Reconstruction, the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, was one of the most revolutionary episodes in American history. The war had opened the door to far-reaching changes in American society. In the twelve years that followed the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, the United States pursued some of its noblest values and committed some of its darkest betrayals. By the end of Reconstruction, the federal government and its citizenry, in both the North and the South, would be forever transformed. The legacy of Reconstruction would be debated for over a century, until the Civil Rights Movement set out to finish what Reconstruction had begun.
If you care about the Civil Rights Movement, you should care about Reconstruction. If you are concerned with racial equality in America, you need to study Reconstruction. If you have ever been curious about the history behind the current debate over the role of the federal government in people's lives, then this is the chapter of history for you.
Reconstruction was a truly revolutionary time. It was the sort of experiment in expanded federal authority and intervention that could only have come after a cataclysmic war; at least, that was true in the nineteenth century. Just imagine it: four million people, suddenly freed from the chains of bondage, walking around amidst the ruins of the South and still interacting with the people who used to own them, who used to whip them or sell their relatives down the river if they chose. Under slavery, racial boundaries had been clearly established. Now the question on everyone's mind was: "How free is free?" That turned out to be an extremely difficult and complex question. One historian—Leon F. Litwack—won a Pulitzer Prize for the 600 pages he took to try and explain it, and even then he said his answer only began to suggest the challenges inherent in the idea. We will give that question and a few others our very best shot here—in considerably fewer than 600 pages. What happened when freedom suddenly came to four million people, and what did that mean?
This is a story about federal, state, and local governments; about presidents and sheriffs; about northerners and southerners, terrorists and liberated slaves, and blacks and whites and mulattoes. This is a story about the everyday people on the ground whose names are mostly lost to history, and about the prominent legislators and journalists who were and are more well-known. It encompasses politics, society, gender, economics, and constitutional law. It involves the confrontation between black hopes and white values that structured the Reconstruction period. It details the process by which this country sought to put itself back together again. It is not simple, but the most important stories seldom are. What they are, is worth reading.