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By examining how white and black children participated in the changes brought by emancipation and the Civil War, Catherine Jones’s Intimate Reconstructions expands the work of historians who have explored the evolving relations between the public world of politics and the private realm of the home. In this compelling study, Jones argues that the contested terrain of Reconstruction was not only shaped by the dynamics of race, class, and gender but was also influenced by age in significant ways.
Intimate Reconstructions illustrates how children “shaped the course of Virginia’s Reconstruction through direct action and their potency as cultural symbols” with a three-pronged discussion of labor within and without families, orphans, and education (p. 8). Using documents produced by the Freedmen’s Bureau, Jones first illustrates how both the recovery of family members dislocated by slavery and the negotiations of freedchildren’s labor contracts made responsibility for [End Page 259] dependents a critical concern for both the state and families. For elite white families, the loss of their enslaved workforce meant that they reluctantly came to depend on their own children’s labor. The author uses private correspondence to show this shift was a blow to white Virginians’ status, as white youths were deprived of the education and leisure they had formerly enjoyed. In this section, her argument for children’s agency could have been strengthened by memoirs to show how elite children, rather than their parents, perceived these societal changes. While the war and emancipation restructured children’s roles within the domestic sphere, it also left many kinless.
Relying on narrative accounts of newspapers as well as court records and speeches, Jones deftly argues that the increased presence of orphans roaming the roads and streets of Virginia forced society and the state to rethink the public responsibility toward these dependents. Unsurprisingly, these solutions were highly racialized. Richmond’s orphanages tried to adapt to the expanding number of white orphans, now refashioned as emblems of the Confederate cause, by finding acceptable educational and work situations for them. On the other hand, black orphans were hastily forced into apprenticeships that often proved little better than the work situations of antebellum days. The author nevertheless highlights the agency of children by pointing out that indentured black and white children affirmed their subject-hood by running away, rebelling, and appealing for adults’ help. In the last chapter, Jones delineates the debates around public education and its partially successful implementations. For African Americans and reformers, the availability of education promised better chances for future generations, but for many whites it meant the erosion of parental authority and filial obligations, and the disruption of social order. Proponents of public education were only partially successful in their attempts to “redistribut[e] responsibility for schooling from the private to the public sector” (p. 187).
By examining children’s roles during Reconstruction, Jones offers a fresh analysis of a broad array of archival material employed by historians of the period and successfully demonstrates the importance [End Page 260] of age as a serious category of historical analysis. The author’s interlacing of race, class, and age would have been further strengthened by a more systematic discussion of how gender affected the experiences of youth, especially in light of her argument that “in significant ways, emancipation and defeat were ‘aged’ as well as gendered” (p. 7). Moreover, while Jones skillfully frames her study within the literature of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the novelty of her arguments would benefit from a discussion of the historiography of children in the nineteenth century, especially in the chapter on the well-developed topic of public education in the South. Nevertheless, Intimate Reconstructions achieves a welcome balance between treating youths as vocal and forceful historical agents and understanding their symbolic potential to promote competing visions of the postbellum South.
ALIX RIVIÈRE is a PhD candidate at Tulane University. Her dissertation focuses on enslaved children in nineteenth-century Louisiana and Martinique.