Book Review: Reconstruction Beyond 150: Reassessing the New Birth of Freedom

Reconstruction Beyond 150: Reassessing the New Birth of Freedom. Ed. by Orville Vernon Burton and J. Brent Morris. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2023. Softcover, 300 pp. $34.50.

Reviewed by David T. Dixon

The Civil War ranks as a seminal event in American history, but the decades immediately following the war, popularly known as Reconstruction, determined many of its outcomes and legacies. The Union may have won the military war against the Confederacy, but as Heather Cox Richardson and other scholars contend, the slaveholding South won the battle for Civil War memory.[i] Lost Cause mythology prevailed in schools and universities across America well into the first half of the twentieth century. Columbia University professor William A. Dunning and his followers sympathized with Southerners who resisted Radical Reconstruction and used violence to restore white supremacy and “redeem” postwar Republican governments from what they saw as corruption and illegitimate rule.[ii] To many twentieth century Americans, Reconstruction was a tragic mistake, a story told almost exclusively from a white Southern perspective.

Orville Burton and Brent Morris, professors of history at Clemson University, bring students of Reconstruction a collection of fourteen essays that challenge paradigms and broaden our understanding by tackling uncomfortable facts, unresolved issues, and “moral questions at the heart of our society” (3). The book’s diverse range of articles and use of interdisciplinary methodology is both a strength and a weakness. While serious students will applaud the innovation and insights, Civil War enthusiasts may find some pieces esoteric or discursive. The focus here is serious scholarship, offering new lines of inquiry and fresh approaches to the growing body of work on this period.

Essays range from nineteenth century divorce in Black communities, to sectional politics surrounding the 1876 Centennial Exposition, to Mark Twain as a mirror of public opinion, for example, however four pieces stand out. Peter Wallenstein makes a convincing case for extending the traditional 1877 end date of Reconstruction, citing evidence of state and local electoral success among Black politicians throughout the South well into the 1890s (83—104). Mari Crabtree’s “Lynching in the American Imagination” urges colleagues to join her in an “historiographical intervention” that recognizes racialized violence as “intrinsic to the United States;” (120) a performative ritual that reinforced white supremacy from colonial times through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and beyond.

Another call for historiographical revision comes from Garry Bertholf and Marina Bilbija, literary scholars who argue that W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic Black Reconstruction has been marginalized by historians who continue to write the history of the Civil War and its aftermath from a white perspective. The authors claim that institutional racism is pervasive through most social science disciplines, highlighting the failure to cite Black radicals like Du Bois as just one of many examples.

Burton and Morris conclude their volume with a provocative essay, “Killing Calvin Crozier: Honor, Myth, and Military Occupation after Appomattox,” by Lawrence McDonnell. His first sentence jars the reader to attention: “White Lies Matter.” (264) Like a skilled criminal investigator, McDonnell conducts a forensic examination of circumstances surrounding the execution of a former Kentucky Confederate cavalry private by soldiers of the Thirty-Third U.S. Colored Troops on September 8, 1865. Stripping the event of its thick accretion of mythology and outright fabrication, the author uses primary sources to discern the truth. He highlights how opponents of Radical Reconstruction transformed a violent Rebel intransient into a Lost Cause folk hero, “piling exaggeration, conjecture and racism into a monument of lies” that persists among neo-Confederates to this day. McDonnell ends his exposé the way he began it, suggesting that “white lies and dark truths can address big questions only if we will read the record clear.” (281)

Reconstruction Beyond 150 reminds us that historians play an important role in separating fact from fiction and giving voice to all historical actors. We must understand how past events can be misinterpreted using present-day political agendas. If that agenda involves creating false narratives, historians have an ethical duty to call them out as such. We need more bold scholars, like those included in this essay collection, to confront controversial topics and challenge conventional wisdom. Revision not to create political division, but to correct and enhance our retrospective historical vision.


[i] Heather Cox Richardson, How the South Won the Civil War (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2020).

[ii] William A. Dunning, Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1863—1877 (New York: Harper and Bros., 1907).

2 Responses to Book Review: Reconstruction Beyond 150: Reassessing the New Birth of Freedom

  1. Unfortunately, “bold scholars” today are essentially the “conventional wisdom”, equally guilty of pushing a “political agenda”. One example is the cited authors claiming DuBois history of Reconstruction was “marginalized” (Oooo, that word) by “institutional racism” (Oooo, that phrase). Considering that in my CW course at Centre College in Ky we discussed DuBois in 1973, I find that chunk of wisdom difficult to digest. I was pleased to note the article on continuing black political agency and success late into Post-Reconstruction period, often in the face of violence.

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