The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era


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A groundbreaking new history, telling the stories of hundreds of African-American activists and officeholders who risked their lives for equality--in the face of murderous violence--in the years after the Civil War.

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Mar 15, 2018

A New History Of Reconstruction

The Reconstruction Era that followed the Civil War remains one of the most controversial periods of American history. At one time, the predominant view was the Reconstruction was a tragic blunder forced upon a defeated, prostrate South by a vengeful Congress. Over the years, this understanding of Reconstruction has gradually given way as historians have emphasized Reconstruction as a way of implementing the purposes for which the Civil War was fought by protecting the economic and civil rights of the Freedpeople.

In his new book, "The Wars of Reconstruction: the Brief, Violent history of America's Most Progressive Era" (2014, Douglas Egerton strongly interprets Reconstruction in accordance with the second view. A Professor of History at Le Moyne College, Egerton has written widely on African American history in the Revolutionary, pre-Civil War, and Civil War eras. In addition to differences of interpretation, Reconstruction is a difficult subject to master due to its breadth and complexity: understanding Reconstruction requires consideration of Federal action, state and local governmental action, and the activities of many individuals over the Reconstructed South.

This book does not have the character of nuance. Egerton advances his interpretation forcefully and strongly. This is not necessarily a flaw in a historical study, particularly in a study that counters a view that still has a wide following among lay people and probably among some scholars. Edgerton's book is meticulous, full of factual detail, and well documented in his extensive references. (Unfortunately, the book lacks a bibliography). The problem with the book is less in the strong interpretation it takes and more in the manner of presentation. In the early chapters, the book is dry, repetitive and unfocused. Egerton wants to explain the important role African American soldiers played in the Civil War as a backdrop to the Reconstruction Era. This is a sensible approach, but the book comes dangerously close to losing focus as Egerton offers a long series of specific anecdotal stories and incidents that seem both disorganized and disjointed. Patience is required to wade through the opening chapters of the book.

The flow of the book improves markedly following Appomattox and the assassination of Lincoln. Egerton discusses Andrew Johnson and his leniency towards the South and its leaders, the Freedman's Bureau and early land reform and educational efforts, the Reconstructionist Congress and its clashes with Johnson, and, increasingly, the violence and destruction in the South which led to the end of Reconstruction. As the book progresses, Egerton gives increasing emphasis to the local history as unrepentant Confederates tried to defeat Reconstruction with violence. Egerton argues that Reconstruction, with its unhappy end, accomplished a great deal in education and civil rights, and had a lasting positive impact.

Egerton gives a great deal of attention to land reform. A major issue, then and today, was whether the large plantations which slaveholders had fled upon the approach of the Union armies should have been divided into small farms and made available to the Freedpeople and other Union soldiers. The prevailing view at the time, even among those advocating for strong measures, was that this course would have been confiscatory. Measures of this scope probably would have few adherents even today. The unwillingness to change patterns of land ownership in the South probably had a great impact on the extent to which the Reconstruction which followed could have been successful especially in the short range.

Egerton emphasizes the violence in the South particularly as it involved voting rights throughout the South, with attention to massacres in Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and elsewhere. He also emphasizes the courage, even-handedness, and in many instances high educational attainments of the African Americans who took leadership positions in Reconstruction. The book offers short biographies of notable leaders who will be unfamiliar to most readers. Egerton also argues that the Northerners who came South to help implement Reconstruction were, for the most part, not the corrupt opportunists of some stereotypes. Rather they tended to be idealistic and educated and seriously committed to advancing the civil rights of the Freedpeople.

In the latter chapters of the book, Egerton offers a historiography of Reconstruction by showing how interpretation has shifted both in scholarship and in popular representations, such as the films "The Birth of a Nation", "Gone with the Wind", and Disney's "Song of the South". He describes the pioneering work of historians such as W.E.B. DuBois and John Hope Franklin which has been built upon by subsequent historians. This discussion is valuable for many reasons, both in showing the development of Egerton's own interpretation and in raising issues about the nature of historical inquiry. Are the different interpretations largely reflections of the predispositions at different times of their proponents? Are the studies hopelessly relativistic? My view is that they are not relativistic in the sense that continued study and development of interpretations gradually brings a fuller and improving understanding of "what actually happened" without ever reaching finality. There is a great deal to be learned from Egerton. By the same token, in reading this book, I did not have the sense of getting the "full" conclusive story. History and historical study develops with time and develops as the understanding of people develops.

Egerton has written a provocative, thoughtful book for readers wishing to understand Reconstruction and its history.

Robin Friedman

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