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Douglas R. Egerton is a professor of history at LeMoyne College. He is the author of six books, including Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey, Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave näytä lisää Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802, and Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America. He lives near Syracuse, New York. näytä vähemmän

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pszolovits | Feb 3, 2021 |
Review of: The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, by Douglas R. Egerton
by Stan Prager (3-26-18)

One of the sessions that I sat in on when I attended the American Historical Association (AHA) Annual Meeting in D.C. in January 2018 was entitled “The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction in National Parks,” which featured former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, as well as a number of noted historians. Panelists observed that while there are more than seventy NPS parks focused on the Civil War, there were none that explored the war’s critical aftermath until January 2017 when—in one of his final acts before leaving office—President Obama issued a proclamation that designated a site in Beaufort County, S.C. as the first National Park Service unit dedicated to the story of Reconstruction.
Perhaps no period in American history has been so utterly erased or misremembered as the Reconstruction era, that decade after the Civil War when the federal government sought to ensure that millions of African Americans, most of them former slaves, could enjoy basic civil and political rights. Just as “Lost Cause” mythology long disguised the centrality of slavery as the cause for the Civil War, supplanted by a false narrative of States’ Rights, so too did it invent a fiction of an occupied postwar south given to dangerous excess, exploited by rapacious northern “carpetbaggers,” in league with venal local “scalawags,” and hapless illiterate blacks manipulated to do their bidding and trample the rights of their former masters. That all of this is nonsense has made it a no less tenacious feature of American popular memory.
The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, by Douglas R. Egerton, is a welcome addition to recent scholarship that has put the appropriate lie to these false narratives while recovering the often-heroic stories of African Americans and their white allies seeking to advance the cause of freedman against the frequent violence and brutality meted out by ex-Confederates seeking to reassert white supremacy. In the tradition of Eric Foner, whose magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfished Revolution 1863-1877, was among the first to expose the falsity of long-accepted interpretation, Egerton—professor of history at LeMoyne College—has crafted a well-written treatment of a pivotal era that has long languished from lack of attention and yet remains so critical to our understanding of how race continues to impact the American experience.
As a child growing up during the lunch counter boycotts and back-of-the-bus banishments of the Civil Rights era, with scenes splashed across my television set of unarmed marchers beaten by police and beset upon by dogs and water cannon, I had no idea that Alabama—where Governor George Wallace proclaimed, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," and a church bombing by white supremacists took the lives of four young children—had sent former slave Benjamin S. Turner to Congress in the 1870s. Nor did I know that Mississippi, infamous for the 1964 abduction and murder of civil rights workers, once had no less than two black United States Senators. How was that possible? What had happened? Egerton’s fine book is an excellent one-volume survey of a dramatic time of enormous hope for African Americans that proved to be all too brief, ultimately postponing efforts at equality for another century.
Reconstruction—which meant different things to different audiences at the time—was fraught with failure from the very beginning. Perhaps it only really had any kind of chance during the scant five days between Grant’s generous terms to Lee at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln, whose second term was only weeks old at his death, had been vague about postwar Reconstruction. It only seemed apparent that he favored easy terms for readmitting the states of the former Confederacy to the Union, and that he had concerns about the just treatment of the recently enslaved. But the great man was gone, and in his place was Andrew Johnson, a coarse, ex-slaveholder and Unionist Democrat from Tennessee added to the ’64 ticket to bolster Lincoln’s chances for re-election. At first, there was some concern that the new President—a rough fellow who despised plantation elites—would be too hard on the defeated south, but it soon became clear that the racist Johnson reserved most of his hatred for freed blacks and for their white “Radical Republican” allies in Congress who sought to sponsor civil equality and voting rights for African Americans. From the outset, Johnson would have none of that, blocking programs designed to educate and assist freedmen, granting blanket pardons to ex-Confederate military and political leaders, drawing down troop levels in the occupied south, and reassigning northern military commanders who were too aggressive in protecting blacks from rising southern vigilantism. Congress and the accidental President made war upon each other, and Johnson was narrowly acquitted in impeachment proceedings, but the real losers were blacks struggling to make their way in a new world where they were no longer property yet, typically lacking skills and education, faced daunting obstacles for basic survival.
In the immediate aftermath of the war there may have been an opportunity for long-term positive change, even if perhaps social equality for blacks might remain out of reach. At first, the conquered south seemed to follow Lee’s example, accepting defeat and seeking reconciliation. The “Spirit of Appomattox” kindled an optimism on both sides that was nearly extinguished with Lincoln’s death but yet still held promise, as the south seemed willing to accept whatever postwar terms the north might impose. But this moment was forever snuffed out by Johnson’s decisive embrace of ex-Confederates and palpable scorn for black aspirations.
Eggers underscores a vital point often overlooked by scholars of the era when he looks to how representation re-empowered states of the former Confederacy. The famous Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 that led to ratification of the U.S. Constitution was to mean that millions of blacks held as chattel property nevertheless counted as three-fifths of a person, which granted the antebellum south disproportionate political power in Congress for its free, white population. The 1868 Fourteenth Amendment, extending citizenship to all, ironically increased the political power of white southerners exponentially, if only they could terrorize the black population—newly enfranchised by the 1870 Fifteenth Amendment—from exercising the right to vote. Paramilitary “White Leagues” and the Ku Klux Klan proved to be effective forces on the one hand, along with Johnson and emboldened Democrats on the other, so that readmitted former Confederate states and pardoned rebels could combine legal and extra-legal tactics to put control of these states in the hands of the very elites who led the rebellion! For example, in a remarkable turn of events, Alexander Stephens, former Vice President of the Confederate States of America, had a political rebirth as Congressman from Georgia in 1873, serving incongruously alongside blacks from other states that had once been part of the CSA. Stephens and his successors would well outlast their African American counterparts.
Optimism was rekindled when Ulysses S. Grant—a moderate of Lincoln’s ilk who was a friend of African Americans—was elected President in 1868, but much damage had already been done and Grant was no match for competing entrenched interests on all sides. Bogged down by corruption, scandal and his own gullibility, the great general proved to be a mediocre Chief Executive. And there were other forces at work that were beyond his control. Massive demilitarization followed the Civil War, and Indian wars in the west further diminished federal forces stretched thin in a south that was rapidly reasserting itself. Meanwhile, the north had grown weary of the conflict and of blacks clamoring for political rights, economic upsets proved more tangible to the postwar population, and a reconciliation that promised the nation an opportunity to move on beckoned with greater appeal than the interests of faraway ex-slaves. They were free now; what more do they want from us? The result was the mass murder of thousands of blacks in the south, as well as many of their white allies, as ex-Confederates enforced “Redemption”—the seizure of political power from northern Reconstruction forces that prevailed for a century after, and still endures in pockets of the south today. The contested election of 1876 put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House and withdrew federal forces from the south, effectively ending Reconstruction. The controversial Confederate monuments adorning too many public squares in the south today represent a commemoration of that moment—of Redemption and the near permanent debasement of African Americans to second-class citizenship—rather than the ostensible memorial of Civil War soldiers falsely proclaimed by southern partisans.
While it may seem that all was lost, in this outstanding history Eggers reminds us that there were accomplishments. Abolitionists and the like-minded flocked to the south after the war to teach blacks to read and write, and indeed great strides were made. African Americans, often against impossible odds, learned skills that forged new generations of artisans and shopkeepers. While “sharecropping” turned multitudes of blacks into serfs that were perhaps only a new brand of slave, they never stopped hoping—if not for themselves, then for their children—that one day a promised equality would become a true reality. Eggers can also be praised for bringing the nuance and complexity requisite to modern historical scholarship to bear as he does not fail to explore the often overlooked entrenched racism of the north, where few states granted voting rights to blacks prior to the Fifteenth Amendment, and which spawned its own brand of strong resistance to social equality that also sometimes dealt violence and death to its proponents.
One of the benefits of academic conferences is the opportunity to harvest books. I picked up The Wars of Reconstruction from a publisher’s table as the AHA annual meeting wound down, and cracked the spine on train ride home. Rarely have I found a work of history both so compelling and so relevant to its own time and to our own. I highly recommend it.

Review of: The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, by Douglas R. Egerton https://regarp.com/2018/03/26/review-of-the-wars-of-reconstruction-the-brief-vio...
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Garp83 | 2 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Mar 26, 2018 |
The Reconstruction period in the United States refers to the immediate years after the Civil War. Largely ignored and regarded as a failure, The Wars of Reconstruction attempts to correct common misperceptions and bring a more balanced view towards that period of time.

Immediately following the end of slavery, the education of black Americans across the United States sharply increased. As did minority participation in both federal and local governments and land owning. It's easy to dismiss these gains, but they were important. In the end, the real failure of the Reconstruction period is that it did not last longer and a significantly more was not done at the state and federal level to curb the violence that white society perpetrated against their black neighbors.… (lisätietoja)
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queencersei | 2 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Mar 24, 2015 |
Where 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 Jackson. 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.
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JaneSteen | 2 muuta kirja-arvostelua | May 30, 2014 |



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