- The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction by Mark Wahlgren Summers
Mark W. Summers can prize a pun into a book title like no one else in the business. But whether it's "The Plundering Generation," or "The Era of Good Stealings," or, now, "The Ordeal of the Reunion," his coinages are not merely exercises in wit; they are a foretaste of his distinctively ironic style. He keenly observes the greed, sordid machinations, hypocrisy, and paranoia in his historical subjects; he is finely attuned to the pitfalls and unintended consequences of even the best-intentioned efforts. And so, in all his histories, narrative lines are never straight, and few things are quite what they seem on the surface. Summers has written about Reconstruction before—a study of railroads and, more recently, of the role of fear and anxiety in Reconstruction politics—but The Ordeal of the Reunion offers more: an overall framework for understanding the key problems of the period.
The core argument can be simply stated: if we understand Reconstruction as most white northerners did, it was by no means a failure. In 1865, northerners feared, quite reasonably, that it would be a struggle to reintegrate the South and ensure there was no renewed attempt at rebellion. For them, Summers argues, the overriding purpose of postwar politics was ensuring that there would be no new war. While those who fought for the Union would have "liked to see justice done" on behalf of African Americans, Summers writes, "they must have security" (3). For a majority of northerners, one thing the experience of war had taught was that ending slavery was essential to destroying forever the seeds of rebellion. What most northerners looked for from the defeated South was some sign that it accepted the finality of reunion and emancipation. Few, Summers stresses, [End Page 727] wanted to fundamentally reshape the relationship between the federal and state governments. And while tensions within the Republican Party over black suffrage, the penalties to be imposed on leading Confederates, and the likely length of a federal military presence in the postwar South were evident even before Appomattox, there was also, Summers shows, a countervailing desire to maintain at least a show of unity, lest northern division encourage rebellion once again. Just as many northerners who had opposed abolition supported wartime emancipation as a tool to defeat the Confederacy, they were happy—or at least willing—to support black suffrage and other rights if that was the best means of rebuilding the South, marginalizing the leading rebels and maintaining peace. But if ever there was doubt that justice would support security, it was security that took precedence.
This case has much in common with Gary Gallagher's recent The Union War (2011). By stressing the continuity in the underlying attitudes and assumptions that shaped politics, both books represent a challenge to the dominant interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction era in the last forty years. As Summers puts it, while "later history remembers the radical few, who spoke to what proved to be America's future," it too often "forgets the conservative many, whose influence and power would confine how far any movement toward equal rights had any chance to go" (10). By the time of the Grand Review of the Union army down Pennsylvania Avenue in May 1865—a scene that features prominently in both Gallagher's and Summers's book—northerners believed, or hoped, that their work was done. All that remained was to protect it. While they may have accepted a vast expansion of central government authority in wartime, with peace meant a return, so far as possible, to previous constitutional assumptions. Even Wendell Phillips, Summers argues, thought that states' rights were the cornerstone of individual liberty. Michael Les Benedict argued in the 1970s that there was an underlying constitutional conservatism that limited the policy options even of Radicals in Congress. But Summers's scope is wider, encompassing not just constitutional theorizing, nor...