Getting Reconstruction Right

This semester, I’m teaching my Civil War and Reconstruction course; it’s one of my favorite courses to teach, but it’s also a course that I always finish with a feeling of vague dissatisfaction. It’s not that the course doesn’t go well, or that my students don’t do good work or engage with the material and each other. But I never feel like I get Reconstruction “quite right.” Over the years, my course design has increasingly embraced the “and Reconstruction” part of the course title. The more scholarly work I’ve done, the more I’ve become convinced that we need to pay much more attention pedagogically to Reconstruction. But the longer I teach, the more I’ve realized this is far easier said than done.

The current political climate has added a sharper edge to my discontent. There are so many points of resonance between Reconstruction and today’s socio-political landscape: white supremacist violence, electoral malfeasance and disfranchisement, and federal and state legislative majorities who actively war against civil rights rather than support them. I don’t believe that history repeats itself, but (with apologies to Mark Twain) I do think it can rhyme from time to time. And this is one of those times. How can we not see the parallels with Reconstruction? And, more importantly, how can we not see how Reconstruction ultimately failed–that it died from the racist cancer that metastasized from within–and see it as a warning? There’s a reason the Rev. William Barber II sees today’s struggle as “the birth pangs of a Third Reconstruction”: the first two (the post-Civil War years and then again in the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s) left incomplete legacies that were–as it turns out–much easier to dismantle than we once thought.

It’s in respect to that dismantling, I think, that we can be better-served by a new pedagogical approach to the original era of Reconstruction. Maybe the reason our larger society doesn’t grasp the parallels between that period and now is one borne out of ignorance, of omission, rather than hostility. I would submit that, in the American cultural landscape, the common view of Reconstruction is something akin to the way it’s treated in Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary. We have a vague sense that Reconstruction happened, that the Civil War ended and things needed to be done, but the end of the war itself was what placed the US on a trajectory of increased freedom and unity. Yes, things were awful, slavery was bad, the war was violent–but now Lee surrendered, the Union was restored, and now American progress could continue after this unfortunate hiccup. Cue the lilting strains of “Ashokan Farewell” and look at pictures of grizzled Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands at Gettysburg. See? Everything got better.

Of course, we know that it didn’t. We know, for example, that for many of the freedmen and freedwomen of the South, things either stayed the same, or got worse. Waves of post-emancipation racial terrorism were only the most visible reminder that the definition of “freedom” was a narrow one indeed when it came to African Americans; freedom, in this case, simply meant “not formally enslaved.” The arc of the universe did not seem to bend towards justice for many Americans after 1865; for freedpeople and Native Americans, the arc of their universe bent towards violence, the persistence of slave-like regimes, and genocide. How do we, as historians and teachers, better tell that story? How do we get our students to move past the American-history-as-progress narrative? The scholarship on Reconstruction has been rich, varied, and urgent for the last several decades. But the popular understanding of Reconstruction seems like it’s stuck in the consensus school of historiography. Where does this gap between our scholarly understanding and the popular conception of Reconstruction come from?

I’m beginning to suspect that part of the answer to this conundrum may lie in the way that Reconstruction is presented in high school and college-level History courses (particularly, but not exclusively, the survey course) and the materials which commonly accompany them. 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’m also becoming more convinced that the standard textbook representation of Reconstruction does us no favors, either. (I should note that, as one working on textbook projects myself, that I understand how the imperatives of this genre can decisively shape how scholars present the past.) We have, for the late 19th century, a typical set of chapters: There’s the Reconstruction chapter, the trans-Mississippi West chapter, the urbanization and immigration chapter, the Gilded Age politics chapter, and then we’re on to imperialism and the twentieth century. This segmented approach to the era has the advantage of topical coherence, but I wonder if we lose something vital by confining the material to thematic silos. In particular, are we implicitly telling students that Reconstruction “ended” with the end of that chapter (1877 in most cases)? If we are, and we’re not taking extra care to demonstrate how the issues central to Reconstruction–race, violence, and power–continued to shape the historical development of the US in the late 1800s, then we might be contributing to the historical amnesia that seems to plague the contemporary understanding of the era.

What if we tried something radically different? What if we, for example, talked about Reconstruction not as a specifically-defined period from 1865-1877 but as further steps in the twin processes of territorial expansion and settler-colonial violence that had unfolded throughout the late 1700s and antebellum era? Doing this would allow us to see the post-Civil War efforts at reunion and defining the meanings of emancipation unfolding simultaneously with the “Indian Wars” and removal policies that reshaped the continental landscape. This would also have the advantage of disrupting students’ perception of the Civil War as some sort of dramatic end point (or at least turning point); seen from this vantage, the war was merely a brief interruption of longer-term historical processes which would continue apace after 1865. Or, what if we followed the example of Gregory Downs and redefined the postwar years as an era, not of “reconstruction,” but of a new phase of warfare? The “conventional” Civil War may have ended in 1865, but as Downs makes clear, we could most certainly see an “insurgency” that continued until at least the early 1870s. This approach would have the advantage of helping students see anti-black violence as both racist terrorism and anti-government insurgency, a new phase of the southern white rebellion, which is arguably how the Grant administration saw things. Most essentially, seeing the Civil War as a longer military-then-insurgency conflict would force all of us to push back against the teleological view of this era that so often confounds our deeper understanding of it. Reconstruction, in this sense, wasn’t the story of progress tragically interrupted, but of both progression and regression, of reform and violent resistance, of the limits of democracy in a herrenvolk society.

What both of these re-visionings share is their disruption of the things-always-get-better narrative that lies at the root of the “American exceptionalism” approach–an approach that does much to prevent a deeper understanding and meaningful, honest reckoning with United States history. The US Civil War and its aftermath, it turns out, might have things in common with other societies that experienced similar upheavals. The violent white resistance that overcame initial efforts at making the promises of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution applicable to all Americans was not an aberration, but part of a larger pattern. The racism and violent attempts to restrict the meanings of “American” and “citizen” we wrestle with today did not appear out of nothing; they are the products on historical choices and events that we only incompletely understand as a society.

For revising our approaches to teaching Reconstruction, as the saying goes, “I’m just spitballing here.” The above are two areas in which I’m revising my own pedagogical approach to the post-Civil War era. There are a number of additional ways in which we might conceive the teaching of Reconstruction anew; I’m sure that many out there are already doing so. It’s something we need to engage, as teachers of US history. We aren’t seeing a wave of 150-year commemorations for Reconstruction. There aren’t many (if any) national parks and monuments and museums which engage this era. But Reconstruction’s importance–and, more specifically, the importance of a renewed teaching emphasis for Reconstruction–has become abundantly evident. Our roles as teachers of US history uniquely position us to have a positive effect on subsequent generations’ understanding and perception of this complicated period. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity with which we are currently presented, and work for a meaningful and honest engagement with the American past, even in its most complicated and violent aspects.


5 thoughts on “Getting Reconstruction Right

  1. I wonder if it’s time to drop the tradition of the 2-semester sequence, especially the break at 1865 (or 1877, etc.) in US history? (Full Disclosure: I’m an Asianist and World History teacher, so it’s not my field or teaching responsibility; I’m just thinking historiographically here) In my own course designs, I try to avoid breaking at dramatic junctures precisely because it makes it harder for students to understand the cause-and-effect process and the relationship between events and processes.

    My Asian history courses mostly break at 1700, precisely because no ‘great events’ are happening around that point, so the classical age gets to come to full flower in the first half survey, and the disjunctures of modernity are in the context of a fully-developed, not pathologized, traditional culture in the second.

    In the case of the US survey, I would think a course that took the 19th century as a whole would be more historically coherent.

    • My department actually uses a 3-semester survey sequence for both our US and World history courses, and a 19th-c survey does work better, as you suggest. The problem we have is diluted enrollments arising from this model, so challenges of a different sort to work through.

      • I would expect resistance from our secondary ed majors, too, were we to make that change and require them to take 3 US surveys instead of 2, (Like I said, not my bailiwick) but I think it would still be worthwhile.
        I run into problems in my Asian surveys because none of the standard textbooks take 1700 as a break point. Of course, textbooks have their own issues, but not having one is also a choice…

        • Yeah, we ended up having to compromise and require 2 out of 3 for each survey. I understand now how curriculum design is as much the art of the possible as it is anything else.

  2. Pingback: Stopping Reconstruction from falling through the cracks | Past in the Present

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