The Reconstruction Sesquicentennial

A few weeks ago Dr. Lonnie Bunch visited the Valley of the Sun and ASU.  My colleague Matt Whitaker and I had the opportunity to sit down with him for a few hours.  As many of you may know, Dr. Bunch is the founding director  of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which plans to open its doors in 2015 … which happens to be the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.  This was no coincidence, as Dr. Bunch assured me.  During our conversation, I noted that I had read his response in the new Washington Post Civil War blog when asked about the best new book on the Civil War.  He answered by pointing to a new book on Reconstruction, Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox.  After all, Dr. Bunch reasoned, the war didn’t end in 1865, and what the war achieved, even for the generation that fought it, was not defined for another dozen years.

Now, Mr, Budiansky’s book is not the first one to point this out, and if I’d say anything about the recent outpouring of books on violence and violent incidents during Reconstruction, it is how in many cases the authors of these works did not pause to read what was already in print before they plunged into their research.  Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died is to my mind the best of these books, although one might also find useful LeeAnna Keith’s study of the Colfax massacre; I am not as enamored of Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption, a popular study of the overthrow of the Republican regime in Mississippi in 1875, because its analysis of national politics is simply uninformed (it simply rehashes William McFeely’s interpretation offered in his 1981 biography of Grant), and reviewer Sean Wilentz’s essay offered a perceptive corrective.  Moreover, I suspect this renewal of interest in the violence of Reconstruction and of the triumph of white terrorism owes more than a little to current affairs.

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