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Allen C. Guelzo

Reconstruction Reappraised

Don't skip the chapter after the Civil War.

For over a century, the era of Reconstruction was the unwanted child of American history. By contrast with the drama and nobility of the Civil War, the dozen years between Appomattox and the final decision to withdraw federal occupation troops from the former Confederacy in 1877 looked like a confused tale of disillusion, corruption, blasted hopes, and a resigned descent into failure, populated with some of the least-appealing neanderthals in American political history. The first great academic survey of the Civil War era, James Ford Rhodes' History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, pictured Reconstruction as a political moonscape where "the ignorant negroes, the knavish white natives and the vulturous adventurers who flocked from the North" disported themselves, and the college textbook that ruled the middle of the 20th century—James Garfield Randall's Civil War and Reconstruction—instructed its legions of undergraduate readers to regard Reconstruction as a Radical Republican "racket." Lincoln hoped at Gettysburg that the dead of the war had not died in vain. Reconstruction seemed to suggest that this was precisely what they had done.

But the notion that Reconstruction was a terrible mistake, a rape of the South by the unscrupulous and the vengeful that could only be redressed by letting Southerners have control of their own lives again, met with serious questioning of its own in the 1950s. The Montgomery bus boycott, the overturning of Jim Crow public education by Brown v. Board of Education, and the civil rights movement which sprang from both, squeezed from the white South the same complaints about Northern agitators, the incapacities of blacks for full civil equality, and the need to let the South take its own slow and gradual path that had been heard in Reconstruction. Only now, the complaints were coming from the likes of Bull Connor and George Wallace, and the agitation was coming from Martin Luther King, and suddenly the juxtaposition ...

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