Echoes of Reconstruction: Excellent Recent Books on Reconstruction

ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog.

There has been an unusual number of new books published on the Reconstruction Era and related themes that I have been able to read over the last year. Two of them even made the Best Seller List! Here are my reviews of some that I really liked. 

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon Reed published by Liveright (2021)

Juneteenth is now widely celebrated. In many places it is a holiday. It was not always so. A native of Texas where Juneteenth began, Annette Gordon-Reed writes in her new book:

To my surprise some years back, I began to hear people outside of my home state, Texas, talk about, and actually celebrate the holiday “Juneteenth.” June 19, 1865, shortened to “Juneteenth,” was the day that enslaved African Americans in Texas were told that slavery had ended, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed, and just over two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Despite the formal surrender, the Confederate army had continued to fight on in Texas until mid-May. It was only after they finally surrendered that Major General Gordon Granger, while at his headquarters in Galveston, prepared General Order Number 3, announcing the end of legalized slavery in the state. (p. 11)

Gordon-Reed writes that “The truth is, I confess here, that I was initially annoyed, at least mildly so,” of the non-Texas Juneteenths. Of course, her mild “annoyance” did not last long. While Granger’s order was specific to Texas, it has come to represent a national celebration of the end of slavery. 

The book itself is short, just over one hundred and fifty pages, and it is an essay reflecting on how Texas history is remembered, and how slavery was left out of the narrative for more than a century. It is not a detailed history of Juneteenth. 

Along with her reflections as a historian, Gordon-Reed offers memories her family members shared about their ancestors’ experiences around Juneteenth after their enslavement ended. 

This book is not a deep-dive into the 156 year history of Juneteenth, but is a great dip into how one future  Pulitzer Prize-winning historian learned to understand and appreciate the holiday as well as a discussion of how we teach and learn history. It is written with a light touch and could easily qualify as a Summer Beach Read in spite of its mostly serious content. Read the Full Review

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith published by Little Brown (2021).

Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America hit the top of the New York Times Bestseller List the week it was published. Smith is a writer for The Atlantic and the book is neither a history of slavery nor of the historic memory of slavery. It is a reporter’s story of visiting the places where slavery is interpreted by tour guides, reenactors, and public historians for Americans who decide to devote a few hours of their vacations or holidays to a historic site associated with slavery. 

Anyone who visited Stone Mountain or a Southern plantation in the 1970s knows that the association of those sites with the enslavement of African Americans or with post-war white supremacist violence was white-washed beyond recognition. Smith visited sites of historical memory to see if that was still the case. The book’s chapters are each devoted to a different location and what stories were told about slavery to visitors. While most of the sites are in the South, Smith also visits the African burial ground in New York City and a site in Africa.

I have been to many of the places Clint Smith traveled to, some recently, and some back when the slave’s story did not get told at all. Smith opens with his visit to Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson and his family lived in the midst of scores of enslaved Black people. I had visited Monticello a quarter century ago. I had heard that it had recently begun to tour the old zone of enslavement, Mulberry Row. My wife and I and our two children went on the tour expecting at least some mention of slavery. There was a lot on Jefferson the architect, Jefferson the statesman. We were shown clever inventions he had designed, and we learned about his love of wine and books, but nothing about slavery. At the end of the tour I asked our guide perplexedly “Why no mention of slaves?” She smiled and said I must have read about the Mulberry Row Tour and that is the one I needed to take instead. Apparently Monticello had a Black Tour and a White Tour! White people need not be troubled by thoughts of the legacy of slavery white visiting Jefferson’s mountaintop.

Smith went on the modern Monticello tour focusing on slavery and he writes about it with great enthusiasm. David Thorson guided Smith’s group. A middle aged Navy veteran, David spoke calmly and invited discussion. Apprehension Smith, a Black man, who might have had at a slavery tour given by an older white man was relieved when David began his tour by saying:

“Slavery’s an institution. In Jefferson’s lifetime it becomes a system. So what is this slave system? It is a system of exploitation, a system of inequality and exclusion, a system where people are owned as property and held down by physical and psychological force, a system being justified even by people who know slavery is morally wrong. By doing what? Denying the very humanity of those who are enslaved solely on the basis of the color of their skin.”

Simple, truthful words. Powerful too.

Smith described his own reaction:

In just a few sentences, David had captured the essence of chattel slavery in a way that few of my own teachers ever had. It’s not that this information was new, it’s that I had not expected to hear it in this place, in this way, with this group of almost exclusively white visitors staring back at him.

While Clint Smith visited a number of historic sites, some several times, each chapter tells the story of a single visit and relies heavily on the guide’s words, recorded by Smith. He inserts reflections by other visitors on what they have heard. In some chapters he seeks out the historian who designed the tour or exhibit, but the centerpieces are the sites as experienced by the visitor. This reporterly approach gives Smith’s own impressions added power.

While an academic book on slavery, the Civil War, or Reconstruction might get a few thousand readers, millions of Americans get their history lessons from historic sites, movies, and Bill O’Reilly’s books. A few years ago I was saddened to see that half the Top Ten bestselling history books that year were written by Fox TV personalities.

Our historic sites have gotten better at telling the story of race and slavery than they were in my youth. Many cities are no longer allowing their cityscapes to be populated with statues dedicated to the defenders of the enslavement of African Americans. However, I often think on the fact that while 80,000 people a year take the slavery tour at Monticello, 5 million visit the Confederate Disneyland that is Stone Mountain, where the engraved figures of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis are animated each night in a laser light show projected on a mountain where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn at the start of the 20th Century. Clint Smith’s well-written page-turner is a corrective. Read the Full Review

Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee’s Army after Appomattox by Caroline E. Janney University of North Carolina Press (2021)

Have you ever wondered what exactly happened to Robert E. Lee’s men after Appomattox? Most of us know about the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and a lot of us know at least a little about what happened after the paroled Confederates got home. But how much do you know about what happened in between? This book by historian Caroline Janney tells us the “in between” story.

When Lee got to Appomattox and found his way blocked by Union troops on April 9, 1865 he parlayed with Ulysses S. Grant for his surrender. Lee’s move from Petersburg to Appomattox is often seen as a long retreat, but in fact Lee was trying to break out of the Union army’s grip and move his men south to unite with Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina. Lee had started with 60,000 men in the Petersburg and Richmond defenses and by April 9, he had only 28,000 left only a week later. While thousands of Confederates had been captured or killed, about 17,000 men from the Army of Northern Virginia were simply not at Appomattox when the surrender took place. Some had deserted and headed home, others joined marauding bands of outlaws that victimized Virginia civilians, and still others had left Lee’s army in the hopes of continuing resistance to the United States army by joining Joe Johnston’s force or by heading west to the Shenandoah Valley. This book tells the story of those who surrendered on April 9 and those who did not.

Ulysses S. Grant offered Lee uniquely generous terms for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia:

The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

The surrender did not end the war, of course. There were still other large Confederate armies in the field carrying on the armed struggle to prevent the reunification of the United States and Union soldiers would continue dying for weeks. 

It was not uncommon for captured rebels at the end of a civil conflict to be imprisoned for a time or even for some to be executed. Six years after Appomattox, the suppression of the Paris Commune uprising led to summary executions of scores of Communards, the imprisonment of nearly 16,000 and the exile of more than four thousand. Grant’s terms avoided retribution. Lee’s men would not be killed or sent to camps. Instead they would receive a parole, giving them a legal status similar to that of a prisoner of war but allowing them to “return to their homes.” Given the destitute state of the Confederates, Grant even allowed the Confederates to be fed at Federal expense and to travel for free on Union trains and steam ships.

Grant’s generosity did not meet the expectations of some Confederates. Edward A. Moore of the Rockbridge Artillery wrote, according to Caroline Janney, that Moore believed that:

“after an ordeal of mortifying exposure for the gratification of the military,” they would be “paraded through Northern cities for the benefit of jeering crowds” before being sent to prison camps. [p. 17]

Instead they were to be treated respectfully. Grant saw the treatment of the new prisoners as  a path forward towards binding up the wounds of the country, and avoiding the horrors of a prolonged guerilla war. Rather than simply disband the Confederate army and either sending the men home as individuals or march them south under Union guard, Grant allowed them to march home unguarded in units under their old officers.

Grant showed forethought in the terms of surrender, but things could have played out differently. Confederate General Thomas Rosser had escaped capture and had announced that he was now in command of the Army of Northern Virginia and he called on the soldiers of that army to join him and continue the fight. Other Confederates showed up at Joe Johnston’s headquarters to join the old Army of Tennessee, only to find that Johnston subjected them to a legal inquiry into whether they were included in Lee’s surrender. If the answer was yes, they were turned away.

To Grant’s surprise, hundreds of Confederates headed north after the surrender. Some were heading home. They were men from the Border States of Maryland and West Virginia who had joined the Confederacy. Others went north hoping to explore opportunities there while the Federal government paid for their food and transportation costs. Still others hoped to leave the United States through ports like New York for the last outpost of slavery in Brazil.

The Ends of War explores a moment between the Civil War and Reconstruction that few students of the period really know well. Janney pays a lot of attention to details of the surrender, the journeys home, and the resistance to surrender using the stories of individual Confederate soldiers to illustrate broader trends. Even those familiar with recent scholarship on the end of the war by historians like Elizabeth Varon and Greg Downs will find something new here. I think most of my readers will enjoy this new book. Read the Full Review

The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight Over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction by William A Blair published by University of North Carolina Press (2021)

One frustrating thing in researching the Reconstruction Era is the question of the trustworthiness of accounts and statistics about human rights abuses. Reports in newspapers can sound authoritative, but they often lack even the basic indicia of reliability of a named reporter quoting named sources. A newspaper article may say conclusively that a killing took place and that a particular person is suspected of having carried it out, but the unnamed writer does not give a clue as to where he got his information from. Not so with reports from the Freedmen’s Bureau. These were filed by agents of the Bureau whose names appear on the reports. They often say what the source of the information was, and offer an assessment of reliability.

The author, William Blair, uses as his starting point in his examination of the Freedmen’s Bureau documentation of human rights abuses a compilation of instances of anti-Black terrorism entitled “Records Relating to Murders and Outrages.” This Record would be used by Radical Republicans to expose the lie promulgated by the Andrew Johnson Administration that white former Confederates could be entrusted with the futures of the disenfranchised former slaves living in the South. According to Blair:

In an effort to produce unmistakable evidence, officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau stationed in Southern communities after the Civil War documented racial violence to show that former rebels persecuted freedpeople and white Republicans through terrorism. Without the knowledge of President Andrew Johnson, they began to collect the data and eventually leaked it to Radicals in the Senate. Their efforts contradicted Johnson’s policies and supported passage of legislation for military rule of the South. [pp. 2-3]

Of course, the Record was a cooperative effort of Bureau staff and the Black people who risked their lives to provide testimony. As Blair notes, “White supremacists resented the Freedmen’s Bureau in their communities and used all forms of intimidation, including murder, to prevent African Americans from testifying about the injustice they faced.” [p. 3] As one Bureau report noted “The offices of the bureau were thronged day after day from dawn till dark by the victims of these wrongs, many of them having travelled on foot several days to find a friend who would defend and protect them.” [p. 36] Some of the “outrages” recorded in the reports were inflicted on African Americans who had given testimony of earlier “outrages” to the Bureau.

As someone who has produced raw data for human rights reports, I found this book a fascinating look at some of the earliest such reporting by a United States government agency. Unfortunately, at only 138 pages of text, many of which set the historical context of the reporting, I found that the treatment of the processes of testimony collection as well as the selection process for what got in the reports was less thoroughly developed than I would have liked. 

Those unfamiliar with the Freedmen’s Bureau records will find this book a useful introduction to the uncovering of “murders and outrages.” Read the Full Review

Buying and Selling Civil War Memory in Gilded Age America Edited by James Marten and Caroline E. Janney published by University of Georgia Press (2021)

Historical memory is often created under the influence of commercial opportunism. Publishers, patent medicine manufacturers, clothing makers, and tobacco companies, among many others, saw opportunities to make money by tying in their products to the Civil War brand in the first decades after Reconstruction. The memory of the war that was pedaled sometimes had more to do with what would sell than with any recognizable set of facts.

This new volume of essays edited by James Marten and Caroline E. Janney examines the ways that Gilded Age capitalists marketed their products using the emotional pull of the Civil War to get customers in the door. In our own age of product placement and “social media influencers” we can recognize the impulse to make a buck off of associational marketing, even if the methods seem primitive.

One manufacturer that may have used the Civil War tie-in to kill more people than the war itself was the Duke Tobacco Company. J.B. Duke turned his company selling the “noxious weed” into the industry powerhouse through slick marketing and predatory monopolistic practices. By 1889, 40% of all cigarettes sold in the United States were made by Duke. In the late 1880s, the news of famous Civil War generals’ deaths began to fill the newspapers, and a new nostalgia for the fading war era took hold in the United States. Duke stepped in to market its cigarettes wrapped in that nostalgia. Natalie Sweet writes in her essay that:

Duke capitalized on Civil War nostalgia and the spirit of national reconciliation as a marketing tool by featuring portraits and histories of Civil War generals in cigarette package inserts. These capitalized on moralistic tales of wartime heroism that also took an ecumenical approach.

Baseball card collectors know that their hobby got its start in the trading cards put into cigarette packs as an addictive premium to foster an addiction to nicotine. These were the forerunner of the baseball cards. 

J.B. Duke’s father, Washington Duke, had founded the company. A Confederate veteran, Washington might have been expected to only want generals in gray to appear in the trading card series, but instead the company tried to balance Union and Confederate “Heroes.” The Reconciliationist brand of Civil War memory was taking hold of the generation born after the war, replacing the animosities of those who suffered through the war themselves. Younger Americans were looking for stories of bravery on both sides, and Duke wanted to market tobacco to New York as much as to Richmond. The company had pioneered the trading cards earlier by putting in cards of attractive young women, but these were met with a backlash by religious-minded folks who thought that such images would lead young men astray! The same people did not seem worried about young men ruining their health by smoking or about the glorification of war! It was an age when sex was seen as more dangerous than cancer or military carnage.

The girly trading cards had been aimed at increasing tobacco use among adolescent boys, and when it was abandoned, cards about military glory seemed like a good replacement. The Civil War Generals series differed from the cards showing comely women because they folded out to tell the life story of the generals depicted. Using the latest printing technology, the cards depicted the generals and scenes from the war in color. Twenty-five Union and twenty-five Confederate military leaders were the subjects of the cards. While all of the usual suspects were included like Grant, Lee, and Sherman, a number of less widely known figures also appeared. For example, Franz Sigel had his own card. Braxton Bragg might seem an unlikely trading card subject, but at least his card noted that he seemed “to have outlived [his] fame and usefulness.”

Natalie Sweet’s essay opens a window on one way that the story of the Civil War was passed on to millions of young Americans. Men not likely to read a history book collected the cards and learned about the past from that most trustworthy of sources, a tobacco monopoly.

John Neff has an essay on something well-known to many of my readers, the entrepreneurial chopping up of Richmond’s Libby Prison in order to move it to Chicago as a tourist attraction. Neff tells the story of failed attempts to move Libby, culminating in a successful effort in 1889. Coinciding with the World Columbian Exposition Fair in 1892, hundreds of thousands of visitors plunked down what would be the equivalent of ten bucks to entertain themselves in what had been a house of suffering. After the World’s Fair closed, the site became quieter, but it remained unexpectedly popular with veterans.

While most of the topics covered in the book are just wisps of memory now, the last chapter deals with a topic that any real Civil War tourist today has encountered; the Cyclorama. While only the Atlanta and Gettysburg cycloramas are still on display, in the late 19th Century, more than a dozen dotted the land. Some rose to become major tourist attractions, while others were fated for financial failure. Caroline Janney provides an entertaining history of the Civil War Cyclorama craze, as well as its collapse as a money-maker. The fact that the two surviving examples can only be seen at not for profit institutions says a lot about the limited marketability of the Civil War brand in the decades after the war.

While the book does not offer an overview of the influence of the marketed Civil War on modern understanding of the conflict, it does provide insights into the commercialized sphere of history during the Gilded Age. Read the Full Review Here

Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reconstruction and Its Meanings 150 Years Later edited by Adam Domby and Simon Lewis, Published by Fordham University Press (2022)

Freedoms Gained and Lost is a collection of essays that moves away from the contradictory notions that Reconstruction was a failure from the start or that African Americans followed a steady march from slavery to freedom (“From Civil War to Civil Rights”). According to the editors, the book’s “unifying theme is the expansion and contraction of the many and varied manifestations and meanings of freedom,” as well as the gaps between the legal gains of Black people and how their lives were actually lived.

Editors Domby and Lewis write that there is a “unique degree of historical misunderstanding of Reconstruction.” They say that “The persistence of the misunderstanding of Reconstruction matters a great deal more than as a historiographical debate, however. Its pertinence to understandings of race and citizenship in the contemporary United States has profound implications.” They note that prominent politicians, including Hillary Clinton, show a shocking misunderstanding of Reconstruction. The fundamental issue during Reconstruction was freedom, who had it, and how it could be taken away. Most Blacks began Reconstruction unfree. What freedom would come to mean to them is central to many of the essays in this book. So is how it was violently destroyed.

Hilary Green writes about the importance of education to African American communities’ understanding of what being free meant. For generations, Blacks had been barred from learning to read and write. During Reconstruction, they became the leading advocates for the establishment of universal public education. Green tells the story of Black education in Mobile, Alabama during this period. Schools were a primary target of White terror groups because they were such key bastions of Black freedom.

Another symbol of change was the Black cop. In Charleston and New Orleans, Black police officers meant that the armed might of the government was no longer solely on the side of the White man. Samuel Watts describes how officers of color altered the forces they joined and the relations of civilians to them.  As the embodiment of government power, the Black officer “interpreted, performed, and enforced their own visions of radical equality and Reconstruction.” Many whites were outraged that the police no longer forced African Americans to show deference to whites. The participation of white officers in anti-Reconstruction violence led military commanders like Phil Sheridan to demand that these allies of the Klan be removed. This in turn opened up more positions to Black men. By 1870, 28% of New Orleans’ police were Black. By the 1870s, African Americans had risen to positions of command in the two city departments.

Holly Pinheiro has a chapter on Black soldiers from the North. While most joined to free Blacks in the South, some found their own lot harmed while in the army because of discrimination or for legal action taken against them. And of course there was the unconscionable discrimination in soldiers’ pay between white and black in the Union Army. Pinheiro writes: “Realizing that race determined their rate of pay, USCT soldiers rapidly became aware of the bitter irony that their actions as emancipators actually jeopardized their own immediate families’ finances and undermined their claims to equality.”

Other chapters look at the veterans of the Confederate armies. While most former Confederates willing to take a loyalty oath lost few civil rights for their participation in a deadly insurgency, high-ranking Confederates often faced civic disabilities for which they applied for amnesty. The administration of these amnesties gets a chapter of its own, one which looks at General James Longstreet as an applicant for forgiveness. Many Black leaders supported the granting of amnesty to all Confederates who accepted the civic equality of Blacks. They would soon learn that some Confederate officers were willing to lie on the Bible that they would support Black suffrage while secretly plotting to take the civil rights of non-whites away.

Professor Don Doyle has one of several essays on the international dimensions of Reconstruction. These included the French imperial invasion of Mexico, where Grant, Sheridan, and Seward skillfully limited French success. The quick march from Black enslavement to citizenship and voting during Reconstruction, inspired Cuban Liberals who hoped to free a country that still had slavery. The breakdown of the British colonial structures in Canada accelerated in reaction to Reconstruction, helping to create the modern Canadian state.  Doyle argues that Reconstruction left the United States stronger on the world stage as it led to the decline of European imperialist powers in the Western Hemisphere.

Adam Domby writes about the restoration of white rule, and the erasure of the Black history of Reconstruction that followed. Ignoring the gains of Reconstruction and blaming all of its problems on Black voters allowed the Redeemers to anoint the White Race as the region’s natural ruler, with the Black Race as a permanently subordinate sub-class. According to Domby:

“…the version of the past enshrined by former Confederates justified disenfranchisement of African Americans as the solution to racial problems. The story went that there had not been racial strife during antebellum times (a false understanding of the past) and that “the natural order of things”—that is, whites on top—left everyone happy. Only during Reconstruction had race relations been harmed, Confederate veterans claimed, so a disenfranchisement of Black southerners was simply a return to the “natural order of things” and was best for all. This depiction of Reconstruction was a fundamental part of the Lost Cause narrative.” (p. 233)

Most of my readers will find this a challenging work based on the latest scholarship that helps break apart some misunderstandings of Reconstruction. Read the Full Review

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4 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Excellent Recent Books on Reconstruction

  1. Tim Talbott says:

    Thank you for compiling these for us. Great work!

  2. I’ve got a few more books to add to my wish list. Thanks!

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