Historians Urge the Passing of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Act

Reconstruction

Historians Gregory Downs and Kate Masur urge Congress to pass the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Act.  Here is a taste of their recent piece at The New York Times:

Many contemporary controversies over issues like voting rights and the scope of the government have their origins in the period following the Civil War. That era, known as Reconstruction, is one of the most contentious in this nation’s history, and also one of the most misunderstood.

Congress can help fix that by passing the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Act before the end of the year. The bill, passed by the House in September and now under consideration in the Senate, would empower the National Park Service to connect Reconstruction sites all around the country; encourage visitors to talk about Reconstruction at local historical sites; and help convey the full story of how America was remade after the Civil War.

Reconstruction started in the early days of the Civil War. As United States forces entered the South, enslaved African Americans immediately pressed for freedom. They escaped to Union lines, demanded pay for their work, petitioned for their rights and served the Union war effort as laborers and soldiers. Some four million African Americans built new lives in freedom during the postwar Reconstruction era — reuniting families separated by slavery, building churches, founding schools and serving in government.

From 1865 to 1870, Congress passed, and the states ratified, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which permanently transformed the country. These Republican-led initiatives promised freedom, citizenship, due process and equal protection to everyone on American soil, and also prohibited racial discrimination in voting. These constitutional changes were so momentous that, in 2017, President Barack Obama called Reconstruction the nation’s Second Founding.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Erin Mauldin

51pZylgYBPL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Erin Mauldin is an assistant professor of History and Politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. This interview is based on her new book Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Unredeemed Land?

EM: While reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution for a graduate seminar in US Political History at Georgetown University, I realized that many of the economic, legislative, and political issues of that period are intimately tied to the use of natural and agricultural landscapes: fights over land redistribution (or the lack thereof), crop lien legislation, animal theft laws, the timbering boom, and of course, the expansion of cotton production. Yet very few environmental histories of the US South even discussed the period between the end of slavery and the Gilded Age, and the dynamic literature on Reconstruction had failed to absorb any of the insights or approaches of environmental history.

I set out, then, to write an environmental history of Reconstruction in the South, and over time, narrowed the focus to the changes occurring in rural areas (rather than urban ones). As I worked on my dissertation, however, I realized that one cannot explain the events of Reconstruction without grappling with the war. Fortunately, a flowering of scholarship appeared on the environmental impacts of the Civil War around the time of my graduate studies, and so my project follows those works and asks simply, “what happened next?” If the Civil War was a truly environmental event, then one would assume those changes did not stop being relevant after 1865. As a result, my book is an environmental history of Reconstruction in the rural U.S. South that connects large-scale economic changes of the period, such as sharecropping, the expansion of cotton production, and the closing of the open range, to environmental changes wrought by the Civil War.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unredeemed Land?

EM: The Civil War and emancipation accelerated ongoing ecological change and destroyed traditional systems of land use in ways that hastened the postbellum collapse of the region’s subsistence economy, encouraged the expansion of cotton production, and ultimately kept cotton farmers trapped in a cycle of debt and tenancy. Southern farmers both black and white found themselves unable to “redeem” their lands and fortunes, with serious consequences for the long-term trajectory of the regional economy.

JF: Why do we need to read Unredeemed Land?

EM: I think that anyone interested in the Civil War, Reconstruction, race in America, economic inequality, or environmental history might find something here to like or, at least, argue with. So much of what we read in the news about the ecological and economic aspects of war zones in the Middle East, and the ways that environmental changes push people into refugee situations around the world—all those truths held in the American past, too. It’s time we started thinking about them.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

EM: As an undergraduate, I wanted to go to medical school. However, I loved studying history, and performed well in those classes. I was attracted to the story-telling that happens in history classes and books, as well as the investigative work of piecing together past events. So, I combined coursework in both History and Biology, reluctant to give up either. When it came time to write my senior thesis for my History major, my undergraduate mentor in that department suggested I draw on my interest in the sciences, and I produced work that investigated early air pollution control efforts in Birmingham, Alabama. Through that experience, I decided I would rather research and write for a living than go to medical school. I was very, very fortunate to receive a doctoral fellowship to study environmental history with J.R. McNeill at Georgetown University, and haven’t looked back.

JF: What is your next project?

EM: Tentatively called “The First White Flight: Industrial Pollution and Racial Segregation in New South Cities,” my next book will investigate the role of environmental racism in racially segmenting the geographies of 19th-century cities. The poverty and debt of postwar cotton farming I describe in Unredeemed Land spurred tens of thousands of freed  people to abandon rural spaces in the decades after the Civil War and find employment in recently “reconstructed” cities such as Atlanta and Richmond; and newly established industrial centers such as Birmingham. Not only did minority enclaves or company houses exist among higher levels of pollution, filth, disease, and industrial contamination, but the white public’s representations of those conditions attached a persistent stigma both to people and place in these neighborhoods.

This project, then, argues that industrial pollution caused the cementing of an urban black/suburban white dynamic long before the Civil Rights Era, which, over time, reinforced disenfranchisement, engendered racially segmented economies, and allowed further environmental degradation.

JF: Thanks, Erin!

The Author’s Corner with William Green

image_miniWilliam Green is Professor of History at Augsburg University. This interview is based on his new book The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity (University Of Minnesota Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Children of Lincoln?

WG: After 1870, when it seemed that African Americans were about to begin a period of unprecedented freedom with the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, white supremacy grew even more emboldened throughout the South as racial discrimination deepened throughout the North. Notably, all of this happened on the complaisant watch of Republicans who controlled the federal government and had in various ways emancipated and enfranchised the African American in the name of their martyred president. I wanted to know whether a similar dynamic – complaisance in the face of, what Eric Foner termed, “America’s unfinished revolution” – occurred in Minnesota.

I had just finished Degrees of Freedom, which examined the origins of the civil rights in Minnesota, and I found through the experiences of black residents, traits that were similar to what I saw nationally. But that book looked at the history through the experiences of black Minnesotans. The Children of Lincoln sets out to understand the motivations of often well-intended white patrons who amended the state constitution to establish black suffrage only to conclude that they had done their part, failing (or refusing) to acknowledge that voting rights alone did little to secure opportunity (i.e., farms and apprenticeships for skilled jobs) and end racial discrimination (i.e., denied service in restaurants and theatres). And yet, their expectation of gratitude from African Americans had the effect of quashing any chance for candid discussion between supposed black and white friends. I wanted this book to detail why white patrons who had fought for black equality settled for second-class citizenship, not even five years after Appomattox.

To gain insight into this dynamic, I profiled four Minnesotans – a Radical Republican senator whose public service straddled the years of war and reconstruction, an Irish Protestant immigrant farmer who enlisted in the U.S. Colored Infantry, the founder of the postwar women’s suffrage movement in Minnesota, and a St. Paul businessman and church leader who was key to founding Pilgrim Baptist Church, that would become Minnesota’s oldest black congregation. Each profile offers an often overlooked corner of Minnesota history, which, when pieced together, much like a mosaic, detail a uniquely multifaceted portrait of 19th century liberals.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Children of Lincoln?

WG: 1) The paternalism of white “friends”, though seemingly benign, was as duplicitous to black opportunity as the actions of a bigot; and 2) Self-satisfaction with one’s high-minded work was the surest way to watch the purpose and success of that work fade away.

JF: Why do we need to read The Children of Lincoln?

WG: The Children of Lincoln reminds us that after the war, with the massive influx of immigrants, farmer and labor tensions, agitation for women’s suffrage, railroad policy, expansion of industrial growth and monopolies, railroad expansion, the growth of urban centers and relocation of African Americans, the North needed its own policy of reconstruction.

I also think that The Children of Lincoln uniquely examines how little the “friends of black people” understood the nature of racism, and in particular, when blinded by hubris, were unable or unwilling to see it in themselves.

The book’s title is lifted from the address by Frederick Douglass during the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial when he said to the white listeners who had assembled for the unveiling, “You are the children of Lincoln, but we (African Americans) are at best his step-children.” He uttered these words under the likeness of the martyred president standing with outstretched arms over a freed slave forever huddled at his knee, now frozen in bronze. To white observers, the statue seemed majestic but to black onlookers, the statue seemed to commemorate the eternal duty of blacks to be both unequal and grateful to their white patrons. One year after the dedication, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican President-elect, withdrew federal troops from the South to mark the end of both reconstruction and federal protection.

The Children of Lincoln examines how the actions of four Minnesotans who did not know each other, came to mirror what the national party leadership did. The book explores how the welfare of the African American came to be the welfare of an abstraction, for “the Children” had allowed the idea of freedom to supplant its reality. As such, I think the book gives an important perspective, and offers issues for discussion on the nature of race relations that carries over to today.

Readers of history – lay and professional – who are interested in Minnesota, Civil War, Dakota War, reconstruction, civil rights, black history, women’s suffrage, and church history, will be interested in The Children of Lincoln.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

WG: I suppose I always had the inclination to be an American historian. Born in Massachusetts and growing up in Nashville and New Orleans, I was surrounded by history and I enjoyed learning about the events of long ago. But those were the days when I was “only” a student of history. It wasn’t until I researched material for what would be my first publication – an account of an 1860 Minneapolis slave trial – when I felt that I had become a historian. I learned the thrill of the hunt, peeling away the layers, going ever deeper into the lives and actions of people who initially only revealed pieces of themselves, discerning how my subject and the larger context affected the other, interpreting the past and acquiring the courage to follow the evidence, honing the skill of engagingly telling the story, trying always to be disciplined, patient and just in doing the work.

JF: What is your next project?

WG: I have a manuscript on the history of liberalism in mid-19th century Minnesota that is being reviewed for publication; and I’m presently working on a biography of an African American woman who was active in the colored women’s club movement and women’s suffrage, and who drafted and successfully lobbied for passage of an anti-lynching bill in 1921.

JF: Thanks, William!

Library of America Publishes Volume on Reconstruction

ReconIt is edited by Brooks D. Simpson.  Over at the LOA blog you can find an interview with Simpson.  Here is a taste:

Library of America: In your introduction to the volume you write: “Most Americans don’t know very much about Reconstruction, and in many cases what they may think they know is wrong.” What do you hope readers will learn from Reconstruction? What does the experience of reading writings by those who lived during Reconstruction offer readers that standard narrative/analytical histories do not?

Brooks D. Simpson: Reconstruction is typically taught at the break in a year-long survey of American history, so it tends to get short shrift in most courses. Instructors of first-half surveys sometimes fail to reach it, while in the second-half survey Reconstruction is at best a prelude to the Gilded Age, with its stories of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and social and political turmoil. Moreover, once upon a time accounts of Reconstruction featured assumptions about poor southern whites punished by vindictive white northerners, while giving scant attention to the fate of freedpeople deemed by most scholars to be unfit for freedom in any case. Although W. E.B. Du Bois challenged that interpretive framework in 1935 with his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, it took until the 1960s for mainstream scholarship to contest that tale. It has taken far longer for new interpretations to take root in classrooms and textbooks: old beliefs continue to have staying power in the minds and hearts of a significant number of white Americans.

By presenting what people at the time said about what was going on in the world about them, this volume reminds us that Reconstruction was a time of great turmoil when Americans debated what the Civil War and emancipation really achieved. Was the war for reunion nothing more than that? What did freedom for over four million former slaves mean? How did Americans contest the concepts of liberty and equality, and what role would government and the governed play in resolving that dispute?

Instead of imposing on the past what we assume people must have said and meant, we can discover what they said, what they wanted, and how they viewed the issues at stake. We can hear many voices, black and white, North and South, male and female, well-known and unknown, participate in this discussion. In particular we can come away from this volume with a notion of just how fiercely contested were definitions of freedom, liberty, and equality, and the extent to which violence helped shape the outcome of America’s first great experiment in racial democracy.

Read the rest here.

Historian Richard White on the Gilded Age

WHiteOver at Readers Almanac, the blog of the Library of America, Stanford historian Richard White answers a few questions about his recent book, The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Here is a taste:

Library of America: In The Republic for Which It Stands, you take up the challenge of treating two periods of American history, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which are often written about in isolation from each other. One way you bridge the divide is by taking the Republican vision of a good society—a society of homes and “homogenous citizenship”—as an overarching theme, using it as a kind of yardstick against which to measure the age. Was the distance between governing ideology and life as it was actually lived unusually great in this period?

Richard White: Originally, the distance between ideology and life wasn’t great at all. At the end of the Civil War, the United States hadn’t yet become a nation of wage workers. Independent labor and prosperous homes seemed the inevitable outcome of a war to eliminate slavery. Large factories remained relatively rare and class divisions, although real, weren’t impenetrable. Americans believed that free labor would secure independent homes, and black homes, identical to white homes, would arise in the wake of the war. Springfield—Lincoln’s home town—embodied their hopes; the nation would become a collection of Springfields.

Similarly, a homogenous citizenry with a set of uniform rights guaranteed by the federal government in a remade republic was legislatively possible in 1865, but the ideal was never absolute. In practice Indians and Chinese would be totally, and white and black women partially, excluded.

By the 1870s the gulf between the ideal and the reality had widened considerably and would continue to widen for the rest of the century. Americans listed as the markers of this failure the decline of independent labor and the rise of a large and permanent class of wage workers. The inability of many wage workers to earn enough to support the gendered ideal of a home—men protecting and supporting families, women in charge of hearth and home and nurturing children as republican citizens—proved alarming. Particularly in cities, immigrant tenements became the antithesis of the home. Not only did the federal government fail to secure black people a full and equal citizenship, but in both urban areas and the South, reformers pushed restrictions on suffrage. A kind of cultural panic, often racialized, ensued in which black people, Indians, Chinese, tramps, single working women, and many immigrants were defined as threats to the white home.

Although the economy grew immensely, the evidence we have indicates that individual well-being declined. Americans grew shorter, sicker, and the children of the poor—particularly the black and urban poor—died in shocking numbers. If the purpose of the economy was to buttress the Republic, it seemed to be failing while the two dangerous classes, the very rich and the poor, increased in numbers. The old ideal of a working life—the original American dream of a competency, the amount of money needed to support a family, provide a cushion for hard times and old age and to set children up in life, rather than great riches—seemed harder and harder to attain.

Read the rest here.

A Short Survey of Reconstruction Historiography

Recon

Do you need a quick primer on the historiography of Reconstruction?  If so, check out Allen Guelzo‘s short piece at History News Network: “The History of Reconstruction’s Third Phase.”  Here is a taste:

Understanding Reconstruction as a bourgeois revolution – in fact, according to Barrington Moore, the last bourgeois revolution – creates an opportunity for a third re-visioning of Reconstruction, and without the Eurocentric necessity to make it conform to the New Reconstructionists’ Marxism or the Progressive racism that fueled the Dunningites. We are already beginning to see a galaxy of new questions about Reconstruction take shape, and to find in work like Mark Wahlgren Summers’s The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (2014) an understanding of what Reconstruction actually did accomplish, in Gregory P. Downs’s After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (2015) the chronic unwillingness of Americans to fund post-conflict regime changes, and through Forrest A. Nabors’s From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (2017) an appreciation of the hitherto-ignored role played by Northern Democrats in league with their quondam Southern allies in paralyzing Reconstruction efforts.

These new movements may not be enough to get us a Museum of Reconstruction, and I have to confess a certain shrinkage at the prospect of what a Reconstruction re-enactment might look like (that will depend on who writes the script). But why not a Society for Historians of Reconstruction? It is time to bring Reconstruction home to us all, not as a Southern event or even the shadow of a European one, but as a uniquely American one, on an American landscape.

Read the entire piece here.

How to Talk to People About the Causes of the Civil War

RebelsAaron Astor teaches history at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee.  He is the author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri, 1860-1872 (LSU Press, 2017).  Over at his Facebook page, Astor reflects on how he begins conversations with people about the causes of the Civil War.  It’s a great post (especially in light of this) and I appreciate Astor’s willingness to let me post it here.  (And thanks to John Craig Hammond for bringing it to my attention).  Enjoy! –JF

I speak and write regularly about the causes of the American Civil War, to both academic and popular audiences. Engaging with different people who hold different assumptions about the Civil War and its legacies today has forced me to develop a set of priming points that I use to begin the conversation. Here are some of the key ones. If you find them useful, feel free to share them.

1. People in the 19th century thought about the world differently than we do today. This is especially true for matters of race, slavery, labor, freedom, economic class, gender and citizenship. We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people.

2. People in the past did not know how their stories would end. They made choices they did based on what they valued, what they knew at the time, what they were able to do, and what they hoped or feared would happen. We should respect the drama of their uncertainty as we evaluate their actions.

3. Just as we cannot impose 21st century values back into the 19th century, we cannot and should not teleport our ancestors of the 19th century into our own time. Our ancestors certainly passed down cultural baggage to the following generations and thenceforward through the decades on to us. But that does not mean we should be defined today by plucking people out of the past and using them to make us good or bad people today.

4. If we wish to honor our ancestors, the best way to do so is to learn about them and their lives, their worlds, their hopes and fears, and in their own historical contexts. If we wish to draw inspiration from them, we should look at how they confronted or transcended their own times.

5. Getting to the causes of the Civil War now, we need to think about HOW 19th century white Americans argued about slavery and how those arguments came to dominate politics. That means looking beyond the purely moral arguments advanced by abolitionists, white and black, most of which were bitterly rejected across the North. Those arguments were certainly critical to advancing the anti-slavery cause, but we must be careful not to assume that those who opposed slavery in 1860 agreed with Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison that slavery should be immediately abolished.

6. There is what I like to call the “Northern myth” of the Civil War: that ordinary white Northerners opposed slavery because they believed in racial equality. (And as evidence, every Northern town has a station stop on the Underground Railroad supposedly run by some important white family). The reality is that this view was held by a tiny, though vocal and active minority. Far more important to antislavery as a political position was the view held by men like David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, who said, “I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, nor morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause of the rights of white freemen.” He, and the majority of white Northerners who came to oppose slavery and consequently voted for the Republican Party in 1860 did so because they thought slavery was bad for whites. Yes, they thought slavery was bad in the abstract too – Lincoln spoke of the right of a man to the “bread he has earned with the sweat of his brow.” But what animated white antislavery thought was the damage slavery did to white Northerners, not what it did to black Southerners (or black Northerners).

7. White Northerners developed an ideological opposition to slavery as a social and economic system that they felt encouraged laziness, inefficiency, aristocracy, haughty arrogance and entitlement. The presence of slavery meant that labor was to be viewed as a curse. Two direct consequences came from this: slaveholders would occupy the best lands in Kansas and crowd out good white Northern farmers who wanted free soil to labor upon freely. Thus the slavery extension question was critical. Another problem white Northerners identified was the tendency of slaveholders to violate the rights of free speech, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom to petition in the North. No matter how much ordinary white Northerners disliked abolitionists in their midst, they bitterly resented Southerners’ insistence that Northerners become slave catchers under the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Act, or abstain from peacefully agitating on matters of conscience. They felt that the “Slave Power Conspiracy” was violating the rights of free white Northerners.

8. Turning to what I call the great “Southern myth,” we need to think about what the majority of white Southerners who did not own slaves thought about slavery. While there were free soil-style objections (and occasional outright abolitionist) sentiments among white Southerners in the early 19th century, by the 1840s and 1850s very few white Southerners expressed anything like opposition to slavery as a whole. They might bitterly resent the planter class. But if they publicly rejected the slave system, on either moral (like John Fee of Kentucky) or economic (like Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina) grounds, they were hounded out as dangerous traitors. Non-slaveholding whites supported slavery because it shielded them from falling into the true bottom of the social order (Herrenvolk Democracy), buttressed the entire economic order (slaves as labor and as valuable chattel property), provided employment as overseers, and prevented the prospect of a Haiti-style violent insurrection. Slaveholders absolutely dominated the political system, both regionally and nationally in the 1850s, and non-slaveholders looked to them for assistance in bad harvests, or aspired to join them and become slaveholders. While not every white person objectively benefited from or defended slavery equally, the vast, vast majority of non-slaveholding white Southerners viewed the prospect of abolition with horror. Note here that even in East Tennessee, future Unionists like Andrew Johnson and William Parson Brownlow vigorously defended slavery right up through 1860.

9. Turning now to the Civil War itself, the immediate turn to war in April 1861 had to do with preserving the Union. Remember that seven Deep South states (SC, MS, AL, LA, FL, GA and TX) seceded after Lincoln’s election. Eight other slave states rejected secession at that time. Only after Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s troop call-up did four Upper South states (VA, NC, AR and TN) join the Confederacy. Four remaining border slave states (MO, KY, MD and DE) remained in the Union. Preserving the Union militarily helped convinced the second tier states to secede. But as Lincoln pointed out in his First Inaugural, to fail to keep the Union intact at that point would have meant the death of the experiment of self-government (something European autocrats celebrated) and the likely disintegration of what remained of the Union. Lincoln termed secession a kind of breach of contract, wherein both sides never agreed together to allow for secession. National self-preservation is always the first task of any government. One can argue against these claims today and may did so back then. But the logic of the war-for-Union argument was compelling and obvious. Just as the American colonies did not expect to be allowed to break from Great Britain peacefully, neither did the secessionists believe the Union would really let the Southern states go peacefully. The secessionists figured a war would come. They just thought they would win that war.

10. Secessionists were clear about why they seceded upon Lincoln’s election. They felt the Republican Party would not defend slavery in the territories, would not crack down future John Browns, would create an anti-slavery party within the less-enslaved parts of the South, and would turn foreign policy toward anti-slavery. Slavery was stronger than ever in 1860. Secession was an act of overconfidence. And secession, as the multiple ordinances and declarations of causes showed, was designed explicitly to protect slavery and white supremacy.

11. Finally, individuals who joined the Confederate (or Union) army had multiple reasons for doing so. But if we are talking about the causes of the Civil War, we must look to the causes of secession and the reason the antislavery Republican Party emerged victorious in the 1860 election.

Still More on John Kelly’s Civil War Comments

Compromise

In addition to my analysis of Kelly’s remarks and Carole Emberton’s Washington Post op-ed, I also want to call your attention to Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on this controversy.  It is a nice overview of the various compromises that took place from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to the outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  She quotes David Blight, Manisha Sinha, and David Waldstreicher.

Read it here.

Thoughts on John Kelly’s Civil War Comments

DHS Secretary John F. Kelly holds and ICE Town Hall

I am teaching the Civil War this semester.  In fact, I have class tonight.  I am thinking of starting the class with John Kelly’s recent claim that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.”

I watched the video of Kelly’s interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News.  In that video he said that “Robert E. Lee was an honorable man.”  He added, “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country.  It was always loyalty to state back in those days.  Now it’s different today.”  And then came this: “But the lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

A few thoughts about Kelly’s remarks:

  1. Secession, and eventually civil war, occurred because the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 threatened a Southern way of life defined by chattel slavery and white supremacy.  Not convinced?  I invite you to read Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.  My students just finished it.
  2. Was Robert E. Lee an honorable man?  Perhaps.  I am sure that many in the South saw him as an honorable man because he was willing to join the Virginia secession movement and fight for the Southern way of life as described above.  “Loyalty to state” meant loyalty to slavery and white supremacy.  The loyalty Lee may have had to home, place, roots, family, or local community–all virtuous ideals in the abstract–was made possible by the wealth that came from slave labor.  For these reasons, Lee chose treason.
  3. Kelly is partially correct.  The Civil War did come about by a lack of compromise.  The South refused to compromise with northern Republicans like Lincoln who wanted to stop the spread of slavery.  At the start of the war Lincoln, an ardent unionist, would have gladly compromised with the Southern states where slavery already existed in order to keep the union together.  See, for example, his December 22, 1860 letter to Georgia Governor (and eventually Confederate V.P.) Alexander Stephens
  4. Kelly is also correct when he says that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.” The men and women of the south made their stand because their conscience (which was informed by their understanding of Protestant Christianity) led them to believe that slavery and white supremacy was right.  Lincoln followed his conscience as well.  He believed the Union must be preserved.  Abolitionists followed their consciences too.  They believed that slavery was an abomination.
  5.  And let’s also remember, as historian David Blight has shown us, that “compromise” was what brought the Union back together after the Civil War.  This was a compromise that the Union made with white supremacists in the South.  A compromise that led to Jim Crow and segregation.

In the end, one cannot ignore the fact that Kelly has made these statements in the wake of what happened in Charlottesville.  (He actually plays the “both sides” card again, much like his boss had done in the days following the race rioting in Charlottesville).  In this sense, his remarks are more than just historical musings.  They send a clear political message.

*Slate* Introduces a Podcast on the Reconstruction Era

Recon

Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion are hosting.  Here is what you can expect:

The era of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War was our best chance to build an American democracy grounded in racial equality. Its failure helps explain why race, “states’ rights,” and the legacy of the Confederacy remain central themes in our politics today.

Join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion as they dive into the latest scholarship about the era and examine its lessons for America and the world in 2017.

Read Rebecca and Jamelle’s introduction to the series.

This Slate Academy includes:

  • An eight-episode podcast series about Reconstruction featuring Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie—the sequel to The History of American Slavery.
  • Illuminating essays and book excerpts, to help you get more out of the podcast, as well as other readings.
  • A chance to discuss the series with Rebecca, Jamelle, and other members in a lively private Facebook group.

Sign up here.  And while you are at it, click here to listen to Rebecca Onion on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast (Episode 12).

The Author’s Corner with Robert Cook

51BmfDCLdAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Robert Cook is professor of American History at the University of Sussex. This interview is based on his new book, Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United since 1865  (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Civil War Memories?

RC: I’ve been working at the intersection of race, politics, and historical memory in the United States for more than two decades. This book grows directly out of a previous research project on the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s and a conviction that a deeper awareness of how and why particular strands of Civil War memory have been constructed over time can enhance our understanding of the war’s impact on contemporary culture wars.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Civil War Memories?

RC: I argue that four principal strands of Civil War memory – Unionist, southern, emancipationist and reconciliatory – were constructed during the late nineteenth century by the men and women who lived through the turmoil of the 1860s and 1870s. Social and political change in the United States enabled the Lost Cause and reconciliatory narratives to dominate the field of Civil War memory until the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century raised the profile in public memory of the previously marginalized and predominantly African American story of black liberation and martial service to the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Civil War Memories?

RC: The lethal violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 highlighted the continuing resonance of the Civil War in contemporary debates over race and historical commemoration. This book provides the essential backstory to the current controversy and will contribute positively to an informed and constructive debate over removal of Confederate symbols and statues.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

RC: As a teenager growing up in the English midlands I enjoyed reading the Civil War histories of Bruce Catton. However, I didn’t decide to become an American historian until I was a student at the University of Warwick where I enrolled in Bill Dusinberre’s classes on the African American experience and the antislavery movement. Bill was an inspirational teacher. He encouraged me to pursue a PhD in American history at the University of Oxford in the early 1980s. I researched the early history of the Republican party in Iowa, focusing particularly on the party’s remarkably strong support for black rights in the Civil War era.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I’m currently in the early stages of a project that investigates African American responses to different manifestations of the Lost Cause since 1880.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

 

Race in America: 1860 and 1960

King

Next week Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch will be at Messiah College to deliver our annual American Democracy Lecture. (Admission is free, but you need to pick up a ticket at the Messiah College box office).  I teach my Civil War class on the evening of the lecture.  We are planning to meet for the first hour of class and then walk over to the hall.  I had been thinking about some different ways of helping my students make the jump from the 1850s/1860s to the 1950s/1960s when I ran across this piece by Civil War historian James McPherson at the Oxford University Press blog.

Here is a taste:

The civil rights movement eclipsed the centennial observations during the first half of the 1960s. Those were the years of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, of Southern political leaders vowing what they called “massive resistance” to national laws and court decisions, of federal marshals and troops trying to protect civil rights demonstrators, of conflict and violence, of the March on Washington in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and began his “I have a dream” speech with the words “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice.” These were also the years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which derived their constitutional bases from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments adopted a century earlier. The creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau by the federal government in 1865, to aid the transition of four million former slaves to freedom, was the first large-scale intervention by the government in the field of social welfare.

These parallels between the 1960s and 1860s, and the roots of events in my own time in events of exactly a century earlier, propelled me to become a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. I became convinced that I could not fully understand the issues of my own time unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War: slavery and its abolition; the conflict between North and South; the struggle between state sovereignty and the federal government; the role of government in social change and resistance to both government and social change. Those issues are as salient and controversial today as they were in the 1960s, not to mention the 1860s.

Read the entire piece here.

The National Park Service and American Amnesia About Reconstruction

Recon
Check out Maura Ewing’s piece at Pacific Standard on the ways the National Park Service is bring the Reconstruction Era to the forefront of America’s historical consciousness. Here is a taste:

During the restive years following the Civil War, the Era of Reconstruction—often referred to as the nation’s Second Founding or the first Civil Rights Movement—America saw a virulent backlash from white supremacists in response to profound political, economic, and educational gains made by African Americans. During these years, more African Americans held office than at any other period in American history; in 2014 Tim Scott became the first African-American United States Senator elected in South Carolina since Reconstruction. Newly freed slaves established churches, schools, and businesses, and negotiated labor contracts with their former owners. Simultaneously, the period saw the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, which used violence to impose a race-based social order where law no longer did; black codes were created to suppress African-American freedom, and segregation was institutionalized. White supremacists lynched an average of two to three African Americans weekly.

In more recent years, a somewhat unlikely agency—the National Park Service—has stepped up to consider how and whether to mark this period by way of national historic sites. In July the NPS released a report, the product of two years of commissioned academic research, detailing what events and locations should be marked for their historic significance relative to the Reconstruction era. It is a call for communities to take the next step and erect markers, with the agency’s support. The NPS’s ambition to have events of this era designated as National Historic Landmarks could have a great effect on the public’s understanding of racism’s pervasive roots in this country—a bold, and important, move for an agency that only recently began to take on the racial complexities of the Civil War.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Eric Foner: Robert E. Lee’s “Legend” Needs to be “Retired”

211ba-lee-sitting

Yesterday’s New York Times is running a piece by Columbia University historian Eric Foner on the legacy of Robert E. Lee.  Foner’s focus is on how Lee became a “legend” in the minds of the post-Civil War South and how his “legend” became wound-up with the so-called Dunning School of Reconstruction.  This is classic Foner.

Here is a taste:

Historians in the first decades of the 20th century offered scholarly legitimacy to this interpretation of the past, which justified the abrogation of the constitutional rights of Southern black citizens. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning and his students portrayed the granting of black suffrage during Reconstruction as a tragic mistake. The Progressive historians — Charles Beard and his disciples — taught that politics reflected the clash of class interests, not ideological differences. The Civil War, Beard wrote, should be understood as a transfer of national power from an agricultural ruling class in the South to the industrial bourgeoisie of the North; he could tell the entire story without mentioning slavery except in a footnote. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of mostly Southern historians known as the revisionists went further, insisting that slavery was a benign institution that would have died out peacefully. A “blundering generation” of politicians had stumbled into a needless war. But the true villains, as in Lee’s 1856 letter, were the abolitionists, whose reckless agitation poisoned sectional relations. This interpretation dominated teaching throughout the country, and reached a mass audience through films like “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Klan, and “Gone With the Wind,” with its romantic depiction of slavery. The South, observers quipped, had lost the war but won the battle over its history.

As far as Lee was concerned, the culmination of these trends came in the publication in the 1930s of a four-volume biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia-born journalist and historian. For decades, Freeman’s hagiography would be considered the definitive account of Lee’s life. Freeman warned readers that they should not search for ambiguity, complexity or inconsistency in Lee, for there was none — he was simply a paragon of virtue. Freeman displayed little interest in Lee’s relationship to slavery. The index to his four volumes contained 22 entries for “devotion to duty,” 19 for “kindness,” 53 for Lee’s celebrated horse, Traveller. But “slavery,” “slave emancipation” and “slave insurrection” together received five. Freeman observed, without offering details, that slavery in Virginia represented the system “at its best.” He ignored the postwar testimony of Lee’s former slave Wesley Norris about the brutal treatment to which he had been subjected. In 1935 Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

That same year, however, W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction in America,” a powerful challenge to the mythologies about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction that historians had been purveying. Du Bois identified slavery as the fundamental cause of the war and emancipation as its most profound outcome. He portrayed the abolitionists as idealistic precursors of the 20th-century struggle for racial justice, and Reconstruction as a remarkable democratic experiment — the tragedy was not that it was attempted but that it failed. Most of all, Du Bois made clear that blacks were active participants in the era’s history, not simply a problem confronting white society. Ignored at the time by mainstream scholars, “Black Reconstruction” pointed the way to an enormous change in historical interpretation, rooted in the egalitarianism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and underpinned by the documentary record of the black experience ignored by earlier scholars. Today, Du Bois’s insights are taken for granted by most historians, although they have not fully penetrated the national culture.

Read the entire piece here.

Donald Trump’s American History Textbooks

Trump militaryWhat did Donald Trump learn about American history during his childhood in New York?  Matt Ford, a writer at The Atlantic, decided to go back and take a look at the American history textbooks assigned in Trump’s history classes.

Here is a taste of his piece “What Trump’s Generation Learned About the Civil War.”

Until the late 1960s, history curricula in Trump’s home state of New York largely adhered to a narrow vision of American history, especially when discussing slavery, the Civil War, and its aftermath. This was true in the predominately white public schools throughout the country. The African American experience and its broader significance received little to no attention. When textbooks did cover black Americans, their portrayals were often based on racist tropes or otherwise negative stereotypes. Trump’s understanding of the Civil War may be out of step with current scholarship, but it’s one that was taught to millions of Americans for decades.

“The dominant story was that secession was a mistake, but so was Reconstruction,” Jonathan Zimmerman, a New York University professor who studies the history of American education, told me. “And Reconstruction was a mistake because [the North] put ‘childlike’ and ‘bestial’ blacks in charge of the South, and the only thing that saved white womanhood was the Ku Klux Klan. When African Americans read this in their textbooks, they obviously bristled….”

Many of these textbooks still taught something akin to “The Dunning School,” an approach to the Civil War and Reconstruction that was critical of Northern efforts to bring racial equality to the immediate postwar South.

Racist material permeated other sections of the American curriculum, well beyond the field of history. Geography textbooks depicted Africa as “the dark continent” and either ignored it or portrayed it as a place of cannibalism and barbarity. “[Black] critics condemned biology textbooks, which often reflected eugenic theories of racial hierarchy,” Zimmerman wrote in a 2004 article on U.S. textbook changes after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. “Still other blacks attacked music textbooks for including songs by [prolific 19th-century songwriter] Stephen Foster, complete with Foster’s original lexicon—‘darkey,’ ‘nigger,’ and so on.”

These textbooks shouldn’t be interpreted as reflecting their readers’ views, Zimmerman cautioned me. Instead, they offer a window into what students would have learned in a previous era. “This tells us more about the culture of race as expressed in the curriculum than it does about what any given individual imbibed or not,” he explained.

Read the entire piece here.

Crowdsourcing Report: Best Books on the Lost Cause

Van WoodwardYou asked and the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home delivered:

David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Ed Blum, Forging the White Republic: Race, Religion and American Nationalism, 1865-1898

W. Fitz Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory

W. Fitz Brundage, ed., Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity

James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity

Karen Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture

Gaines Foster, Ghost of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913

Gary Gallagher,  ed., The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History

Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation

James Louwen and Edward Sebasta, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great Truth About the “Lost Cause.”

Ann Marshall, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State

Micki McElya: Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America

Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America

Ron Rash, The World Made Straight (Novel)

Anne Sarah Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868

Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow

What Are the Best Books on the Lost Cause?

BlightI have been asked this several times yesterday and today by history buffs, pastors, and general readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  If you could assign one or two books to someone who does not know much about the “Lost Cause,” what would you recommend?

Let me get us started with:

Garry Gallagher, ed. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History

Charles Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920]

James Louwen and Edward Sebasta, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great Truth About the “Lost Cause.” (This is mostly primary documents)

David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

How Did U.S. Grant Deal With Violent White Supremacists?

Grant

In the wake of the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan emerged as a secretive society committed to the overthrow of the racial integration policies of Radical Reconstruction.  They burned African-American homes, lynched some blacks and murdered others in their attempt to restore power to the white supremacist Democratic Party in the South.

In response to the rise of the Klan, Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts designed to “enforce” the 15th Amendment.  One of these acts was known as the Ku Klux Klan Act (1871).  It gave the President power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to arrest members of the Klan.  Grant eventually used this law to prosecute the Klan and strengthen the Republican Party’s presence in the post-Civil War South.

Here is a part of U.S. Grant’s December 4, 1871 message to Congress:

There has been imposed upon the executive branch of the Government the execution of the act of Congress approved April 20, 1871, and commonly known as the Kuklux law, in a portion of the State of South Carolina. The necessity of the course pursued will be demonstrated by the report of the Committee to Investigate Southern Outrages. Under the provisions of the above act I issued a proclamation calling the attention of the people of the United States to the same, and declaring my reluctance to exercise any of the extraordinary powers thereby conferred upon me, except in case of imperative necessity, but making known my purpose to exercise such powers whenever it should become necessary to do so for the purpose of securing to all citizens of the United States the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and the laws.

After the passage of this law information was received from time to time that combinations of the character referred to in this law existed and were powerful in many parts of the Southern States, particularly in certain counties in the State of South Carolina.

Careful investigation was made, and it was ascertained that in nine counties of that State such combinations were active and powerful, embracing a sufficient portion of the citizens to control the local authority, and having, among other things, the object of depriving the emancipated class of the substantial benefits of freedom and of preventing the free political action of those citizens who did not sympathize with their own views. Among their operations were frequent scourgings and occasional assassinations, generally perpetrated at night by disguised persons, the victims in almost all cases being citizens of different political sentiments from their own or freed persons who had shown a disposition to claim equal rights with other citizens. Thousands of inoffensive and well disposed citizens were the sufferers by this lawless violence,

Thereupon, on the 12th of October, 1871, a proclamation was issued, in terms of the law, calling upon the members of those combinations to disperse within five days and to deliver to the marshal or military officers of the United States all arms, ammunition, uniforms, disguises, and other means and implements used by them for carrying out their unlawful purposes.

This warning not having been heeded, on the 17th of October another proclamation was issued, suspending the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus in nine counties in that State.

Direction was given that within the counties so designated persons supposed, upon creditable information, to be members of such unlawful combinations should be arrested by the military forces of the United States and delivered to the marshal, to be dealt with according to law. In two of said counties, York and Spartanburg, many arrests have been made. At the last account the number of persons thus arrested was 168. Several hundred, whose criminality was ascertained to be of an inferior degree, were released for the present. These have generally made confessions of their guilt.

Great caution has been exercised in making these arrests, and, notwithstanding the large number, it is believed that no innocent person is now in custody. The prisoners will be held for regular trial in the judicial tribunals of the United States.

As soon as it appeared that the authorities of the United States were about to take vigorous measures to enforce the law, many persons absconded, and there is good ground for supposing that all of such persons have violated the law. A full report of what has been done under this law will be submitted to Congress by the Attorney-General.

Thanks to Rich Kidd for reminding me of this important source.

The Decline of Confederate Iconography: A Timeline

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583

Confederate soldier monument, Union County, Arkansas (Wikipedia Commons)

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin calls our attention to a timeline chronicling what he calls “The Long Retreats of Confederate Heritage.”

Here is a taste:

I found this detailed timeline at a website called The Confederate Society of America. It is difficult to tell whether it is comprehensive, but it certainly will give you a sense of the scope of and pace at which Confederate iconography has been removed from public and private spaces around the country. This timeline was compiled by Dr. Arnold M. Huskins for an article titled, “The Eradication of a Region’s Cultural and Heritage.”

1970‘s: The Univ. of Georgia’s “Dixie Redcoat Marching Band” drops the word “Dixie” from its name and discontinues playing the song which was played after the National Anthem; City of Atlanta, GA renames Forrest Street; University of Texas-Arlington drops its Rebel mascot

1990: NBNC-Texas asks Texas State Fair to discontinue the playing of Elvis Presley’s American Trilogy because of its “Dixie” content

1991: City of Atlanta renames street named after Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon; NAACP passes resolution “abhorring the Confederate battle flag” and commits their legal resources to removal of the flag from all public properties.

Read the rest here.

The Second American Revolution

e82cf-afterappomatoxOver at the Washington Post blog “Made by History,” University of California-Davis historian Gregory P. Downs asks us to remember the Third Military Reconstruction Act (July 19, 1867).

Here is a taste:

Not many of the people who toasted the American Revolution on July 4 will gather Wednesday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a key moment in the Second American Revolution: the long-forgotten Third Military Reconstruction Act passed on July 19, 1867.

It is not hard to see why people celebrate Independence Day and forget the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, even though that period was, in many respects, a Second Founding that re-created the republic and the Constitution. Independence Day kindles thoughts of successful military struggle against a now-foreign enemy in service of famously high-minded ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that make Americans proud.

The Second American Revolution, by contrast, pitted Americans against other Americans, Confederate slave owners, and came on the heels of a bloody conflict that ripped the nation asunder and still sparks conflict today. The Second Founders’ reliance on the military to police society and polling places, rather than to defeat enemies, also makes us queasy. And their foundational documents, such as the Third Military Reconstruction Act, read like enumerations of authority, not eloquent evocations of liberty.

Nevertheless, the events surrounding the Third Military Reconstruction Act may actually tell us as much, or even more, about this country, its potential and its predicaments, than the words penned in Philadelphia. For the act arose from a genuine constitutional crisis — a confrontation between a belligerent president and a cautious Congress over whether generals should follow the law or their increasingly unhinged commander in chief.

Read the rest here.

Downs visited the Author’s Corner on April 27, 2015 to talk about his book After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War.