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1 Introduction Introduction Writing in 1935 in his brilliant and brooding Black Reconstruction, the African American historian, sociologist, and propagandist W. E. B. Du Bois lamented America’s post–Civil War Era as a missed opportunity to reconstruct the war-torn nation in deed as well as in word. “If the Reconstruction of the Southern states, from slavery to free labor, and from aristocracy to industrial democracy, had been conceived as a major national program of America, whose accomplishment at any price was well worth the effort,” Du Bois complained, “we should be living today in a different world.” Seven decades following the end of America’s bloodiest war, Du Bois judged Reconstruction not just “a failure, but a splendid failure.”1 Like Du Bois, historians have largely defined Reconstruction as a failed effort in what the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm termed “forced democratization.”2 In his recent The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, historian Douglas R. Egerton rejects the notion that Reconstruction was a failure, instead interpreting the period as “a noble attempt to create a more democratic America.” “Too often the central question becomes why Reconstruction failed,” Egerton notes, “as opposed to ended, which hints that the process itself was somehow flawed and contributed to its own passing.” In his book, Egerton underscores the various ways that white violence, what he terms “the wars of Reconstruction,” cut short “the nation’s first meaningful campaign for racial equality.”3 Most historians, however, who have plowed what historian Bernard A. Weisberger termed “The Dark and Bloody Ground of 2 introduction Reconstruction Historiography,” have judged the dozen years following the Civil War a disastrous moment in U.S. history—an unequivocal failure.4 Those, including neoabolitonists and later racial liberals, who found President Abraham Lincoln’s promised “new birth of freedom” unfulfilled during the postwar years, regarded Reconstruction as both a missed opportunity and a travesty of justice for black southerners and white Unionists. In contrast, those who identified with white southerners and the Lost Cause mentalit é condemned Reconstruction as a usurpation of federal power and the imposition of “Negro rule.” According to Egerton, by the late nineteenth century “the wars of Reconstruction had entered a new campaign, as writers, activists, and intellectuals sought to impose their vision of the period on American readers.”5 The first generation of professional, “scientific” scholars, immersedinJimCrow –eralegaldefinitionsofraceandSocialDarwinist understandings of human progress, sympathized unabashedly with the Lost Cause perspective. These scholars attacked Reconstruction as a proverbial “chamber of horrors,” populated by venal carpetbaggers , treasonous scalawags, and ignorant freedmen—all manipulated by unscrupulous Republicans who wreaked vengeance against former Confederates. The early historians described Reconstruction as a period characterized by “unrelieved sordidness in political and social life.”6 In 1910 William Archer, a British observer of America’s so-called race problem, captured the tone of contemporary American historians by referring to “the bad old days of Reconstruction.”7 Led by Columbia University’s William A. Dunning and his doctoral students (the so-called Dunning School of historians), earlytwentieth -century scholars denounced Reconstruction because the period exemplified what they considered the imposition by the federal government of punitive, vengeful interference in the affairs of the former Confederate states and an unwise experiment in racial democracy.8 As historian Eric Foner explains, The villains of the piece were vindictive Radical Republicans, who sabotaged [President] Andrew Johnson’s lenient plan for bringing the South back into the Union, and instead fastened black su- 3 Introduction premacy upon the defeated Confederacy. An orgy of corruption and misgovernment allegedly followed, only brought to a close when the South’s white communities banded together to restore “home rule” (a polite euphemism for white supremacy). Resting on the assumption that black suffrage was the gravest error of the entire Civil War period, this interpretation survived for decades because it accorded with and legitimated firmly entrenched political and social realities.9 According to historian Glenda Gilmore, the Dunningites in their writings “completely rewrote the history of the conflict.” They interpreted the Civil War as “a tragic misunderstanding and that Reconstruction had been a scurrilous punishment foisted upon helpless white southerners by arrogant Yankees who exploited African Americans by giving them citizenship rights.”10 Despite attempts by Du Bois and other black and white scholars to rehabilitate Reconstruction’s reputation, and consequently to “sustain the black counter-memory” of the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras, the Dunning interpretation generally dominated representations of the period in American...


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