My own writing interests are increasingly leading me to explore the post-Civil War period in America. What I thWhere I got the book: my local library.
My own writing interests are increasingly leading me to explore the post-Civil War period in America. What I thought I knew about the decade or so after the War was, I will freely admit, based mostly on good old Gone With The Wind, book and movie. I do have the excuse that I wasn’t born or brought up in the States, but let’s face it, Reconstruction doesn’t seem to be a period of American history that most Americans know a lot about. Most people’s awareness of nineteenth-century America seems to jump straight from the Civil War into somewhere around the Gilded Age years of the late 1880s and onward, and when my kids were doing history at school here in Illinois, they seemed to mostly learn about the War of Independence and the Civil War, then hopped to the Civil Rights activism of the 50s and 60s.
My confused inner narrative therefore went something like this. Slavery was bad, so the nice white abolitionists of the North tried to make the South free their slaves. The South didn’t like the idea, so they started a war, and then the white people of the South suffered terribly for a while because they lost. The slaves were free! Hooray! And then not a whole lot else happened for a long while, and black and white people got along fine…Wait. What about that segregation thing? Well, that was bad, but people used to be a lot more prejudiced than they are now. And then somebody thought up the idea of civil rights, and black people held peaceful demonstrations only Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and that made everyone feel guilty, and because we’re much more progressive and modern than the nineteenth century, we’re all equal now and that’s the way it should be.
Are you grinding your teeth yet? If you’re an American reading this, that last paragraph probably offended you in some respect, but I’m trying to be honest here. When I began visiting the States back in the mid-80s, I was struck by the degree of separateness between Americans of different complexions, which didn’t sit well with my received ideas of America as a land of equality, freedom and opportunity. I remember a British acquaintance, a black woman married to a white man, telling me how much more prejudice she encountered in Chicagoland compared to London (she eventually couldn’t live with it and they went back home). It took me several more years to become aware of the scars that lay across American society with respect to race—I put it down to the lingering effects of slavery and/or segregation, and still couldn’t really understand the link between the two.
Until I began reading the history books. And The Wars of Reconstruction was a most enlightening addition to my reading repertoire. Its narrative begins before the Civil War, and stretches into the early twentieth century with an epilogue that touches on some more recent developments. It’s not an exhaustive study of the Reconstruction period by any means—if that’s what you’re looking for, a more general history might be a good place to start. I began reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction a while ago (I’ll take it up again soon, I promise) which has far more information about the political and economic aspects of the period, and Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois is on my list as a necessary corrective to Foner’s white version.
What The Wars of Reconstruction attempts to do, I think, is to correct the above erroneous impressions held by people like me. Its narrative goes something like this:
Black people played more of a role in the Civil War than most of us realize. Black soldiers held important positions in the military structure, while illiterate former slaves took full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the military to educate themselves. The army turned out to be a great starting point for future civil rights activists, professional men and politicians.
After the war was over, things were really progressive for a while despite opposition from President Andrew Johnson. Black men held high office at the local, state and even federal level. They were highly instrumental in reforms that made public schooling available to children of all races in the South, and also helped both former slaves and poorer whites buy land. There was a Civil Rights act, and suffrage was extended to former slaves in many states. Black people were vehement in defending their new rights, and quite ready to sue whites who didn’t want to respect them. This forced integration in various areas such as transportation.
White opposition was fierce, and got progressively fiercer as the federal troops enforcing black rights in the South were gradually siphoned off to deal with the Indian wars in the West. The spectrum of opposition ranged from political action to intimidation and outright violence, especially when it came to preventing black people from voting. Black activists were the most targeted group. And white people—well, they just started looking in the other direction, because things were getting nasty and you can only support the losing side for so long.
Reconstruction officially ended in the 1870s, and black civil rights were progressively eroded by white opposition as the century advanced. By the early 1900s, pretty much all the advances that had been made were reversed, and it would be decades before the civil rights movement reorganized itself, helped by changing public attitudes.
Well into the twentieth century, the history of Reconstruction was rewritten in book and film to downgrade the role of black people. Yeah, we’re back to Gone With The Wind, the movie version of which appeared a year after Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction. Guess which version white people liked best?
The Wars of Reconstruction is a white academic’s attempt to challenge our received ideas of the post-Civil War period, in a way that’s footnotey enough for the historians but easily lively enough for the general reader. I suspect that this topic’s always going to be a matter of competing narratives rather than an agreed view of history, but this non-historian’s delighted that a new broadside has been fired in the war about the wars of Reconstruction. You guys—Americans, I mean—need to talk all this stuff out. I think there’s a great deal of popular interest in the history of civil rights, and more receptiveness than there ever has been toward a non-white-centric narrative of history. This is a book whose time may have come....more