Book Reviews

EMBERTON & BAKER (eds.): Remembering Reconstruction (2017)

Posted 8/23/2017 Reviewed By Matthew Christopher Hulbert

Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles Over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era edited by Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. Cloth, IBSN: 978-0807166024. $43.50.


For nearly two decades, David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion has presided over the subfield of Civil War memory. Blight divides the postbellum commemorative landscape into three general camps: Emancipationists, Reconciliationists, and White Supremacists. According to the “Blight Thesis,” the latter two factions formed something of an unholy alliance at the expense of the first; for sake of expediting the process of national reunification, they crafted a narrative of the war that downplayed slavery as its underlying cause, asserted the mutual valor of white soldiers from both sides, and wrote African Americans out of the story almost entirely. In other words, white northerners and southerners came together by way of their mutual investment in maintaining the racial status quo.

Since Blight, several scholars have offered tweaks, updates, and overhauls to this model—but for the most part, all have focused on how memories of the Civil War itself were crafted and manipulated to influence myriad political, economic, and social developments. However, the ten essays in Remembering Reconstruction break from this cycle. Edited by Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker, the volume is a long overdue survey of the ways in which memories of Reconstruction (1865-1877)—as opposed to the war that triggered it—have been wielded from the 1870s to the present.

The book is divided into four categories. The first, “White Supremacy and Memories of Reconstruction,” includes essays by K. Stephen Prince and Jason M. Ward that explore how southerners pushed accounts of Reconstruction as a gargantuan mistake and failure to defend white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Prince analyzes how politicians and writers like Thomas Dixon, Jr., Joel Chandler Harris, James K. Vardaman, Alfred Holt Stone, and Thomas Nelson Page harnessed imagery of African Americans run amok to neutralize would-be northern interveners as they rolled back the legal gains of Reconstruction. Ward’s essay—which involves many of the same literary figures, including acclaimed race-baiter Theodore Bilbo and Gov. Frank M. Dixon of Alabama—blueprints how anti-New Dealers in the South used specific narratives of Reconstruction to convince their constituents that an increased federal presence in Dixie would result in a loss of state sovereignty and out of control black citizens.

The second bloc of essays in Remembering Reconstruction, “Black Counter-Memories of Reconstruction,” includes essays by Shawn Leigh Alexander, Justin Behrend, and Carole Emberton. Collectively, this trio reveals that African Americans were anything but helpless bystanders in the battle to apply meaning to Reconstruction, while also reminding us that black accounts of the era were often contradictory. Alexander focuses on black journalist T. Thomas Fortune and his campaign to deliver African Americans with a usable counter-narrative that exposed “the barbaric, inhuman realities of the period” and highlighted “the history of black Americans righteously struggling against violent oppression” (67). Behrend chronicles the effort of black author John R. Lynch to provide an “alternative history” of Reconstruction in The Facts of Reconstruction (1913), a book that not only countered the dominance of the Dunning School’s interpretation of the era by underscoring violence and hardship, but also argued strongly that Reconstruction had actually been a good thing for democracy in the South. Emberton’s contribution attempts to contextualize the “fuzzy” memories of ex-slave Hannah Irwin, who may or may not have witnessed the Ku Klux Klan responding to an undocumented black riot in Alabama. In the process of excavating Irwin’s account, Emberton sheds a fascinating light on the difficulties of fully recovering the black Reconstruction experience through source materials created at the apex of Jim Crow segregation.

The third category, “Reconstruction and the Creation of American Empire,” features three essays on the cutting edge of late-nineteenth century American history. Mark Elliott, Natalie J. Ring, and Samuel L. Schaffer connect debates over the meaning of Reconstruction to notions of colonialism and expansionism. Elliott explores the Lake Mohonk conferences held in New York in 1890 and 1891. These meetings involved northerners and southerners coming together to discuss the “Negro Question”—and ended with the concessions granted by northerners to coax southerners to the table coming back to bite them. Most interesting, however, is the linkage of the “Negro Question” to the “Indian Question,” and how the history of Indian conferences held in the same location influenced the Dawes Act (1887) and the fates of untold Native Americans.

Ring’s treatment of the “readjustment movement”—which for my money is the standout essay among a collection full of standout essays—uncovers how the rhetoric of colonialism (in this case a reference to Haiti) represented a way for liberals to discuss the South’s social and economic problems in an indirect, less-threatening manner. Ultimately, Ring illustrates how in the Progressive Era, foreign and domestic policy merged through Reconstruction memory, as “imperial expansion and social reform in education, public health, and economic reform were mutually constitutive” (196). Schaffer’s essay homes in on President Woodrow Wilson, the man who screened D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) in the White House and allegedly declared that his “only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” According to Schaffer, previous historians have taken into account Wilson’s southern upbringing and his understanding of the Civil War when analyzing his foreign policy. They have not, however, reckoned with Wilson’s understanding of Reconstruction when assessing his plans for the peace and rebuilding process in Europe after the First World War—a process in which the lessons of 1877 were largely forgotten, and Germany was set on a crash course with fascism.

The fourth and final section of Remembering Reconstruction, “Remembering Reconstruction in the Post-Civil Rights Era,” contains essays by Elaine Parsons and Bruce E. Baker. Parsons surveys how various textbooks treated the Ku Klux Klan from the 1880s to the present day; she finds that in many cases, the Klan has been used as a scapegoat for all instances of white-on-black terrorism, which has served to diminish the scope of racial violence covered in classrooms. More startling, however, is Parsons’s observation that despite some progress, many of these historical mischaracterizations have not been excised and “persist in recent textbooks” (247). Baker’s essay begins with the South Carolina Tricentennial of 1970 and its reenactment of a Red Shirt Parade in honor of Wade Hampton. This incident is highlighted as an exception, rather than a rule, to set off what Baker argues was a short period of racial inclusiveness in South Carolina, during which hostilities to Reconstruction were not erased, but put in a state of hibernation. As seems to always be the case with South Carolina when it comes to the Civil War and Reconstruction, though, old racial beliefs and the politics they bolster could not sit dormant for long. Neoconservative political developments in the 1980s and 1990s prompted a return to Red Shirt reenactments and the like, but as Baker concludes, by that time a full resurgence of the old Reconstruction-hating narration with the public was simply (and thankfully) impossible.

Individually, the essays in Remembering Reconstruction are well written and scaffolded by truly interesting narratives. Moreover, they each make an important contribution to our understanding of how Reconstruction’s legacy helped build (and continues to help build) the America we live in today. Taken as a whole, the book showcases through the powerful hindsight of social memory studies done right that Reconstruction was much, much more than the political restoration of the ex-Confederacy to the Union; rather, it involved fundamental issues of race, citizenship, colonialism, and American identity.

With this in mind, Remembering Reconstruction is highly recommended to all scholars of the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as historians of race, memory, or politics in the twentieth century.


Matthew Christopher Hulbert is the author of The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers became Gunslingers in the American West, which was recently awarded the 2017 Wiley-Silver Prize for Best First Book in Civil War History.

comments powered by Disqus