Why Students Don’t Know Anything about Reconstruction: Three Modern Myths

October 13, 2016
William D. Carrigan

William D. Carrigan is a professor of history and the chair of the history department at Rowan University where he has taught over one hundred courses and thousands of students on such topics as the Civil War and Reconstruction, the American West, and the history of New Jersey. His most recent book is Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848–1928 (2013), coauthored with Clive Webb. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Since the late 1990s, I have been teaching courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction. What I found in my first few years was that, to my chagrin, students were much more engaged and interested in the Civil War half of the course than in the Reconstruction portion. I found this frustrating because it seemed to me that the post-Appomattox years shaped the United States deeply. It was Reconstruction that gave meaning to the Civil War and provided answers to the critical questions of the era, such as what kind of Union had been preserved, what did it mean that slavery had been abolished, and what, in the final analysis, had 750,000 soldiers actually died for. But few students shared my passion.

As I began to think about why this was the case and what I could do about it, several things became clear. First, popular culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries emphasized the Civil War. On television, in the movies, and in literature, the four years of war dwarfed the dozen years following surrender at Appomattox. Students routinely arrived in my class having seen films like Glory and Gettysburg (and sometimes, more recently, Lincoln and Twelve Years a Slave) and the landmark documentary series by Ken Burns, The Civil War, all of which focused overwhelmingly on the war years.

Second, my students claimed to have learned very little about Reconstruction in their precollegiate schooling. This sadly squared with what the Los Angeles Times reported in 1990, namely that high school students knew less about Reconstruction than any other era in American history.

Third, despite this lack of knowledge, my students had very little interest in learning more about Reconstruction, believing the subject to be only slightly more engaging than tariff policy in the late-nineteenth century. My early evaluations routinely asked for more time on the Civil War and less on Reconstruction.
I knew that this had not always been the case. Indeed, for a century after the Civil War, Reconstruction was more engaging for popular audiences and the general public. After all, Reconstruction is at the heart of two of the most popular movies of all time, The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.

Three Modern Myths

As I’ve taught more and discussed the subject more with my students, it has become clear to me that Reconstruction has continued to be shrouded in “myths” well into the twenty-first century. These are not exactly the same myths that grew out of the Dunning School starting around 1900, but variations in which Dunning-esque ideas fused with a vague, post–civil rights era conviction that the failure of Reconstruction was to be lamented.

From an instructor’s perspective the most damaging of these new “myths” is that the era of Reconstruction was boring. This first modern “myth” of Reconstruction can be summarized:

“The Civil War was a dramatic and radical moment in American history. It was a time of idealism, when American democracy was tested, preserved, and extended. Reconstruction was, by contrast, far less interesting. It was a time of compromise. It was a time of pragmatism. It was a time to patch together a battered and bruised Union.”

Historians are well aware that this view of Reconstruction is far from the truth. Indeed, Reconstruction was truly one of the most radical moments in United States history. Even if, in the end, the nation abandoned its efforts to live up to its founding creed that all men were created equal, the era’s constitutional amendments alone make it a daring and unprecedented experiment in extending political rights to former slaves.

A second “myth” that undermines student interest in learning about Reconstruction is a belief that Reconstruction’s experiment in multiracial democracy not only failed but that it never even had a chance to succeed. Here is a summary of this all-too-common perspective:

“The outcome of the Civil War hinged on specific events and the actions of key individuals. The failure of Reconstruction, however, was assured from the beginning. Given the views of whites, North and South, there was no chance that America would emerge from the period with blacks as anything other than second-class citizens.”

While there are many historians who might agree with something akin to this view of the era, I find it to be particularly harmful to teaching. This perspective of Reconstruction robs the era of any sense of contingency and narrative power. More importantly, I also believe that viewing past events as predestined is rarely a good thing and that it is far from clear that events such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Panic of 1873 had no impact on the eventual outcome of the Reconstruction. Even if one thinks Reconstruction’s failure was very likely, as one might think Confederate defeat was likely, such thinking is far better than the pall of inevitability that envelops Reconstruction before students hear my first lecture on the subject.

The third and final myth I have identified might pertain more to the Delaware Valley, the specific geographic region in which I live and teach, but I believe it probably resonates broadly outside the former Confederate states:

“The Civil War pitted the North versus the South. It was a conflict that engaged the entire nation. The results of the war had a lasting impact upon all Americans. Reconstruction was overwhelmingly concerned with the South and how the former Confederacy was to be rebuilt and readmitted to the Union.”

I contend that this view of Reconstruction, which might be the most deeply held of all three myths, helps social studies teachers justify passing over of the era quickly.  It is quite possible to argue instead that the changes that took place on the national stage were more important and lasting than what went on in the South. In particular, Reconstruction was critical to the ascendancy of the Republican Party in the federal government and the growing power of corporate and industrial interests.

What can be done to combat such misconceptions of Reconstruction?  I am not sure how much impact historians can have on the more general popular culture, but I do applaud the Organization of American Historians’ efforts to remember Reconstruction during this 150th anniversary period. For my part, I have completely overhauled the way that I teach the Reconstruction portion of my class. I now begin with a long and extended discussion of why Reconstruction matters, and I include my rebuttals to each of the three myths I have identified. After laying this groundwork, I then arrange my lecture and discussion of Reconstruction around key “turning points” to emphasize the contingency of events and change over time during the era. These key moments include not only Lincoln’s assassination and the Panic of 1873 but also:

-Andrew Johnson’s vetoes of the Civil Rights and Freedmen’s Bureau bills,

-the demise of the American Equal Rights Association after 1869,

-the 1875 United States v. Cruikshank decision, and

-the Great Strike of 1877.

My students often remark that Johnson’s leadership and the Panic of 1873 are important elements of Reconstruction history about which they previously had known nothing.

I will not pretend that this has made the class easy to teach. In the final analysis we as teachers still have to contend with a key problem in the telling of the story of Reconstruction,  as identified by Eric Foner long ago: Americans are not much interested in telling or learning about our failures. Reconstruction history was most popular before World War II, when the return of white rule to the South was viewed as something akin to a happy ending after a period of tragic overreach by the federal government. No matter how much historians since the 1960s have undermined this view of Reconstruction, we have not been able to match it because the new narrative is not an American success story but rather a warning. American democracy has not always marched forward but has sometimes taken steps backward.