Michael W. Fitzgerald's Reconstruction in Alabama offers a new interpretation of the period of Reconstruction (1865–77) in Alabama. No historian has produced a comparable narrative since the publication of Walter Lynwood Fleming's Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama in 1905. Fitzgerald seeks to present a more "reliable, modern account" than that of Fleming by exploring the ways in which different groups of Alabamians worked together across racial lines to achieve particular political and economic objectives during the period of Reconstruction (2). He also identifies historical moments such as the Panic of 1873 and its subsequent depression that resulted in the collapse of interracial cooperation, growing white violence against freedpeople, and the end of Reconstruction with the rise of the Democratic Party.
A professor of history at St. Olaf College, Fitzgerald joins a host of American scholars who have produced revisionist histories of Reconstruction in recent years that challenge the Dunning school's critique of Radical Republicans. With its emphasis on politics, economic policies, and collective action, Fitzgerald's methodological approach is akin to that of Eric Foner and Steven Hahn, whose works he admires. But Reconstruction in Alabama differs from Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988) and Hahn's A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2003) because of the author's specific focus on the connections between economic instability, political violence, and class divisions. Fitzgerald recognizes the "centrality of racial reaction in Reconstruction politics" but primarily seeks to show in his book how "sharp divisions among whites [End Page 349] over development policy, and subsequently over how to avoid state bankruptcy, opened avenues of political influence to African Americans" (3). As pragmatic politicians, he argues, black Republicans exploited divisions among whites to form a political coalition that crossed racial boundaries. Black Republicans joined hill-country Unionists and carpetbaggers, for instance, in an effort to achieve their aims. Thus Fitzgerald's history offers insight into the unifying forces and schisms that alternately brought together or separated different social groups during Reconstruction in a state-based case study that he anticipates will provide "a vantage point for broader reflection on the state of Reconstruction scholarship, and on its meaning for contemporary America" (1).
Reconstruction in Alabama is divided into three parts comprising twelve chapters organized chronologically. Each of the chapters assesses a particular topic that sheds light on the evolving political and economic conditions at different points during Reconstruction. Freedpeople receive less attention in the first part than in the second and third parts, a strategy Fitzgerald employs in order to assess divisions among white Alabamians early on. Drawing from materials in archives located primarily in the South, North, and Midwest, Fitzgerald examines diaries, correspondence, Confederate applications for presidential pardons, judicial records, newspapers, and more. His concentrated approach and broad source base enable him to present a long-overdue analysis of the individuals and forces that defined and shaped the period of Reconstruction in Alabama.
In chapter 1, Fitzgerald outlines the different political constituencies in prewar and wartime Alabama, while in chapter 2 he studies the consequences of Union occupation and the effect on local populations. Chapters 3 and 4 cover Presidential Reconstruction, the activities of Unionists, and the governorship of Robert Miller Patton between 1865 and 1868. Fitzgerald transitions from the political maneuverings of white Alabamians to the mobilization of freedpeople in chapter 5, which marks the beginning of part 2. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 deal with the connections between Republican governor William Hugh Smith's championing of railroad construction and the ways in which violence against freedpeople pervaded Alabama during his term. In chapter 9, Fitzgerald discusses improvements in labor conditions for blacks and whites during Democratic governor Robert Burns Lindsay's term (1870–72), and in chapter 10 he analyzes the recovery of the plantation economy, the election of Ulysses S. Grant, and the dire effects of the Panic of 1873. Part 3, which comprises...