The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era

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Overview

By 1870, just five years after Confederate surrender and thirteen years after the Dred Scott decision ruled blacks ineligible for citizenship, Congressional action had ended slavery and given the vote to black men. That same year, Hiram Revels and Joseph Hayne Rainey became the first African-American U.S. senator and congressman respectively. In South Carolina, only twenty years after the death of arch-secessionist John C. Calhoun, a black man, Jasper J. Wright, took a seat on the state’s Supreme Court. Not even ...

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The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era

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Overview

By 1870, just five years after Confederate surrender and thirteen years after the Dred Scott decision ruled blacks ineligible for citizenship, Congressional action had ended slavery and given the vote to black men. That same year, Hiram Revels and Joseph Hayne Rainey became the first African-American U.S. senator and congressman respectively. In South Carolina, only twenty years after the death of arch-secessionist John C. Calhoun, a black man, Jasper J. Wright, took a seat on the state’s Supreme Court. Not even the most optimistic abolitionists had thought such milestones would occur in their lifetimes. The brief years of Reconstruction marked the United States’ most progressive moment prior to the civil rights movement.

Previous histories of Reconstruction have focused on Washington politics. But in this sweeping, prodigiously researched narrative, Douglas Egerton brings a much bigger, even more dramatic story into view, exploring state and local politics and tracing the struggles of some fifteen hundred African-American officeholders, in both the North and South, who fought entrenched white resistance. Tragically, their movement was met by ruthless violence—not just riotous mobs, but also targeted assassination. With stark evidence, Egerton shows that Reconstruction, often cast as a “failure” or a doomed experiment, was rolled back by murderous force. The Wars of Reconstruction is a major and provocative contribution to American history.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Eric Foner
For much of the past century, historians portrayed Reconstruction as a time of corruption and misgovernment, the lowest point in the saga of American democracy…This interpretation has long since been abandoned by historians, who now see Reconstruction as a laudable, if flawed, effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery. But the old view retains a remarkable hold on the popular imagination…This is unfortunate, because understanding issues that continue to roil American politics—the definition of citizenship, the meaning of equality, the relative powers of the national and state governments—requires knowledge of Reconstruction. For this reason alone, the appearance of Douglas R. Egerton's The Wars of Reconstruction is especially welcome. The book offers little that will surprise scholars of the period, but its dramatic account will challenge and enlighten those who still cling to the older outlook…Drawing on an array of scholarly monographs, local newspapers and other sources, Egerton paints a dramatic portrait of on-the-ground struggles for equality in an era of great hope and brutal disappointment.
Publishers Weekly
11/11/2013
In this challenging history of America’s first age of “progressive reform,” Egerton, a professor of history at Le Moyne College, argues that the era of Reconstruction constituted the “most democratic” decades of the 19th century. Following the wartime contributions of African-American soldiers who “learned to march and read at the same time,” came demands for suffrage and equality. The result is a chaotic nation reshaped by political activism, land reclamation, the reuniting of freed families, the creation of new unions and banking institutions, and, especially, the establishment of educational opportunities for African-Americans—a community that “everywhere emphasized cooperation” in the post-bellum period. These triumphs and the subsequent setbacks under Andrew Johnson’s watch, followed by a “spike in white vigilantism” and local “political assassinations,” are captured vividly through extensive use of primary source material. Key figures develop into rich characters, balancing Egerton’s own objective, wide-seeing perspective, which even explores the revisionist Reconstruction histories that informed the American consciousness, particularly the pernicious effects of influential racist cinema. All told, Egerton’s study is an adept exploration of a past era of monumental relevance to the present and is recommended for any student of political conflict, social upheaval, and the perennial struggle against oppression. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"The history of [the] era [of Reconstruction] has rarely if ever been as well told as it is in Douglas R. Egerton's forcefully argued and crisply written The Wars of Reconstruction. Mr. Egerton presents a sometimes inspiring but more often deeply shocking story that reveals the nation at its best and worst…Mr. Egerton's prose…is readable and compelling...He moves his narrative forward with a fine eye for the drama of events, offering a chorus of contemporary voices along the way: those of ex-slaves, war veterans, do-gooders, opportunists, educators, churchmen and politicians of every stripe, among them defenders of racial privilege. He includes as well ex-Confederates such as the politically courageous James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee's senior corps commander, who after the war became a Republican and embraced biracial reform, and Northern black crusaders such as Octavius Catto of Philadelphia, who helped make the assertion of civil rights a national cause. Collectively these figures, speaking to us amid Mr. Egerton's always acute presentation of the intricacies of federal and state politics, bring to life the war that was taking place not just in the halls of government but also deep in the small towns, red-dirt hamlets and cotton fields, where the bloodiest combat of Reconstruction took place." –Wall Street Journal

"The Wars of Reconstruction is one of the best and most readable studies of that era to appear in many years. Its emphasis on the active role that African Americans played in this crucial period is especially welcome. Douglas Egerton has given us another gripping, thoughtful, and deeply researched book about slavery and the fight for freedom." –Bruce Levin, author of The Fallof the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South

 

"This is a very "Du Boisian" work, sharing the great scholar's view that  Reconstruction wasn't just about rebuilding the Southern economy, but  reconstructing democracy throughout the US. Recounting Northern blacks'  struggles for voting rights and the national quest for universal public  education bolsters Du Bois's insight, as do sections assessing  Reconstruction in scholarly and popular memory. Through detailed  evaluations of officeholders and other activists, Egerton asserts that  Reconstruction was the most progressive era in US history. Proponents of  the 1960s and, especially, the New Deal may differ, but Egerton's  strong case stimulates debate. Summing Up: Recommended." – T. P. Johnson, University of Massachusetts, Boston, CHOICE

“Key figures develop into rich characters, balancing Egerton’s own objective, wide-seeing perspective, which even explores the revisionist Reconstruction histories that informed the American consciousness, particularly the pernicious effects of influential racist cinema. All told, Egerton’s study is an adept exploration of a past era of monumental relevance to the present and is recommended for any student of political conflict, social upheaval, and the perennial struggle against oppression.”– Publishers Weekly

 

"A richly detailed history…An illuminating view of an era whose reform spirit would live on in the 1960s civil rights movement." –Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-26
A richly detailed history of former slaves' rising to political involvement in the American South after the Civil War. Egerton (History/Le Moyne Coll.; Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War, 2010, etc.) recalls Reconstruction at the state and local levels, where thousands of black veterans, activists, ministers, assemblymen and others, with help from white allies, integrated streetcars and schools and ran for office in this "first progressive era in the nation's history." It was a remarkable time: Black voting and education surged across the South, and African-Americans held three of four congressional seats in South Carolina--the state most identified with slavery and secession. Many forces were at work: More than 175,000 African-Americans had served in the Union Army, and many became voters, activists, and eventually, state and federal officeholders. The federal Freedmen's Bureau sponsored hundreds of schools for freed children, and black churches became increasingly significant. For all that, the "window of enormous opportunity" for reform was lost, mainly due to inaction by Andrew Johnson, "a racist, accidental president," and whites' guerrilla war against black Republicans. As states passed black codes to stymie gains, whites torched interracial schools and churches, blaming Northern agitators for filling freedmen's heads with visions of equality. Egerton offers sharp sketches of freedmen, including Tunis Campbell, a black activist who supervised resettlement in Georgia; Oberlin-educated Blanche Kelso Bruce, who served as a U.S. senator from Mississippi; and war hero Robert Smalls, whose mistreatment on a Charleston streetcar prompted threats of a boycott of public transportation. He suggests that popular culture (Gone with the Wind, etc.) has sentimentalized the Old South and inaccurately portrayed Reconstruction as a vindictive, undemocratic period. An illuminating view of an era whose reform spirit would live on in the 1960s civil rights movement.
Library Journal
02/01/2014
The meaning of the American Civil War and Reconstruction has long been contested terrain. Egerton (history, LeMoyne Coll.; Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America) delineates the circumstances during and after the war that favored progress in black-white relations and in advancing the nation toward a more just and democratic society. His approach follows in the tradition of W.E.B. DuBois's classic Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (1935). Emphasizing action and reaction, Egerton situates Reconstruction's multifaceted promises over the tangled roots of conservative white racial supremacy and class lines that choked chances for either interracial accord or the growth of cooperative community. He explains how a broad spectrum of blacks and their dedicated white allies risked life and limb to advance their progressive cause only to be repulsed by vigilante white terrorism and the apathy and disdain of the nation's white majority. VERDICT Egerton's work joins scads of writing on Reconstruction but robustly updates much historiography as it focuses on the degree of Americans' commitment to practice the nation's foundational principle "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."—Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608195664
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 1/21/2014
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 116,435
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Douglas R. Egerton is a professor of history at LeMoyne College. He is the author of six books, including Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey, Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802, and Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America. He lives near Syracuse, New York.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2014

    Even to this day , I heard from my mother that a older women wh

    Even to this day , I heard from my mother that a older women who was living in the same Apartments who moved from a place that was socially sheltered . She was sitting with my mother and a few others. Then she motioned to a African American woman who was walking toward them . The woman sitting with them said "Does she live here? " others said "Yes she does" The woman said" why don't she go live with her own kind?" there are still strong racism people in 2014!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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