The Chapter They Didn’t Teach
Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, a four part documentary series, is well worth your time investment. It is guaranteed to fill in some gaps in your education. Until April 8 you can stream the series from your local PBS television station (In Spokane at KSPS.org). Click the title to access Part 1, Hour 1. (The program is divided in Part 1 and Part 2, each of which is divided into hour 1 and hour 2.) Some of you may have access through a cable TV service. Otherwise it requires a minimum donation of $5 (which they ask you to make a monthly) to become a “Passport” member. Passport membership offers access to many other worthwhile programs. Do not be daunted by the somewhat clunky website(s). Defunding the Public Broadcasting Service (and National Public Radio) has long been a goal of the Republican right (see the Background section here). It shows.
I grew up in the 1960s in Wisconsin at the time when the civil rights movement and Civil War Centennial re-enactments overlapped. My great grandfather, John Davis, a Welsh immigrant, served in the Union Army with the 44th Wisconsin, an historical linkage that has piqued a lifelong interest in the Civil War—but, like many, I fear, my education concerning the war and its aftermath was sketchy. I have now come to suspect the sketchiness was intentional. For many decades the center of the textbook industry in the U.S. has been in Texas. That Confederate General Robert E. Lee was always presented as a great and noble figure and that the southern myth of “The Lost Cause” imbued my education now comes as no surprise. Even as our country convulsed in the 1960s over issues of civil rights, somehow slavery was never treated in school as anything more than a side issue to the Great Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 of September 1862 was covered in a sentence or two, a sidelight. The Civil War freed the slaves and that was the end of the issue. How wrong that was…
The effective end of the Civil War came to pass with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865. Two days later in Washington, D.C., John Wilkes Booth attended a speech by Abraham Lincoln in which Lincoln promoted voting rights for blacks (an unsettled issue at the time). Incensed by the speech, three days later on April 14, 1865, Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Booth’s bullet killed the man most likely to bring the union back together with the former slaves not only nominally free but with actual voting rights and equal treatment under the rule of law. Booth’s bullet put a formerly poor white Kentuckian with little sympathy for the former slaves, a unionist Democrat (then the party of the South) and a former slaver himself, Andrew Johnson, in the White House. Johnson became President on April 15th. Congress wasn’t scheduled to return to Washington until December 1865. That gap offered Johnson eight months’ free hand to bring the former Confederate states back into the union—on whatever terms he saw fit. From wikipedia (the bold is mine):
To Johnson, African-American suffrage was a delay and a distraction; it had always been a state responsibility to decide who should vote. Second, political power in the Southern states should pass from the planter class to his beloved "plebeians". Johnson feared that the freedmen, many of whom were still economically bound to their former masters, might vote at their direction. Johnson's third priority was election in his own right in 1868, a feat no one who had succeeded a deceased president had managed to accomplish, attempting to secure a Democratic anti-Congressional Reconstruction coalition in the South.
In Andrew Johnson’s “Presidential Reconstruction” he endeavored to bring the Confederate states back into the union with state governments that varied little from their wartime composition. Johnson’s endeavor was cut short by action of Congress under the leadership of Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a fervent anti-slavery Republican from eastern Pennsylvania. Watch Reconstruction: America After the Civil War for the details of that congressional maneuver. None of this was part of my schooling in Centennial-celebrating Wisconsin in the 1960s—and, if modern day Republicans like Ron DeSantis (Florida) and Todd Banducci (NIC Board of Trustees) have their way, none of this will ever be part of the curriculum. I first heard of Thaddeus Stevens by watching Lincoln, a 2012 American biographical historical drama film directed and produced by Steven Spielberg. “Lincoln”, available for rent on YouTube; the 2016 film “13th” (free with Netflix), a documentary on the 13th Amendment; and Reconstruction: America After the Civil War should be required viewing by every student in the United States.
The story of Thaddeus Stevens, a man who should be an American hero on the same level as Lincoln, is just one of the revelations contained in the PBS Series, “Reconstruction”. If you’ve never heard of the New Orleans massacre, the Memphis Riots of 1866, the Colfax Massacre, the Wilmington (NC) Massacre or the odious Supreme Court decision United States v. Cruikshank, then welcome to the world of many Americans, including me. We have been systematically sheltered from our own history. Watching “Reconstruction” brings the viewer face-to-face with enlightening parallels to events of the present day.
Keep to the high ground,