Study Guide

Reconstruction Introduction

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Reconstruction Introduction

When the Civil War ended, there was just a giant smoking crater where American society used to be. And that might be an understatement. 

3% of our total population died. Diseases like malaria, dysentery, and cholera spread like crazy. The economy tanked. Large sections of the South were under military occupation. 

Oh, and four million people were suddenly freed.

And that's why they call the period after the Civil War "Reconstruction"—we had a lot to reconstruct. We rebuilt ourselves, and the decisions we made changed the course of our national history. For like, ever. Some of those decisions were among the best, bravest, most what-took-you-so-long decisions we've ever made, like the radical notion that every person was entitled to freedom regardless of race. 

And some of those decisions—like Jim Crow and segregation—were among our worst.

Good, bad, and ugly, we can all agree that Reconstruction was a truly revolutionary time. It was our first grand experiment in expanded federal authority and intervention, a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement, and our first impeachment of a president. (High five, Andrew Johnson). It was the beginning of the Ku Klux Klan, but also the first time an African American was elected to office. 

It was the best of times, but honestly, it was mostly the worst of times.

In the 12 years that followed the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, the United States pursued some of its noblest values and committed some of its darkest betrayals. Black freedmen discovered that freedom didn't mean citizenship, and angry Southern whites pushed back against federal power. 

Yeah, there'll be some morality-judging going on in this guide, but hopefully, there will be more figuring-out-whys.

Brace yourselves: history is coming.

What is Reconstruction About and Why Should I Care?

If you care about the Civil Rights Movement, you should care about Reconstruction. If you're concerned with racial equality in America, you need to study Reconstruction. If you've 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've only come after a cataclysmic war. At least, that was true in the 19th 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'll give that question and a few others our very best shot here, though 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, 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's not simple, but the most important stories seldom are. What they are, is worth reading.

Reconstruction Resources


David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001)
Blight charts the course by which Southerners waged a "propaganda war" for the memory of Reconstruction and the Civil War. This is a thoroughly researched study on the conscious struggle to control collective memory, one fought by both Blacks and whites, but ultimately won by whites until the Civil Rights Movement and many would argue, beyond.

W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in America, 1860–1880 (1935)
Du Bois—the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University—sought to turn the dominant historiographical school on its head while using much of their research work for his own sources (as a Black man, he wasn't admitted into most manuscript archives at the time). The work weaves a credible narrative that presents Black people as human beings, neither inherently inferior nor superior, but exhibiting instances of intelligence as well as ignorance.

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (1988)
This renowned work introduces readers to a postwar era that greatly influenced both Blacks and whites by shaping racial attitudes that still affect our country today.

Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2003)
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize, this exhaustive study catalogs modern Black political traditions and communities as they emerged out of slavery. Hahn reinterprets traditional notions of what constitutes political involvement and action, and the result is a history that emphasizes the direct action and initiative of Black people, rather than their previous portrayals as submissive or dependent figures.

Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1979)
Litwack was one of the first historians to carefully examine the aftermath of the Civil War from a Black perspective, utilizing the invaluable interviews conducted by the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression, but also an exhaustive list of accounts from newspapers, letters, and transcribed testimony from both whites and Blacks.

Kenneth M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877 (1965)
This isn't a comprehensive work on the various aspects of Reconstruction, but it's a very good summary of the revisionist scholarship that approached the time period from a radically new perspective in the context of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. Stampp includes critiques of the old "Dunning school" of racist historiography, but also of the first revisionist, W.E.B. Du Bois.

Dorothy Sterling, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century (1984)
This is an impressive primary-source collection of diaries, oral histories, letters, and autobiographies of Black women from 1800 to the 1880s, compiled by the former curator of the Research Collection at Howard University.

C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951)
Vann Woodward charts the specific circumstances under which the southern states embarked on a radically new course of leadership, government, and social structure that ultimately coalesced into the modern South of the early-20th century. Yet he traces the significant commonalities between the states and their broader connections to the distribution of power in American government at all levels, as well as the influence of business interests and the propertied classes on the ultimate composition and orientation of Southern governments.


Chris Vallillo, Abraham Lincoln in Song (2007)
Contemporary roots singer-songwriter Chris Vallillo honors his fellow Illinois-ian as well as his state's deep musical traditions with this masterpiece of slide guitar twang and mesmerizing vocals.

Various Artists, Monarchs of Minstrelsy: Historic Recordings by the Stars of the Minstrel Stage (2006)
Check out a rich sampling of rare recordings by some of the 19th-century stars of the blackface minstrelsy scene.

Various Artists, Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads (1998)
The Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture presents this collection of field recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax during their travels through the American South in the 1930s. It's a treasure of early American music history that hints at the sounds that may have been heard on the tenant farms and in the Black churches of the Reconstruction era.

Second South Carolina String Band, Southern Soldier: Favorite Camp Songs of the Civil War (1996)
Although this title implies that these tracks were heard only in Confederate camps, some of the selections here were familiar to soldiers in both the North and the South. In fact, the Second South Carolina String Band performs songs, such as "Boatman's Dance," "Zip Coon," and "Palmetto Quickstep," that were known to people throughout the country during the Civil War years as well as in the tumultuous time leading up to the war and the era immediately following.


Secession Takes Hold
Map of states that seceded from the Union in 1861.

Ardently Following the War News
Elderly Black man with spectacles reading a newspaper by candlelight. Watercolor, circa 1863. Henry L. Stephens, artist.

School for Freedmen
James E. Taylor. "The Freedmen's Union Industrial School, Richmond, Va." From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 22nd, 1866.

Seizing Their Freedom
The arrival of a fugitive slave family behind Union lines, January 1st, 1863.

Survivors of Slavery
A former slave with the horn with which slaves were called. Near Marshall, Texas.

Movies & TV

Aftershock: Beyond the Civil War (2006)
Using dramatic reenactments, archival photographs, and historical texts, the History Channel presents an unsettling glimpse of the world of the post-Civil War South. The film is focused squarely on the crimes of racial hate and vengeance that plagued former slaves and those sympathetic to the Radical Republican agenda.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
In some ways, this film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood could be described as a modern day Birth of a Nation. Josey Wales remains loyal to the Confederacy after its defeat in the Civil War and utilizes unlawful means to avenge the death and destruction he witnesses.

Gone with the Wind (1939)
Based on the bestselling novel by Georgia-born author Margaret Matchell, this hit Hollywood romance about the American South during and after the Civil War did a great deal, like Birth of a Nation, to shape 20th-century attitudes about race and the legacies of slavery, the war, and Radical Reconstruction.

Birth of a Nation (1915)
The hero of director D.W. Griffith's cinematic masterpiece—a record-breaking, box-office hit from the early-20th century—is a white Southerner who helps form the Ku Klux Klan to free the South from the supposed tyranny of Reconstruction-era Blacks. The film, with its electrifying performances, spectacular special effects, and provocative story, captivated white audiences and drew vigorous protests from African-American civil rights organizations such as the NAACP.


Follow the Freedmen
The Freedmen and Southern Society Project, sponsored by the University of Maryland and by grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Includes a fantastic sampling of primary source documents.

The Freedmen's Bureau
The Freedmen's Bureau Online, an impressive assemblage of Bureau records, sorted by state and including records on marriage, freedmen's labor, and "murders and outrages."

American Memories of Reconstruction
The Library of Congress' American Memory Web site includes a section on Reconstruction with links to primary-source documents.

Primary Sources on Southern Life
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Documenting the American South archive. Over 1,200 sources on various aspects of Southern history, with a subject index.

Historical Documents

Trying to Reinstitute Slavery
The full text of Mississippi's Black Code (1865) is available here.

Declaring Freedom for All
The Emancipation Proclamation (1863), original and transcript, can be checked out here.

The Radical Republicans Move to Protect the Freedmen
The "Laws in Relation to Freedmen" from U.S. Sen. 39th Congress is made available by the Library of Congress.

Pursuing Higher Education
Wilberforce University was established near Xenia, Ohio, in 1856, by a group of Ohioans that included four Black men. The school was named after the famous British abolitionist, William Wilberforce. When the school failed to meet its financial obligations, leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church purchased it in 1863.

Seizing and Spreading Emancipation
Captain Charles B. Wilder explains how fugitive slaves, once escaped to Union lines, liberated fellow slaves and spread the word of freedom deep in Confederate territory.

Attempting to Revert to Days of Bondage
Shortly after a new state constitution abolished slavery in Maryland in 1864, a Unionist observer described the efforts of local citizens to nullify the former slaves' freedom.

Protesting for True Freedom
In 1863, Black men who'd been forcibly impressed to perform military labor for the Union Army addressed an indignant petition to General Benjamin F. Butler.

The Famous Field Order 15
General William Tecumseh Sherman's Special Field Order 15 of 1865 can be accessed here.

Here are the 1868 arguments raised for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

Seeking Justice and Equality
At the end of the war, Black soldiers stationed near Petersburg, Virginia, wrote to the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau to protest the suffering of their wives, children, and parents at a settlement on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.

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