By MARSHA MERCER
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has been a gift to many of us who failed to fully appreciate our American history classes.
The lectures, workshops and battlefield tours of the last few years have offered a second chance to learn about our nation’s most tumultuous period. Many events have been well attended.
Tickets sold out last December to an all-day Civil War 150 Signature Conference April 18 that brought 13 historians to the University of Virginia to discuss the end of the war.
But only a handful of the hundreds of attendees in Charlottesville were close to college age. The UVa event apparently was more the demographic rule than an exception. University of North Carolina history professor W. Fitzhugh Brundage has surveyed his students for four years and not one has ever attended a Civil War sesquicentennial event.
The Civil War, which emancipated 4 million slaves at a cost of at least 620,000 dead, is not the end of our nation’s struggle -- or the end of our opportunities to learn about our past.
Reconstruction, the chapter of American history that follows the war, won’t get nearly as much attention, although it is as vitally important in understanding today’s world. Interestingly, some young people recognize Reconstruction’s significance.
“Maybe it’s regional,” Civil War historian John R. Neff of the University of Mississippi told the conference in Charlottesville, which was sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission and is available on C-SPAN.
“But I’ve never had a Civil War class not filled to capacity. They are admittedly very much involved and very much aware that it is not just the Civil War. It is Reconstruction that is most responsible for the society in which they live,” Neff said.
When he joined the Ole Miss faculty in 1999, Neff planned his first class so students would spend a week or two on the coming of the Civil War, most of the semester on the war, and Reconstruction at the end.
“The one consistent comment I got was `More Reconstruction. More Reconstruction,’” he said. You could hear the audience’s surprise in the collective intake of breath in Old Cabell Hall.
“The war is important, sure. Lee is important. Grant is important. It is the Reconstruction era that is most responsible for the world in which they live -- and they crave that,” Neff said.
It was during Reconstruction, a period of cultural and political upheaval from roughly 1863 to 1877, that attempts were made to remake the South. Blacks gained the right to vote and began electing black legislators. Fourteen blacks were elected to the U.S. House and 600 blacks were elected to Southern state legislatures between 1869 and 1877, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History.
Former Confederates worked to limit black political participation, first by intimidation through vigilante groups including the Ku Klux Klan and then through a series of discriminatory laws.
“Preoccupied with the challenges of our own time, Americans will probably devote little attention to the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction,” historian Eric Foner wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times last month.
“This is unfortunate, for if any historical period deserves the label `relevant,’ it is Reconstruction,” he wrote. Foner is the author of the 1988 book “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.”
Reconstruction was defined early on by D.W. Griffith’s classic, melodramatic 1915 movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” and by Claude Bowers’ 1929 history bestseller, “The Tragic Era.”
Today, historians see the era, despite its widespread corruption, in light of the struggle for racial and social equality that culminated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and still continues.
The Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 officially abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 declared that everyone born or naturalized in the United States, including African Americans, were citizens, and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 extended the right to vote to every male citizen, regardless of race.
Foner argues that many contemporary issues first arose during Reconstruction, including citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the state and federal governments, and the response to terrorism.
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is wrapping up. Now it’s time to read and learn the lessons of Reconstruction as we shape our nation for the next 150 years.
©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.
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