Reconstruction

Reconstruction is a subject many students of the war don’t understand and don’t seek to understand.  Most Civil War enthusiasts stop their study of the war at Appomattox where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, or at Bennett Place where Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to William T. Sherman.  But Reconstruction is an important era to study, because it shows how we got from a Union victory and the end of slavery to the resubjugation of African-Americans.  Some historians have even said that while the confederates lost the war, they won the peace through what happened during Reconstruction.

There are some good sources for studying Reconstruction.  One of the best places to start is an installment of PBS’ terrific “American Experience” series.

Part One here:

Part Two here:

Much of what average students of the war think we know about Reconstruction is a holdover from the discredited Dunning School.  William Archibald Dunning was a historian at Columbia University in the early 1900s.  Incredibly influential, Dunning and his followers focused on what they considered to be the harm done to the south during Reconstruction by vengeful Radical Republicans, greedy, wily carpetbaggers, and traitorous scalawags, along with their allies among the newly freed former slaves, who the Dunning School depicted as ignorant, illiterate dupes.

Some good background information on Dunning and the Dunning School are here, here, here, here, and here.

The Dunning School has been successfully challenged, and today’s scholars dismiss that interpretation as erroneous.  Some good books on Reconstruction:

John Hope Franklin, Reconstruction After the Civil War, Kenneth M. Stampp, The Reconstruction Era, 1865-1877, Eric Foner, Reconstruction:  America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Brooks D. Simpson, The Reconstruction Presidents and Let Us Have Peace:  Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Peace, 1861-1868, George C. Rable, But there Was No Peace:  The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction, Richard Nelson Current, Those Terrible Carpetbaggers:  A Reinterpretation, Michael Les Benedict, Preserving the Constitution:  Essays on the Constitution in the Reconstruction Era, Stanley I. Kulter, Judicial Power and Reconstruction Politics, James Alex Baggett, The Scalawags:  Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, eds., The Great Task Remaining Before Us:  Reconstruction as America’s Continuing Civil War.

Do you have some favorite books or other sources of information on Reconstruction you’d like to share?

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2 comments

  1. Hey Al, thanks for putting this up. Good commentary by you, and a couple of great embeds.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Pat. I think Reconstruction is ignored by far too many. My own theory is that high school classes are supposed to take you up to Reconstruction but are often way behind at the end of the year, then the following year they start off right after Reconstruction. Also, most enthusiasts are only interested in the military history of the war, not the political ramification, and Reconstruction is seen as after the fighting is done. Of course, there was plenty of violence during Reconstruction, the fighting being an insurgency instead of set-piece military maneuvers.

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