Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 1 – Cause: Reconstruction America 1863-1877

cause-tonya-bolden1As a social studies teacher, I am often asked to provide resources on particular subjects.  More often than not, these resources were needed yesterday. 

While I am open to any questions concerning resources, I wanted to avoid the rush that often comes with such requests (“Please Mr. D, I need any suggestions about the Third Punic War and its effects on Middle Eastern relations, NOW!”)  To that end, we are starting a new series, Mr. D’s History Bookshelf.  On this Bookshelf will reside books that I have read, found interesting and insightful, and offer some usefulness in the classroom.

The first book on our shelf–the first of many–is Tonya Bolden’s Cause: Reconstruction America 1863-1877Reconstruction is the great spinoff drama to the Emmy-winning series that is the U.S. Civil War.  Like other spinoffs, it has been given little attention and even less importance.  Yet Reconstruction is not some hyphen that ties our history together.  The years following the Civil War were a whirlwind of confusion, controversy, conflict and ultimately compromise, the results of which still resonate today.

Even with Reconstruction’s importance, it is definitely the lounge act to its bloodier antecedent.  The dearth of scholarship bears this out.  Even as historians currently give the period some much needed scholarly respect, the amount of published material is still reams behind Civil War scholarship.  Recent works worth reading include those of Eric Foner, who has been instrumental in bringing the period into public focus.  Try his Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 as a start. 

What is even worse is the lack of classroom material for grades 4 and up.  There are precious few books for students about this period, and Bolden makes an important contribution with her 2005 work.  Cause is not meant to be a scholarly tome, nor should it be.  Bolden deftly takes the sweeping events of the postwar period and creates an amazingly cohesive narrative, utilizing grade-appropriate language and a clear, direct style.  The book is the perfect summary of Reconstruction for history students in upper elementary and secondary grades.

As you read Cause–and it was hard for me to put down–you get a sense that Reconstruction was mostly about just that, a cause.  Was there a cause for the actions of whites, blacks, Democrats, Republicans, ex-army officers, CSA veterans, the poor, the rich, women, Native Americans, etc.?  Reconstruction becomes less about the values of states’ rights, white supremacy, racial equality or universal suffrage and instead more about the cold, political motivations of various actors at a tumultuous time.  Though there were many politicians who acted on principle, many more acted out of self-preservation, opportunity, and convenience.

In the end, everyone in power tired of the whole business, meaning that the white South won out at the end of Reconstruction to a large degree.  The machinations of power grabbing and maneuvering placed high-minded principles at the bottom of the pile.   In the waning years of Reconstruction, any excuse was found to find some sense of normalcy.  By 1876 a “corrupt bargain” would place Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House, the army out of the South, and blacks–out of power, out of the ballot box, and out of luck–reduced to second-class citizenry for almost a century.

Bolden demonstrates many examples of these machinations throughout the book.  One celebrated example is General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, which was later rescinded by President Andrew Johnson.  Sherman ordered  400,000 acres of coastal land along the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida to be confiscated and subdivided amongst freed slaves and black refugees, 40 acres to each household.  Though it is not mentioned in the order explicitly, it is reported that the U.S. Army also allotted excess mules to the households, thus the infamous false promise of “40 acres and a mule.”  Sherman’s act was not one of beneficence–far from it, as Sherman is known to have harbored his own prejudices towards blacks.  Rather, he needed a way to keep refugees from hampering his column as it marched northward toward Virginia.  The infamous promise of a fresh start was in fact strictly a military measure–one that Sherman himself did not defend once Johnson revoked the order.

An even more startling example involves a sacred cow in Frederick Douglass.  As the call for universal male suffrage increased in the late 1860’s, suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wondered aloud whether female enfranchisement would soon follow.  When asked by Stanton about the suffrage of black women, Douglass responded that it was indeed a priority, “not because they are women, but because they are black.”  This from the same Frederick Douglass that attended the 1848 Seneca Falls convention that began the women’s suffrage movement.  It can be perceived from Douglass’ response that his priorities did not necessarily include women.  In hindsight, his attendance at Seneca Falls may have been simply to drum up support for abolition from like-minded people. 

Bolden’s book establishes a complex web of personalities, all in a Machiavellian quest for stability, power and some semblance of a status quo.  Andrew Johnson wanted to maintain white supremacy and play nice with the South again.  Radical Republicans in Congress wanted revenge on the South, as well as to knock Johnson down a few pegs.  Southern whites wanted to make sure blacks had no role in government.  Northern businessmen wanted to resume trade as quickly as possible.  New black politicians struggled for their voices to be heard–sometimes for less than honorable reasons.  Women screamed to be heard above the din.  Immigrants–whom black leaders warned about to Johnson–were coming seeking opportunities in a growing America.  Finally, Native Americans were making a futile case to keep America where it was, even if it meant flying in the face of migration and technological expansion. 

What is courageous about this book is that it avoids the victimization crutch to a large degree.  As with Native Americans, post-Civil War blacks were often portrayed as helpless victims in the abyss–even by the most well-intentioned.  Frederick Douglass, Hiram Revels, P.B.S. Pinchback and other black leaders are seen as courageous sacrificial lambs to the inevitable restoration of white supremacist governments in the South.  This view overlooks the differences in black culture, especially among free blacks and escaped slaves, rich Northern blacks and poor free persons in the South, as well as black leaders’ often conflicting attitudes towards assimilation, suffrage, womens’ rights, immigration, etc.

Bolden avoids this trap of victimhood by laying bare the conflicts, anomalies, and hypocrisies that characterized much of the actions of the period.  She could have easily hammered down on Republicans for not doing enough, Democrats for undermining progress or white Southerners for clinging to antiquated ways at any cost.  Instead, Bolden offers something rarely seen in children’s books–nuance.  She establishes the actors for who they are, makes no excuses and presents the period in a straightforward manner. 

Cause ultimately offers the student a rich, complex view of Reconstruction.  It opens many avenues for research, debate and reflection.  Bolden has created a work that allows students to make their own assumptions about Reconstruction, something very rare in children’s non-fiction.  Thus, Cause has the honor of being the first book on Mr. D’s History Bookshelf.

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