What Does Reconstruction Tell Us About … ?

Today marks the 150th anniversary of two important events in the American Civil War: the battle of Belmont, where Ulysses S. Grant got his first real taste of command in combat, and the landing of Union forces at Port Royal, South Carolina, an action that soon brought under USA control a significant number of once-enslaved African-Americans along the Sea Islands.  What happened next there is often termed a “rehearsal for Reconstruction,” to borrow a phrase coined by historian Willie Lee Rose.

American historians (and Americans in general) tend to overlook Reconstruction.  I see that in my own career, where I have to be rather insistent that those people who embrace the notion of labeling historians according to fields of interest categorize me as a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction (I prefer to think of myself as a historian of the United States in the nineteenth century as well as of the American presidency).  For all the talk about Civil War memory, any study about Civil War memory is first a study of how Americans during Reconstruction (and after) constructed versions of the Civil War to suit their own agendas.  Thus one cannot understand Civil War memory without also understanding Reconstruction reality.  That can be challenging given that there’s also Reconstruction memory, some of which we’re seeing in a new television show, Hell on Wheels (more on this at another time).

Nearly thirty years ago I took my comprehensive exam at the University of Wisconsin.  I was asked to take a week to compose three answers to six paired questions, one set covering American history before 1800, one covering the nineteenth century, and one covering the twentieth century.  My advisor, Richard H. Sewell, prepared the nineteenth century questions.  I found the more interesting of the two questions he presented to be on what the history of slavery could tell us about emancipation and freedom and what the history of emancipation, freedom, and Reconstruction could tell us about slavery.  Pragmatist that I was (and am), I acknowledged the intellectual possibilities of the question, then set it aside for the slam dunk that was the question on the first and second party system (you’ll note that there was no “Civil War” question: Wisconsin trained American historians, not narrow specialists, and I’ve been forever grateful for that).  I still like the first question, and over time I’ve used it to gain insight into the coming of the Civil War, the war itself, and Reconstruction (which is how I teach my course … causes, conduct, consequences, each a third of the course).

During the next several weeks I’ll return to this approach to say something about how an understanding of Reconstruction can enrich our understanding of the entire period in ways both large and small.  For now it’s enough to highlight my thinking, and to see what you say.