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Civil War Era Studies

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There is no Society for Historians of Reconstruction. That should tell you something. There are also no Reconstruction re-enactments, and no museums teeming with artifacts of Reconstruction. Because what, after all, would there be for us to re-enact? The Memphis race massacre of May 1-3, 1866? And what artifacts would we be proud to display? Original Ku Klux Klan outfits (much more garish than the bland white-sheet versions of the 1920s)? Serial-number-identified police revolvers from the New Orleans’ Mechanics Institute killings of July 30, 1866? Looked at coldly, the dozen years that we conventionally designate as “Reconstruction” constitute the bleakest failure in American history, and they are all the more bleak for squatting, head-in-hands, between the towering drama of the Civil War and the savage conflicts of the Gilded Age. As a nation, we delivered four million African American slaves from bondage, at the hideous cost of a generation of American youth and the murder of our greatest president -- and then allowed the freedpeople to slip back into the leering control of the same Southern white ruling class which had caused the war in the first place. If slavery was the birth defect of the American founding, Reconstruction was its principal malpractice case.

Reconstruction’s historiography has not been much more cheerful. Despite its deformations, Reconstruction was actually one of the first subjects to become the focus of an entire school of professional historical practice, in this case the “school” created by William Archibald Dunning at Columbia University before the First World War and the students (and dissertations) he guided into explorations of Reconstruction in the former Confederate States. [excerpt]


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