A Book review from the Providence Journal, “'The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era,' by Douglas R. Egerton," reviewed by Erik J. Chaput, 6 April 2014 -- In early October 1864, a convention of more than 140 African-Americans from 18 states met in Syracuse, N.Y., to discuss the future of American freedom. The convention was chaired by Frederick Douglass.
With the reelection of Abraham Lincoln secure, thanks in large part to the fall of Atlanta, the delegates turned to what postwar America would look like. They demanded the “complete abolition” of slavery and “political equality.” Shall “we toil with you to win the prize of free government, while you alone shall monopolize all its valued privileges?” asked the delegates of the war-torn country. In his magisterial new book, Douglas R. Egerton chronicles the Syracuse meeting, along with others that were organized throughout the South after the Civil War, in order “to establish a network of activism designed” to bring a reform agenda to the attention of Congress and a recalcitrant president.
Egerton, the author of the definitive account of the election of 1860, “Year of Meteors,” has written the most important book on Reconstruction since the publication of Eric Foner’s 1988 classic, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.”
“The Wars of Reconstructions” tells the story of “black veterans, activists, ministers, assemblymen, registrars, poll workers, editors, and handful of dedicated white allies” who set out to make the decades after the Civil War the “most democratic” in the 19th century. They ultimately lost their fight due to the violence of white Southerners who were determined to restore the old order. Students of Rhode Island history will enjoy the treatment of Newport restaurateur George T. Downing, who helped to found the Colored National Labor Union.
Egerton provides a concise overview of the Freedmen’s Bureau, along with the American Missionary Association. The Freedmen’s Bureau was tapped with numerous tasks, including education and land distribution. Prior to 1865, no Southern state had a system of public education. As the editor of the “Anglo-African” newspaper wrote as early as November 1861, land owned by Southern slaveholders should be “immediately bestow[ed]” upon the “freedmen.”
The freedmen, however, did not find an ally in President Andrew Johnson, who took office after Lincoln was assassinated and serves as the villain in Egerton’s narrative. Johnson’s racist policies allowed white supremacists to commit “arson and murder,” along with targeted “assassinations” of reformers such as Octavius Catto.
Though often a tragic story, Egerton convincingly argues that Reconstruction was a progressive period, with many policies, even if they resembled a flickering flame, surviving on. As Egerton notes, “black literacy increased four hundred percent in the thirty-five years after Appomattox.” Black churches continued to grow. The black conventions continued to meet in the 1870s and ’80s. Pushed by the efforts of Congressman James O’Hara, a black Republican from North Carolina, African-Americans filed lawsuits against railroads that denied them access and sometimes won.
Clearly written, engaging, meticulously researched, and often moving, Egerton’s “The Wars of Reconstruction,” is simply a must-read for anyone looking to understand what is without a doubt the most misunderstood period in our nation’s history.
Erik J. Chaput teaches at Providence College and The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. He is the author of “The People’s Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion.” (source: Providence Journal)
CLICK HERE to watch Professor Douglas Egerton talked about his book The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, in which he looks at politics in both northern and southern states following the Civil War, and argues that the early post-Civil War years saw major progressive reforms, on C-Span.