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Reconstruction was a period strikingly like our own: a time of racial tensions and conflicts of authority between state and federal governments. Perhaps that is why in the last fifteen years a plethora of publications on Reconstruction in Alabama have poured from scholarly presses to shatter much of the long-held wisdom concerning the era. Yet numerous assumptions remain, assumptions that need further review. For many years Reconstruction histories have been decidedly biased: southern-authored accounts have dripped with "poor us, poor us" sentiment, while northern-authored accounts sound like abolitionists shaking their finger at the poor, benighted South. Now, finally, histories are being published that focus on the unvarnished facts.

These Reconstruction authors have carefully studied newspapers and manuscripts in the Library of Congress, in state archives, colleges, universities, businesses, and in private hands, but enormous quantities of Alabama manuscripts remain scarcely touched. The papers of northern Republicans in the Library of Congress have been a rich source for information about Alabama's Reconstruction, as have the presidential papers of Andrew Johnson. However, the presidential [End Page 4] papers of Rutherford B. Hayes in Fremont, Ohio, merit more careful attention. Too, I have not used the papers of Grenville Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa, but that collection contains much information on the colorful exploits of Alabama Senator George Spencer. And particularly underused are the voluminous collections of Alabama manuscripts in the National Archives.

Among those holdings is a vast collection of correspondence relating to individuals eager for federal jobs in Alabama, a collection that includes both job applications and the associated letters of recommendation. These letters describe the maneuvers of corrupt state politics, detail the backgrounds and careers of Republican politicians, and identify the network of friendships that Alabama Republicans held with national political figures.

The National Archives also holds committee records, including applications for congressional pardons under the Fourteenth Amendment that reflect Republican views to a degree that newspapers do not. The many furious letters from disfranchised Unionists in this collection suggest that the officeholding disabilities placed on Unionists by the Fourteenth Amendment contributed to the Republican loss of the l870 state elections.

While newspapers have proven a popular source for many Reconstruction scholars, they are less instructive (but quicker to read) than the personal letters of public officials and private individuals. For instance, letters written in 1865 illustrate how little the North and South understood each other after the war. Northerners expected the defeated South to be penitent for having started the war. Southerners regretted losing the war, but not for having started it. The result of this misunderstanding was the election to the U.S. Congress of former officers of the defeated Confederacy whom Congress refused to seat. Both North and South reacted with anger, and this issue, as much as any economic one, doomed Reconstruction from its very beginning. Such correspondence also suggests that Alabama's [End Page 5] Confederate veterans seem to have accepted defeat's finality, while women (like Amelia Gorgas) were "unreconstructed" and dedicated to creating memorials to the Lost Cause.

Historians' preoccupation with political Reconstruction means there has been minimal study of social service efforts. We have no evaluation of the quality of the work of the Freedmen's Bureau or the Home Colonies in Alabama, nor is there much about the educational efforts of religious denominations working with former slaves. However, the rewriting of the history of Reconstruction in Alabama is now underway. [End Page 6]

Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins

sarah woolfolk wiggins is professor emerita of history at the University of Alabama. She is a past president of the Alabama Historical Association (1996-1997) and was the longtime editor of the Alabama Review. Her published works include The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881 (Tuscaloosa, 1977); From Civil War to Civil Rights, Alabama 1860-1960 (Tuscaloosa, 1987); The Journals of Josiah Gorgas, 1857-1878 (Tuscaloosa, 1995); Love and Duty: Amelia and Josiah Gorgas and Their Family (Tuscaloosa, 2005); and The Journal of Sarah Haynsworth Gayle, 1827-1835 (Tuscaloosa, 2013).

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-9961
Print ISSN
0002-4341
Pages
pp. 4-6
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-20
Open Access
No
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