Much attention has been given to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War now winding down as April has passed, the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox reverently marked by historians and the public. But Americans are now entering the first year of a far more important series of 150th commemorations, those encompassing the Reconstruction years that followed Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Reconstruction…the term either rings familiarly or not, or with some vague recollection of Carpetbaggers and Scalawags culled from the recesses of memory of a long-forgotten high-school history class. Often misunderstood when it is recognized at all, Reconstruction was a significant and tumultuous time in which the very fabric of the nation was not only resewn, but repatterned, recut, and stitched anew. Presidential and Congressional powers were tested, stretched, and pushed to the limits; individual and collective rights were being defined and redefined; the social world had been torn asunder, challenging the way race and gender were considered; industrialization rapidly stratified society; and the fate of nearly four million lives was caught in the crossfire.
The collective American conclusion that the Civil War ended in April 1865 is mistaken. Reconstruction was filled with as many skirmishes and full-fledged battles as during official hostilities; sometimes fought with weapons, sometimes with words. But the battle of ideals never enjoyed a cease-fire, nor did either side accept surrender. Reconstruction was a different kind of war, but an extension of the same ferocious ideologies that sent millions of men to arms.
The bloody battles of Gettysburg and Antietam certainly capture the imagination, and there is no denying the formidable achievements obtained during the war itself. It is a forgone conclusion that the Union prevailing militarily over the Confederacy changed the lives of millions, but the years following the war, and the momentous events that transpired (the good and the bad) during Reconstruction are worthy of the same attention. Numerous scholars have researched and published fantastic work on the Reconstruction era; it is high time the general public took more notice.
Join me as I commemorate the sesquicentennial years of Reconstruction. It is my intent to illuminate the Reconstruction era for a new generation of Americans, a generation for whom time has graciously provided historical perspective. I owe a debt of gratitude to those scholars who have worked tirelessly to inform and enlighten us on the topic: Eric Foner, Drew Gilpin Faust, Douglas Egerton, David Blight, Gary Gallagher, Bruce Levine, Nina Silber, Bruce Baker, David Brion Davis, Edward Blum, Paul Harvey, and the many other fine historians who bring the story of Reconstruction to the forefront of scholarly discourse.