primarily a white and African-American experience.

  • Ken Noe Apr 29, 2015 @ 13:10

    I originally thought about two places, Colfax and Hamburg. From what I’ve read, the latter is essentially vacant space that local government already desperately wants to develop. When I think about Washington’s reluctance to protect Blair Mountain, however, or the NPS’s troubled involvement at Sand Creek as described by Ari Kelman, I very much doubt that the current Congress or White House would support sites that would run so counter to the positive exceptionalist argument. No one later clasped brotherly hands across the bloody chasm at Hamburg. Beaufort involves a more hopeful story, and it might be a more realistic first goal in the current climate.

    While on the subject, I also have to mention again that the Perryville battlefield has been interpreting Reconstruction quite a few years now though the Sleettown site, once home to an African-American town founded on the old battlefield by former slaves.

    • Chris Lese Apr 30, 2015 @ 4:16

      Indeed, much of Hamburg has been lost to floods but there is still a lot of history around that community that explains that massacre. North Augusta has the Thomas McKie Meriwether monument which is dedicated to the lone white person killed in the “battle” and Edgefield, South Carolina has just opened up a museum to explain those events.

  • Adam Arenson (@adamarenson) Apr 29, 2015 @ 12:01

    We need lots of places, not just a few! So I say Beaufort, Colfax, at the existing New Orleans “Redeemer”-era monuments, and much farther afield–to Wyoming, where women first gained the right to vote because of counterbalancing linked to the 14th Amendment; to California, to a site such as Angel Island linked to Chinese exclusion; and to Palmito Ranch, Texas–where the final pitched battle of the Civil War was fought in part by the 62nd and 65th US Colored Troops, who went on to found Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and hence directly connect their wartime service with Reconstruction ideas about citizenship and education.

  • Glenn B Apr 29, 2015 @ 11:51

    I don’t think it is a good idea to create a “Reconstruction site” out of scratch. Instead, as the original article implies, it would be best to locate pre-existing National Park Service sites where the story can be integrated into pre-existing interpretations. In that regard, there are numerous park sites where the story of Reconstruction can and should be included. Just to name a few that off the top of my head that seem appropriate: Fort Monroe, Appomattox, Frederick Douglas’s home in DC, the Eppes Plantation at City Point (and any other plantations sites maintained by the NPS, Vicksburg, the new site being created in Franklin, TN, the Tredegar site in Richmond, the Andrew Johnson site in Greenville, TN. And on and on . . . .

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015 @ 12:00

      I completely agree that those changes should be made, but adding a new site gives the period an identity of its own, which it so sorely lacks at present. At the same time, perhaps that is also an argument against such a move. Thanks, Glenn.

      • Glenn B Apr 29, 2015 @ 12:11

        It strikes me that if we are going to start a new site from scratch, it needs to be a National Slavery Museum (and we know that idea has been out there for a while and has thus far failed), and that Reconstruction would then obviously be a major interpretive element. Plus, besides the Civil War related sites I just dropped above, I would add to them our pre-existing Civil Rights sites.

        FYI: The Andrew Johnson site already has some pretty interesting interpretation of Reconstruction. And overall it is a bit of an overlooked NPS gem in eastern TN.

      • Jimmy Dick Apr 29, 2015 @ 12:26

        I agree with you on this, Kevin. A national site dedicated just to Reconstruction would be a major step forward in fighting the erroneous interpretations of the era. The press coverage would be a great educational tool if it sought actual historians out for assistance. It would also serve as a platform for educating people using factual information to counter possible lost cause resistance.

    • Lyle Smith Apr 30, 2015 @ 6:27

      I agree. Having one site doing this would be ridiculous. Better to just have state and national historical add to their programs.

  • A. Jackson Apr 29, 2015 @ 11:22

    While I like Kevin’s original suggestion best, Wilmington, N.C. would also be a good choice considering that the entire male professional class was literally driven out of town ….given no time to pack, business especially destroyed or taken over by white citizens, they were given railway tickets and marched to the train station. I am going to do some poking around and see what one of the rangers where I volunteer thinks.

  • Andrew Raker Apr 29, 2015 @ 10:50

    I like the idea of both Beaufort and Colfax (and although there’s funding considerations, there’s also precedent for one National Historical Park having multiple locations across state lines, assuming that the end goal is a Reconstruction NHP), but I also hope this considers how Reconstruction can be integrated into existing sites. Johnson’s and Douglass’ homes, Grant’s Tomb, and Nicodemus NHS in Kansas are obvious choices. Elliot West’s “The Last Indian War” makes a compelling argument for looking at the Indian Wars of this time period fit into Reconstruction. (Although not NPS, a lot of work can be done in Oklahoma tying the end of the Civil War to the opening of Indian Territory to Euro-American settlement). And national parks themselves came about during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, and their early management was shaped by that time, as institutions of the Army. (There’s a great story in West’s book about Sherman “vacationing” in his role as General of the Army in the newly established Yellowstone, with the Nez Perce passing through just miles away from him on their way to Montana.)

    The good news for the NPS is, there’s lots of options and lots of ways to look at Reconstruction. Though this can also make narrowing things down more challenging.

  • Donald R. Shaffer Apr 29, 2015 @ 10:33

    Colfax is a good suggestion, Beaufort less so since it was in essence a place where black political power remained at least somewhat intact into the early 20th century because of the strong black majority in the Sea Islands (Robert Smalls was Collector of Customs there during Republican presidential administrations until Woodrow Wilson became President). I’d go for Colfax, except it is fairly out of the way. Instead, I’d vote for a prominently placed National Park Service facility to interpret Reconstruction in either New Orleans or Memphis, where there were major race riots during Reconstruction, and because both are urban centers people visit a lot for other reasons, which would hopefully increase traffic to the historic site. My first choice would be New Orleans since Reconstruction lasted in Louisiana until 1877, and the history of Reconstruction there is instructive about the successes and failures of biracial government under the auspices of the post-Civil War Republican Party. My two cents.

  • Eric Mink Apr 29, 2015 @ 10:13

    I don’t know what became of this study, if it was ever undertaken.


    – Eric

  • Al Mackey Apr 29, 2015 @ 9:33

    I think Colfax, Louisiana would be the place. It’s the site of one of the most notorious massacres in American history and represents, in my view, what Reconstruction and the violent resistance to it was all about.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015 @ 9:41

      Hi Al,

      Excellent suggestion, though I worry about whether Colfax can do justice to the broad story of Reconstruction as I outlined in the post. Do we want the focal point of Reconstruction to be a massacre? I don’t mean in any way to suggest that it should be ignored, but that what is needed is a site that places violence in a broader context that visitors can experience for themselves.

      • Al Mackey Apr 29, 2015 @ 9:56

        Kevin, the broad story of Reconstruction, in my opinion, can certainly be represented, as well as the reasons for Reconstruction’s failure in the 19th Century, paving the way for Jim Crow. I think the terrorist violence is perhaps the most important factor of Reconstruction, and Colfax is probably the perfect place to interpret that factor.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015 @ 10:01

          No doubt, it’s an excellent site that offers a number of interpretive opportunities.

        • Jimmy Dick Apr 29, 2015 @ 12:21

          That was the very first site that came to mind when I read this post. The way the massacre was remembered was with a sign that said “Colfax Riot” and said it marked the end of carpetbag rule. Obviously this sign was another wonderful ode to white supremacy as it was erected in 1950.

          We are now entering into the sesqui of the Reconstruction. In some ways I think this may very well be more important than the commemoration of the Civil War for our country. The two do go hand in hand, but Reconstruction and how it has been remembered need to be explained. This nation was experiencing terrorism long before the 21st century.

          I think you are correct, Al. I do think that we really can do this at multiple locations too. Each state has its own Reconstruction history too. None of them were the same. We need to bring Reconstruction to the forefront of the historical record too. I am beginning to outline my American History to 1865 course and because Reconstruction is so important to things I am going to use it to set the stage for the course.

          Little note: Eric Foner’s EdX course on Reconstruction was superb!

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