Tag Archives: Reconstruction

Lincoln’s short-term legacy

One of the things that surprised me about The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s volume on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States, is how large Lincoln’s shadow looms over the whole book.  The previous volume in the series, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, ends with Lincoln’s assassination.  White picks up the story with his funeral, and many of the issues he brings to the fore in the body of the book are those in which Lincoln was deeply invested: the trans-Mississippi West as a haven for free labor, national unity reinforced through infrastructure, the fate of African Americans, the ascendancy of the Republican Party, and the struggle to build an egalitarian society of independent producers.

“Abraham Lincoln: The Martyr President,” by Currier and Ives. Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-03167).

These problems that dominated American life in the late nineteenth century lay at the heart of the “Greater Reconstruction,” a term White borrows from Elliott West.  The end goal was to propagate homogeneous, prosperous communities of free and independent householders—communities much like Lincoln’s own hometown of Springfield, Illinois.  Springfield, White claims, was “as close as any actual place could be to the template that the North planned to use in recasting the South, as well as the West” (p. 136).

But White’s book is also an account of disillusionment.  At the end of the story, the Greater Reconstruction has failed.  Since the tale begins with Lincoln’s death and revisits so many of the problems he supposedly resolved, the Greater Reconstruction’s failure raises troubling questions about Lincoln’s legacy.

Did Lincoln succeed?  To most Americans, the answer is self-evident.  The Union triumphed, the nation remained united, and legalized slavery came to an end.  Lincoln himself died, but he died a martyr, having completed what he called “the great task” of reaffirming the American promise.  But all this assumes that the story ends in April 1865.

Anti-slavery Whig and eventual Republican that he was, Lincoln idealized free labor.  He considered it a stepping-stone to becoming an independent producer.  “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us,” he once said.  “The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow.”  Slavery’s end marked the destruction of one great obstacle standing in the way of this ideal of self-advancement.  But for many Americans, the path to full independence and sufficiency remained closed.  The late nineteenth century witnessed some of the most bitter and violent contests between capital and labor.  Contract labor during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age may have been “free,” but in many cases it remained exploitative, and hardly a temporary way station on the road to prosperity and independence.

Nor did the end of slavery mean realization of racial equality.  We think of emancipation as Lincoln’s most enduring legacy.  But subordination of African Americans by means of terrorism, economic dependency, and legalized inequality continued into Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  It’s more difficult to celebrate the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg when you consider the reversals that came after.

As a Whig, Lincoln envisioned a united nation bound together by transportation and trade.  And as a Republican, he wanted the West to be settled by free laborers and landholders.  Here, too, White and other historians have painted a bleak picture of the decades following the Civil War.  Secessionism collapsed, but sectionalism persisted.  The transportation networks and markets that Lincoln and other Whigs had long wanted penetrated more deeply into the American landscape than ever before, but White claims that the late nineteenth century’s great railroads were more effective at forging interregional links than truly transcontinental ones.  And while the Civil War settled the question of whether the West would be slave or free, the period after the war saw much of the frontier engrossed by monopolists and speculators rather than egalitarian homesteaders.

The upshot here is that if you use 1865 as the end date for the “Age of Lincoln,” then Lincoln was a victorious martyr.  But if you use 1877 or 1898 as a terminal point, his success comes with important qualifications.

Should we make space to deal with the problematic nature of Lincoln’s short-term legacy when telling his story in exhibits, documentaries, and popular books?  On the one hand, it might help address Americans’ amnesia about Reconstruction.  On the other hand…well, the idea of the victorious martyr (shot on Good Friday, no less!) is about as compelling as you can get from a narrative standpoint.

But I think there’s a sense in which the reversals and the unfinished business that followed Lincoln’s death doesn’t diminish his historical stature, but magnifies it.  If it’s true that the “great task” wasn’t completely finished in 1865, it’s also true that it’s not completely finished today.  And that makes the study of Lincoln and his legacy much more relevant than it would be if we could wrap the whole thing up with a bow and relegate it to a chapter of our history long since closed.

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Stopping Reconstruction from falling through the cracks

Kevin Gannon has some worthwhile remarks on teaching Reconstruction.  He notes that one of the reasons we fail to do the subject justice is the way we divide the two halves of the U.S. survey course:

The standard two-semester survey model, for example, can give short shrift to a thorough examination of the postwar era. How many times has Reconstruction been pushed to the last day or two of class because we get behind in the schedule? And many of us start the second semester of the survey with the assumption that students “got Reconstruction” in the first portion? But what if they didn’t? Or what about those students who haven’t taken the first half of the survey?

I agree.  Cleaving the U.S. survey in twain at the 1865 or 1877 mark, as is customary, has consequences.  If you’re teaching the first half and you’re running low on time toward the end of the semester, it’s easy to gloss over Reconstruction.  And if you’re teaching the second half, you’re faced with two unsatisfactory options.  You can pick up the story at the end of the war and launch right into Reconstruction, but that separates the subject from the context out of which it arose.  Or you can leapfrog over Reconstruction and hope that whoever had your students the previous semester got around to it.

Of course, there’s an artificiality and arbitrariness inherent in any periodization scheme, and splitting the survey at any other point would create different problems.  But one thing I’ve done in the past is to begin the second half of the survey with the debate over the nature of Reconstruction between Lincoln and Radical Republicans.  That helps underscore what was at stake in the postwar period, and gets students thinking about Reconstruction as something other than an epilogue to Appomattox, a sort of post-credits scene after the main plot has been wrapped up.

I also think it’s useful to bring in historiography when dealing with Reconstruction in the survey.  Have students read some excerpts from the Dunning School, and then follow up with some DuBois.  This not only gets them thinking critically about the period, but also conveys a sense of history as a contest of interpretations and explanations.

By Waud, Alfred R. (Alfred Rudolph), 1828-1891, artist. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Reconstructing ‘Free State of Jones’

The reaction to Free State of Jones among movie critics has been pretty lackluster, but most of the historians I’ve heard from seem to have liked it.  (I liked it, too, for whatever that’s worth.)  I suspect this has to do with the fact that the film’s narrative structure doesn’t adopt many of the conventions of storytelling.

Critics have taken the film to task because the plot meanders, because it seems to lack focus, because it tries to do too much, and because the story just sort of tapers off—it “fizzles out long before it ends,” as one critic put it.  From a filmmaking standpoint, these criticisms make sense.  Narratives aren’t supposed to meander and then fizzle out.  Storytellers are supposed to keep things rolling along until events reach a dramatic crescendo and a full resolution.  In Jaws, when Chief Brody detonates that air tank and sends chunks of great white shark into the stratosphere, you know the movie’s over.

Some historical stories conform to these conventions of dramatic narrative.  Gettysburg establishes a few important characters at its outset, then adds in more and more narrative threads, intensifies, and finally reaches a grand climax of resolution.  That happens to be the way the battle played out, so in that case the filmmakers could follow dramatic convention and be faithful to the events they were portraying.

But that’s generally not the way history works.  One of the writers of the musical 1776 once quoted someone as saying, “God writes lousy drama.”

Free State of Jones hits its crescendo near the middle, as Newt Knight’s struggle against the Confederacy becomes an outright war.  After this comes a long, dispiriting declension, in which much of Knight’s work is undone by the retreat from Reconstruction and the return to power of the same people he fought against during the war.  The movie doesn’t end with an exclamation point or a period, but an ellipsis followed by a question mark.

Having read a lot of reviews of the film, I think critics would have reacted more positively if it had been a more straightforward Civil War film, a story of an insurgency culminating in the Confederate flag coming down in front of the Jones County Courthouse and the Stars and Stripes going up.  True, that narrative would’ve been less choppy and rushed, and it wouldn’t have “fizzled out.”  But Gary Ross made a deliberate decision to take a longer view of the Civil War era, one that includes the reversals of Reconstruction. Regardless of whatever liberties Free State of Jones takes with specific incidents or characters, that decision took guts.

And that, I think, is one reason why historians have reacted to the film more positively than movie critics and audiences.  When you’re dealing with history, you don’t always get a story that conforms to narrative convention.  With history, the story sometimes meanders.  It moves in fits and starts, it doubles back on itself, and it tapers off into uncertainty.  That’s exactly what happened in the case of Reconstruction.  If you consider Appomattox to be the end of the Civil War, then the story makes good narrative sense.  It all gets wrapped up in a neat package, with the various narrative threads resolved, the slaves freed, and the Union back together.  But when you take the long view of the Civil War era—as historians often do and as Free State of Jones does—it’s a story of reversals, marked by lulls in the action.  And it’s a story that does indeed fizzle out, just as the nation’s commitment to the war’s gains fizzled out in the 1870s.

Maybe that story isn’t as emotionally satisfying as the ones people are used to hearing about the Civil War.  But I’m glad we got a movie that told it, even if it hasn’t caught on with critics and audiences.

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UTK historians are making news

We’re wrapping up another semester at UTK, and our history faculty (both current and emeritus) has been making headlines.

With all the brouhaha over the $20 bill, Jacksonian scholar Dan Feller has been in the news quite a bit lately (like here, for example).  A few days ago he talked to NPR about the tumultuous presidential election of 1824 and how it helped make our modern party system.

Stephen Ash, author of a book about the bloody racial episode in Memphis in 1866, lent his expertise to another recent NPR story, this one about an effort to erect a state historical marker dedicated to the massacre and paid for by the local chapter of the NAACP.  The Tennessee Historical Commission, which oversees the state markers program, approved text for the signage that referred to the massacre as a “race riot.”  Historians and members of the community objected to the phrasing, so the NAACP decided to erect its own signage rather than go through the THC program.  Personally, I much prefer the language on the NAACP’s private marker.  In this case, I think the phrase “race riot” carries connotations that would obfuscate what happened in 1866, whereas “massacre” more accurately conveys the nature of the actual event.

Julie Reed, who taught one of my all-time favorite grad courses, has a new book out.  She examines the Cherokee Nation’s social welfare efforts during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and their influence on U.S. government policy.

Finally, Shannen Dee Williams, whose seminar I had the privilege of taking this past semester, has been appointed to the Organization of American Historians’ Distinguished Lectureship Program.

We’ve got fantastic professors.  I’m lucky to get to learn from these folks!

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On the lack of NPS sites devoted to Reconstruction

The National Park Service is undertaking an effort to identify appropriate sites for commemorating and interpreting the history of Reconstruction.  Two participants in the study note that, as of now, the NPS “has not a single site dedicated to that vital and controversial period.”

There’s no denying that Reconstruction is a critically important period that doesn’t get much public attention.  The issues Americans grappled with during Reconstruction are both fundamental and timely.  As the article notes, they include “debates over the meaning of equal protection of the law, over the right to vote, and over the limits of presidential and congressional authority, both in peacetime and in war.”

Over the years, especially during the sesquicentennial, I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan the fact that the Civil War gets a lot more attention than the messy, unglamorous period that followed it.  The drama of the war years has a lot more inherent sex appeal than Reconstruction.  And Appomattox provides a kind of narrative closure that you don’t get with the unfinished business of the 1870s.

But I submit that it’s not just the prejudices of popular memory that have given us so many Civil War parks without a single Reconstruction one.  The thing about agencies that are charged with preserving and interpreting historic sites is that they’re inevitably going to devote most of their resources to those aspects of history linked to specific points on a map.  This is not a shortcoming of such agencies; it’s just a by-product of what they’re set up to do.

Wars, after all, tend to turn ordinary pieces of ground into battlefields, and battlefields are the kinds of historic sites that are naturally suited to preservation, interpretation, and commemoration.  There were plenty of Reconstruction-era developments that were as significant to American history as the Battle of Shiloh, but it’s harder to find sites associated with those developments that you can point to and be able to say, “This is where it happened.”

I can’t think of too many locations where you could tell the Reconstruction story in a holistic fashion, along the lines of the comprehensive approach to the Civil War you get at the new Gettysburg visitor center.  One such site would be Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville, TN, which is already under NPS stewardship.  The site of the Colfax Massacre might be another ideal location, but I don’t know how much is left there to preserve and interpret.

Ultimately, I think the fact that there’s been no Reconstruction national park until now has as much to do with these practical issues as it does with Americans’ predilection for forgetting the messy and discouraging chapters of their history.  The NPS isn’t an all-purpose historical interpretation agency.  Its historical activities are linked to places, and some events are just naturally more suited to this sort of location-specific interpretation than others.

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Messy endings

The Center for Education and Leadership at Ford’s Theatre opens this month, and The New York Times paid a visit (hat tip to Brooks Simpson).  This article merits quoting at length.

After you leave a reproduction of the deathbed in the Petersen House, you enter the new building, as if emerging into the Washington streets the morning after Lincoln’s death. Church bells are tolling; broadsheets are plastered on walls. The panel text makes the atmospherics even more vivid. We learn that when Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor, heard what his brother had done, he said, “It was just as if I was struck on the forehead with a hammer.”

Mary Todd Lincoln was so mad with grief that White House pallbearers went barefoot, so sounds would not distress her. She neither attended the Washington service nor accompanied the coffin on its 1,700-mile railway journey to Springfield for burial.

That journey is evoked in a gallery space resembling the train car that carried the coffin. And touch-screen monitors give us the details: seven million people viewed the body where it was shown along the way, or congregated along the tracks; 300,000 in Philadelphia alone. There were hints of Lincoln’s legacy in the tributes, and signs of unfinished business too. In Washington the 22nd United States Colored Infantry headed the procession; in New York the City Council refused to allow blacks to march at all. Its ruling was overturned by Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

In counterpoint to the funeral train, we get a survey of Booth’s flight through the Virginia marshes. Parts of his diary are transcribed onto touch screens. Booth was bewildered by the manhunt: “I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” He is tracked to a tobacco barn that is set ablaze and is shot by an overzealous soldier; his co-conspirators are hanged. Reconstruction begins, falters and ends.

In a panel about Lincoln’s vice president, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, we see how quickly the world Lincoln opposed oozed back into place. As president, Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, approved of “Black Codes” limiting the freedom of former slaves, and wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”

Was Booth, then, ultimately triumphant? He certainly altered the shape of Reconstruction. As a result, the exhibition points out, by the 19th century’s end, Lincoln was recalled differently from the way he had been just after the war. At first he was remembered as a liberator, undermining the culture of enslavement; later memorials emphasized instead his devotion to the Union.

But we also learn of Lincoln’s afterlife and nearly universal appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a complete set of Lincoln’s writings in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “it was time” for Democrats to “claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The only portrait that the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen kept in his home was one of Lincoln, while Mao directed his followers to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Here too is Lincoln’s popular heritage, in Lincoln Logs, cartoons, knickknacks.

This is a radically different approach than the cabin-to-coffin exhibit at the ALPLM in Springfield, which ends on a note of somber resolution—the war won, Lincoln’s place in national pantheon secured.  The narrative at Ford’s is less reassuring.  This exhibit starts with Booth’s bullet, and then takes the visitor through the post-war debates over the changes Lincoln implemented.  The story meanders through an America still dealing with the ripples of Lincoln’s presidency, a nation taking steps both forward and backward, both toward the transformations wrought by Lincoln and in the opposite direction of Black Codes and the collapse of Reconstruction.

And the way in which people remember Lincoln, in this narrative, is not set in marble in April 1865.  Instead, the world contests his legacy down through the years, finding multiple meanings and dropping the ones that become inconvenient.

It seems to paint a messy, complicated, and often ambiguous picture of history and historical memory.  In other words, it sounds like it’s worth a visit.

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Reconsidering Andrew Johnson

Dr. Paul Bergeron probably knows more about Andrew Johnson than anyone else does, so his newest book ought to be well worth a read.  Check out this article on Bergeron’s work in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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