The Wars of Reconstruction
The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era
By Douglas R. Egerton
(Bloomsbury Press, Hardcover, 9781608195664, 448pp.)
Publication Date: January 21, 2014
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By 1870, just five years after Confederate surrender and thirteen years after the Dred Scott decision ruled blacks ineligible for citizenship, Congressional action had ended slavery and given the vote to black men. That same year, Hiram Revels and Joseph Hayne Rainey became the first African-American U.S. senator and congressman respectively. In South Carolina, only twenty years after the death of arch-secessionist John C. Calhoun, a black man, Jasper J. Wright, took a seat on the state’s Supreme Court. Not even the most optimistic abolitionists had thought such milestones would occur in their lifetimes. The brief years of Reconstruction marked the United States’ most progressive moment prior to the civil rights movement.
Previous histories of Reconstruction have focused on Washington politics. But in this sweeping, prodigiously researched narrative, Douglas Egerton brings a much bigger, even more dramatic story into view, exploring state and local politics and tracing the struggles of some fifteen hundred African-American officeholders, in both the North and South, who fought entrenched white resistance. Tragically, their movement was met by ruthless violence—not just riotous mobs, but also targeted assassination. With stark evidence, Egerton shows that Reconstruction, often cast as a “failure” or a doomed experiment, was rolled back by murderous force. The Wars of Reconstruction is a major and provocative contribution to American history.
Douglas R. Egerton is a professor of history at LeMoyne College. He is the author of six books, including Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey, Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802, and Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America. He lives near Syracuse, New York.
"The history of [the] era [of Reconstruction] has rarely if ever been as well told as it is in Douglas R. Egerton's forcefully argued and crisply written The Wars of Reconstruction. Mr. Egerton presents a sometimes inspiring but more often deeply shocking story that reveals the nation at its best and worst…Mr. Egerton's prose…is readable and compelling...He moves his narrative forward with a fine eye for the drama of events, offering a chorus of contemporary voices along the way: those of ex-slaves, war veterans, do-gooders, opportunists, educators, churchmen and politicians of every stripe, among them defenders of racial privilege. He includes as well ex-Confederates such as the politically courageous James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee's senior corps commander, who after the war became a Republican and embraced biracial reform, and Northern black crusaders such as Octavius Catto of Philadelphia, who helped make the assertion of civil rights a national cause. Collectively these figures, speaking to us amid Mr. Egerton's always acute presentation of the intricacies of federal and state politics, bring to life the war that was taking place not just in the halls of government but also deep in the small towns, red-dirt hamlets and cotton fields, where the bloodiest combat of Reconstruction took place." –Wall Street Journal"The Wars of Reconstruction is one of the best and most readable studies of that era to appear in many years. Its emphasis on the active role that African Americans played in this crucial period is especially welcome. Douglas Egerton has given us another gripping, thoughtful, and deeply researched book about slavery and the fight for freedom." –Bruce Levin, author of The Fallof the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South "This is a very "Du Boisian" work, sharing the great scholar's view that Reconstruction wasn't just about rebuilding the Southern economy, but reconstructing democracy throughout the US. Recounting Northern blacks' struggles for voting rights and the national quest for universal public education bolsters Du Bois's insight, as do sections assessing Reconstruction in scholarly and popular memory. Through detailed evaluations of officeholders and other activists, Egerton asserts that Reconstruction was the most progressive era in US history. Proponents of the 1960s and, especially, the New Deal may differ, but Egerton's strong case stimulates debate. Summing Up: Recommended." – T. P. Johnson, University of Massachusetts, Boston, CHOICE“Key figures develop into rich characters, balancing Egerton’s own objective, wide-seeing perspective, which even explores the revisionist Reconstruction histories that informed the American consciousness, particularly the pernicious effects of influential racist cinema. All told, Egerton’s study is an adept exploration of a past era of monumental relevance to the present and is recommended for any student of political conflict, social upheaval, and the perennial struggle against oppression.”– Publishers Weekly "A richly detailed history…An illuminating view of an era whose reform spirit would live on in the 1960s civil rights movement." –Kirkus Reviews