Top Ten Books on the History of Reconstruction
W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 2000)
The pioneering work in the study of the role of Black Americans during Reconstruction by the most influential Black intellectual of his time. This book was the first full-length study of the role black Americans played in the crucial period after the Civil War when the slaves had been freed and the attempt was made to reconstruct American society. Hailed at the time, Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880 has justly been called a classic. Du Bois history undermined the previous historical works on Reconconstruction written by historians who were from the Dunning the school which openly supported white southerners.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper, 1988)
Eric Foner's "masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history" (New Republic) redefined how the post-Civil War period was viewed. Reconstruction chronicles the way in which Americans—black and white—responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. It addresses the ways in which the emancipated slaves' quest for economic autonomy and equal citizenship shaped the political agenda of Reconstruction; the remodeling of Southern society and the place of planters, merchants, and small farmers within it; the evolution of racial attitudes and patterns of race relations; and the emergence of a national state possessing vastly expanded authority and committed, for a time, to the principle of equal rights for all Americans.
Holt, Thomas. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1979)
In this prize-winning book Thomas Holt is concerned not only with the identities of the black politicians who gained power in South Carolina during Reconstruction, but also with the question of how they functioned within the political system. Thus, as one reviewer has commented, "he penetrates the superficial preoccupations over whether black politicians were venal or gullible to see whether they wielded power and influence and, if they did, how and to what ends and against what obstacles."
Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet (Belknap Press, 2003)
This is the epic story of how African-Americans, in the six decades following slavery, transformed themselves into a political people--an embryonic black nation. As Steven Hahn demonstrates, rural African-Americans were central political actors in the great events of disunion, emancipation, and nation-building. At the same time, Hahn asks us to think in more expansive ways about the nature and boundaries of politics and political practice.
Emphasizing the importance of kinship, labor, and networks of communication, A Nation under Our Feet explores the political relations and sensibilities that developed under slavery and shows how they set the stage for grassroots mobilization. Hahn introduces us to local leaders and shows how political communities were built, defended, and rebuilt. He also identifies the quest for self-governance as an essential goal of black politics across the rural South, from contests for local power during Reconstruction, to emigrationism, biracial electoral alliances, social separatism, and, eventually, migration.
Heather C. Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North (Harvard University Press, 2004)
Historians overwhelmingly have blamed the demise of Reconstruction on Southerners' persistent racism. Heather Cox Richardson argues instead that class, along with race, was critical to Reconstruction's end. Northern support for freed blacks and Reconstruction weakened in the wake of growing critiques of the economy and calls for a redistribution of wealth.
Using newspapers, public speeches, popular tracts, Congressional reports, and private correspondence, Richardson traces the changing Northern attitudes toward African-Americans from the Republicans' idealized image of black workers in 1861 through the 1901 publication of Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery. She examines such issues as black suffrage, disenfranchisement, taxation, westward migration, lynching, and civil rights to detect the trajectory of Northern disenchantment with Reconstruction. She reveals a growing backlash from Northerners against those who believed that inequalities should be addressed through working-class action and the emergence of an American middle class that championed individual productivity and saw African-Americans as a threat to their prosperity.
Heather C. Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2008)
The story of Reconstruction is not simply about the rebuilding of the South after the Civil War. Instead, the late nineteenth century defined modern America, as Southerners, Northerners, and Westerners gradually hammered out a national identity that united three regions into a country that could become a world power. Ultimately, the story of Reconstruction is about how a middle class formed in America and how its members defined what the nation would stand for, both at home and abroad, for the next century and beyond.
A sweeping history of the United States from the era of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, this engaging book stretches the boundaries of our understanding of Reconstruction. Historian Heather Cox Richardson ties the North and West into the post–Civil War story that usually focuses narrowly on the South, encompassing the significant people and events of this profoundly important era.
Gregory P. Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard University Press, 2015)
On April 8, 1865, after four years of civil war, General Robert E. Lee wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant asking for peace. Peace was beyond his authority to negotiate, Grant replied, but surrender terms he would discuss. As Gregory Downs reveals in this gripping history of post–Civil War America, Grant’s distinction proved prophetic, for peace would elude the South for years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
After Appomattox argues that the war did not end with Confederate capitulation in 1865. Instead, a second phase commenced which lasted until 1871―not the project euphemistically called Reconstruction but a state of genuine belligerency whose mission was to shape the terms of peace. Using its war powers, the U.S. Army oversaw an ambitious occupation, stationing tens of thousands of troops in hundreds of outposts across the defeated South. This groundbreaking study of the post-surrender occupation makes clear that its purpose was to crush slavery and to create meaningful civil and political rights for freed people in the face of rebels’ bold resistance.
Philip Dray, Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen (Mariner, 2010)
Reconstruction was a time of idealism and sweeping change, as the victorious Union created citizenship rights for the freed slaves and granted the vote to black men. Sixteen black Southerners, elected to the U.S. Congress, arrived in Washington to advocate reforms such as public education, equal rights, land distribution, and the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. But these men faced astounding odds. They were belittled as corrupt and inadequate by their white political opponents, who used legislative trickery, libel, bribery, and the brutal intimidation of their constituents to rob them of their base of support. Despite their status as congressmen, they were made to endure the worst humiliations of racial prejudice. And they have been largely forgotten—often neglected or maligned by standard histories of the period.
Michael W. Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South (Ivan R. Dee, 2007)
Michael W. Fitzgerald's new interpretation of Reconstruction shows how the internal dynamics of this first freedom movement played into the hands of white racist reactionaries in the South. Splendid Failure recounts how postwar financial missteps and other governance problems quickly soured idealistic Northerners on the practical consequences of the Radical Republican plan, and set the stage for the explosion that swept Southern Republicans from power and resulted in Northern acquiescence to the bloody repression of voting rights. The failed strategy offers a chastening example to present-day proponents of racial equality.
James Alex Baggett, The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Louisiana State University, 2003)
In The Scalawags, James Alex Baggett ambitiously uncovers the genesis of scalawag leaders throughout the former Confederacy. Using a collective biography approach, Baggett profiles 742 white southerners who supported Congressional Reconstruction and the Republican Party. He then compares and contrasts the scalawags with 666 redeemer-Democrats who opposed and eventually replaced them. Significantly, he analyzes this rich data by region -- the Upper South, the Southeast, and the Southwest -- as well as for the South as a whole.
Baggett follows the life of each scalawag before, during, and after the war, revealing real personalities and not mere statistics. Examining such features as birthplace, vocation, estate, slaveholding status, education, political antecedents and experience, stand on secession, war record, and postwar political activities, he finds striking uniformity among scalawags. This is the first Southwide study of the scalawags, its scope and astounding wealth in quantity and quality of sources make it the definitive work on the subject.