Often eclipsed by the incredible drama of the Civil War is the equally incredible drama of Reconstruction. Perhaps because it ultimately failed, perhaps because Northerners and the federal government ultimately walked away from the challenge of facilitating the slaves' transition to freedom, this episode is often just a footnote in our study of the war. But as we emphasize in "So What," this was an huge moment in our history—four million people suddenly released from bondage, the social, economic, and political status of one-third of the South's entire population radically transformed. One of your first challenges will be helping your students understand the dimensions of this moment.
The challenges were overwhelming, especially for federal officials accustomed to thinking in more simple terms about the role of government. Yet we suggest that while you acknowledge the unprecedented nature of the demands, you encourage your students to explore approaches that were not pursued. Could American history have been different had more ambitious Reconstruction policies been enacted? Did federal officials miss an opportunity when they abandoned some of the more innovative land redistribution schemes introduced in the last stages of the war?