Reconstruction: The Unifinished War

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017, I attended a reception for the opening of a new exhibit at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, titled, “Reconstruction: The Unfinished War.” Curator Brett Kelly and CEO Wayne Motts and their team have done a good job bringing together various artifacts and providing the interpretation to go along with them, placing them in historical context and allowing us to learn their significance and to learn more about Reconstruction.

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We see such things as Andrew Johnson’s signed pardon for confederate General Edwin Lee, a cousin of Robert E. Lee. This is emblematic of the many pardons Johnson handed out at the end of the war.

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We see interpretive panels on the Radical Republicans, the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Black Codes enacted in the southern states, and African-American lawmakers elected to governments set up during Congressional Reconstruction.

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White supremacist terroristic violence was a hallmark of the Reconstruction period, and we see it represented in the display showing brass knuckles, a black jack, and a plantation whip, devices used by the terrorists to torture African-Americans who dared to assert their rights and white Republicans in the South who dared to work to help the former enslaved people achieve equality.

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Jefferson Davis was captured at the very end of the war, and during Reconstruction several northerners made their way south as teachers, benevolent workers, and to do other work. They were called “Carpetbaggers” after the luggage many of them carried. To represent these actions we have Jefferson Davis’ actual saddle valise he had when he was captured along with an actual carpet bag and an interpretive panel about Carpetbaggers.

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The display also includes interpretive panels on the white supremacist violence and the rise of the KKK, the most well-known of the white terrorist groups but by no means the only one.

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An excellent feature around the display are the QR codes you can scan and access various historical documents in .pdf format to enhance your learning opportunity.

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The Civil Rights Acts and the Hamburg Massacre both make their appearances in the exhibit, giving us an idea about how the Republican Congress attempted to assist African-Americans in the South through legislation and how any equality for African-Americans was bitterly and violently resisted by former confederates.

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An example of another white supremacist group was the White League in Louisiana, and the exhibit includes a display regarding this group.

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Finally, we have a display of a violin case that held a pistol and a sawed-off shotgun. This was used by a former confederate to show the weapons he carried. When the shotgun is taken out of the case, a music box inside the case plays “Dixie.”

I enjoyed seeing the exhibit. I thought it was very well put together and it’s indicative of the fantastic work the folks at the National Civil War Museum do. I highly recommend a visit to the museum, and if you do visit this year [2017], be sure to check out the Reconstruction exhibit. It’s on display until December 31. You won’t be disappointed.

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