The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction by Mark Wahlgren Summers (review)
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The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction. By Mark Wahlgren Summers. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Pp. x, 517. $40.00 cloth)

The Ordeal of the Reunion delivers all that the editors of the Littlefield History of the Civil War Era series had reason to expect in commissioning Mark Wahlgren Summers to write a volume about Reconstruction. The author of eight previous books about nineteenth-century politics, Summers draws on decades of research in newspapers and manuscripts to present a judicious narrative that interweaves party conflict in Washington and violent struggles in the southern states. He energetically joins in advancing two newer goals of Reconstruction scholarship, fuller incorporation of developments in the western United States and in international relations. He candidly acknowledges that his version of political history is narrower than the approach of historians who have situated electoral and legislative contests within the social contexts of emancipation, and for the same reason he shows little interest in recent efforts to connect Reconstruction politics to gender dynamics.

As its title implies, The Ordeal of the Reunion builds on Summers’s A Dangerous Stir (2009) by emphasizing postwar anxieties about the permanence of peace. The chief priority and achievement of the leading architects of Reconstruction, he observes, was the solidification of the Union, with limited solicitude for the lives and rights of African Americans in the South. He devotes considerable attention to pressures against disfranchisement of former Confederates and against federal supervision of state affairs. He also highlights another vulnerability of Reconstruction that he has explored in many books, the culture of political corruption in an era of rapid economic development and expanding government responsibilities. His treatment of this theme focuses less than he did in The Press Gang (1994) on the distinction between the practice of corruption and the political issue of corruption, an example of the way in which the new volume concentrates on elected officials rather than the metropolitan press [End Page 108] or other private networks of nationwide power.

Two fresh chapters of the book survey the relationship between Reconstruction and the expansion of the United States into the Great Plains and around the world. Summers’s work on postwar railroads prepares him to emphasize the ways in which the West diverted investment from the South as well as the ways in which wars against Native Americans undermined potential military protection of African Americans. He identifies the limited expansion of the United States abroad as a major non-event of the postwar era, and he argues that Grant’s attempt to annex Santo Domingo and his vendetta with Charles Sumner reinforced the fears of Caesarism that constrained presidential support for Republican governments in the South.

Summers graciously notes that his book “makes no pretensions to being the history of Reconstruction” both “because such a thing cannot possibly exist” and “because it already does” (p. 1), and he understandably does not try to rewrite Eric Foner’s masterpiece. His attempt to bracket social history nonetheless precludes engagement with some of the most stimulating recent scholarship on Reconstruction politics. The lengthy bibliography does not include Amy Dru Stanley’s From Bondage to Contract (1998), Jane Dailey’s Before Jim Crow (2000), Stephen Kantrowitz’s Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (2000), Barbara Young Welke’s Recasting American Liberty (2001), or Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom (2009). Within its bounds, however, The Ordeal of the Reunion offers a valuable resource for scholars who teach in the field of Reconstruction. [End Page 109]

Thomas J. Brown

THOMAS J. BROWN teaches history at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina (2015).

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