The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era
By Douglas R. Egerton
New York Times Book Review, February 2, 2014

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War heads toward its conclusion, the anniversary of Reconstruction, the turbulent era that followed, looms on the horizon. Properly commemorating it poses a challenge, since for no period of American history does a wider gap exist between scholarly understanding and public consciousness.

For much of the past century, historians portrayed Reconstruction as a time of corruption and misgovernment, the lowest point in the saga of American democracy. The supposed heroes of the story were Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson, who sought to defend constitutional government against Radical Republicans bent on punishing the defeated South, and the Ku Klux Klan, which fought to restore "home rule" (that is, white supremacy). The chief mistake of Reconstruction was conferring the right to vote on African--Americans, who, it was said, were incapable of exercising it intelligently.

This interpretation has long since been abandoned by historians, who now see Reconstruction as a laudable, if flawed, effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery. But the old view retains a remarkable hold on the popular imagination, including the pernicious idea, of which one hears echoes today, that expanding the rights and powers of blacks constitutes a punishment to whites. This is unfortunate, because understanding issues that continue to roil American politics — the definition of citizenship, the meaning of equality, the relative powers of the national and state governments — requires knowledge of Reconstruction. For this reason alone, the appearance of Douglas R. Egerton's "The Wars of Reconstruction" is especially welcome. The book offers little that will surprise scholars of the period, but its dramatic account will challenge and enlighten those who still cling to the older outlook.
Launch media viewer
Matt Rota

In some ways, "The Wars of Reconstruction" defies current trends in Reconstruction scholarship. Recent historians have sought to embed Southern events in a national and international context, bringing into the story the development of the West and the imperial ambitions of the reunited nation (during Reconstruction, the United States purchased Alaska and sought to annex the Dominican Republic). But Reconstruction's central story, Egerton insists, takes place in the South, in the struggle of former slaves to breathe substantive meaning into the freedom they had acquired.

Egerton, a professor of history at Le Moyne College, pays a price for this local emphasis. Those seeking a clear, chronological narrative will not find it here, nor will they get a full sense of the legal revolution that rewrote the laws and Constitution to grant equal citizenship to every person born in the United States. But it has striking benefits as well. Drawing on an array of scholarly monographs, local newspapers and other sources, Egerton paints a dramatic portrait of on-the-ground struggles for equality in an era of great hope and brutal disappointment.

The core of the book relates the efforts of black Americans and those Egerton somewhat anachronistically refers to as their "progressive" white allies to lay the foundations for a black community enjoying social, economic and political equality. He devotes particular attention to the establishment of schools in the South by the Freedmen's Bureau, an agency created by Congress to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom. Egerton is fully aware that bureau agents and white teachers could be "patronizing" in hectoring blacks about middle-class mores. Yet he rejects the view, advanced by some scholars, that freedmen's education was simply a form of social control. To former slaves, he observes, Northern teachers were dedicated, resourceful and courageous.

Egerton underscores the significance of the Southern constitutional conventions of 1867 and 1868, the first racially integrated governmental bodies in American history. They produced forward-looking documents that established the region's first statewide public school systems, eliminated racial distinctions in voting and, in some cases, guaranteed citizens equal access to public transportation and accommodations. There followed the South's first truly democratic elections, which produced governments in which black officials played a role at all levels, from sheriffs and school board officials to members of legislatures and Congress. The new governments sought, in Egerton's words, to reform "every aspect of society."

Of course, these changes also produced a violent reaction. As his title suggests, Egerton devotes considerable attention to the actions of homegrown "terrorists" like the Ku Klux Klan and kindred organizations, which systematically targeted local political leaders and teachers and were probably responsible for the deaths of more Americans than Osama bin Laden. Egerton makes the important point that the old idea of the South being subject to an overbearing military occupation is a myth. The Army was rapidly demobilized after the war ended.

"Reconstruction did not fail," Egerton states, "it was violently overthrown." Yet elsewhere, he seems to argue that the entire experiment was doomed even before it began. As the Civil War ended, he claims, traumatized white Southerners were prepared to accept "whatever terms the victorious North saw fit to impose." But Johnson immediately handed power back to leading white Southerners, opening the door for the region's "aggressive reactionaries" to try to reduce blacks to a condition as close to slavery as possible.

There is no question that Johnson — a deeply racist, inflexible political leader — lacked Lincoln's qualities of greatness. But as the historian Michael Perman showed many years ago in "Reunion Without Compromise," it is a serious mistake to exaggerate the spirit of acquiescence in the white South in 1865. Egerton's own evidence of sweeping violence against the freed people suggests that the failure of Reconstruction cannot wholly be blamed on Johnson. Moreover, his account directs attention away from the North's own retreat from the ideal of equality.

Egerton makes the valuable point that speaking simply of the failure of Reconstruction ignores the era's accomplishments, including "spectacular gains" in black literacy and the success of some former slaves in acquiring land. Nonetheless, the abandonment of Reconstruction was a disaster not only for black America but also for the national commitment to democracy. It was followed by "a new campaign in the wars of Reconstruction," this one over history. Through the writings of some historians and in films like "The Birth of a Nation" and "Gone With the Wind," a deeply racist image of Reconstruction achieved widespread circulation. Its alleged horrors became justifications for the disenfranchisement of black Southern voters. Internationally, although Egerton does not make this point, Reconstruction's "failure" was invoked in places as far-flung as Australia and South Africa to demonstrate the incapacity of nonwhite people for self-government.

"The Wars of Reconstruction" ends with the recent controversy about erecting a monument to Denmark Vesey in Charleston, S.C., where he plotted a slave insurrection. Egerton might have reflected more fully on the abysmal state of Reconstruction itself in public history. Of the National Park Service's hundreds of historical sites, only the Andrew Johnson Homestead in Tennessee deals centrally with Reconstruction (in what can charitably be called a dated manner). Monuments to Confederate heroes, including leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, dot the Southern landscape, but virtually none to black officials of Reconstruction. It took South Carolina until 1998 to install a portrait of the black justice Jonathan J. Wright in its Supreme Court building, alongside likenesses of the other members of the court in the state's history.

The Denmark Vesey monument remains unfinished. So, in many ways, does Reconstruction.