Reporting from the Southern Historical Association: The Boundaries of Reconstruction

The Freedmen's Bureau by A. F. Waud (Library of Congress)

The Freedmen's Bureau by A. F. Waud (Library of Congress)

What are the boundaries of Reconstruction and how can historians redefine them? This was the subject of a roundtable session at the Southern featuring Stephen Hahn, Stacy L. Smith, Elliott West, and Heather C. Richardson as panelists. Historians usually define the period of Reconstruction as 1865-1877 where Americans rebuilt the country and racial relations after the Civil War and most equate the end of Reconstruction with the destruction of black civil rights in the south. These historians challenged the audience to rethink the meanings of Reconstruction. 

Serving as the moderator, Stephen Hahn encouraged a reassessment of Reconstruction as the 150th anniversary of the period begins. The panelists suggested an expansion of boundaries both geographically and temporally to include a larger story of Reconstruction and national development. The traditionally accepted boundaries were themselves created; thus, the periods of Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and Progressivism are all artificial categories made by earlier historians. Richardson suggested that we throw out these previous definitions and call 1860-1920 Reconstruction as a period where citizenship and rights were debated in America. 

Smith added to the conversation by suggesting that a "Greater Reconstruction" would allow historians to see the Civil War in a more continental context, just as efforts are made to look at international contexts. Expanding the geographical boundaries, Smith suggests, brings in more racial and ethnic diversity and allows for discussion of territorial expansion, questions of citizenship, methods of coerced labor, and the relationship between the federal government and the various groups occupying the North American continent. 

West, a predominantly western historian asked how different regions relate to each other if historians expanded the boundaries geographically. He sees two American narratives during Reconstruction: in the east the fracturing and then repairing of the nation and in the west expansion and bringing new land into the United States. Trying to combine these narratives opens new analysis of Southern motives in expansion as well as international connections to the Pacific and Latin America. West suggested that bringing a western narrative into the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction would provide a larger national story that would allow for a fuller understanding of how the period set the course for the United States. 

Concluding the panelists' statements, Hahn questioned what kinds of international contexts historians could use to study Reconstruction since that is a current trend in Civil War scholarship. He suggested that we could compare Reconstruction to emancipations both domestically and abroad that had occurred earlier and contemporary to emancipation in the south. In addition, he suggested a comparison to other nations building national power and working to eradicate local sovereignties, such as Italy or Germany. Bringing in these larger narratives and adding the west into the story of Reconstruction reveals that the United States of the 1860s/70s was already imperial, Hahn suggested. 

The thought-provoking comments by the panel resulted in a wide range of questions from the audience: If we reperiodize Reconstruction, how does that affect discussions of the causes of the Civil War and race in Reconstruction? If we change the temporal boundaries of Reconstruction, how do we determine the new end point (for example, why 1920 as Richardson suggested instead of another year)? Do we lose the central idea of "rebuilding" the nation if we expand the geographical and temporal boundaries of Reconstruction? If we look at the theme of state building, what connections can we make between east and west during the period of Reconstruction? Is redefining Reconstruction a waste of energy that expands ideas too far, to the point that we lose our grounding in place and time? Can we draw physical maps to show the shifting boundaries of Reconstruction? Reconstruction varies from place to place, should be talk about "Reconstructions" instead of "Reconstruction"?  

Most of these questions and discussions were highly theoretical, since panelists and audience agreed that it would be difficult to change the existing framework, particularly in the classroom and mainstream textbooks. Redefining the period would take time and support from the wider historical community. One idea that is easily tackled, however, is maintaining the connection between the Civil War and Reconstruction. Many college survey classes are split at 1865, meaning the Civil War is taught at the end of the first class and Reconstruction at the beginning of the second. If students only take one class they receive only half of the Reconstruction story because both the Civil War and Reconstruction lose much of their meaning without the other. As discussed in the roundtable, even if it is difficult to change the structure of textbooks and classes, professors can take the first step by keeping the Civil War and Reconstruction together in their classes, even if it extends a little outside the timeframe of the class. 

What are your thoughts? Should we redraw the boundaries of Reconstruction geographically and temporally? What thoughts would you contribute to the discussion on redefining the meaning of Reconstruction?

Interested in reading live tweets from the session? Check out Kathleen Thompson (@K_Logo_Thompson) and Megan Kate Nelson (@megankatenelson) on Twitter; both live tweeted from the session which ran on November 14, 2015.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.