The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln

by Claude G. Bowers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1929. 8vo. xxii+567 pp. $5.00.
To his well-known volumes on the political history of Federalist and Jacksonian days Claude G. Bowers has added a treatment of the Reconstruction period which can only be called masterly. The characteristic qualities of his earlier books reappear in The Tragic Era — the succession of strong pictorial effects, the rapid march of narrative, the vivid and often original portraits, and the constant interjection of telling bits of drama and even melodrama. In his previous volumes his achievement was rather that of infusing new life into old materials than of adding to our actual sum of knowledge. But in this book he projects much fresh illumination on the Reconstruction years — illumination gained from probably the most patient examination of newspaper files yet made, from a thorough search of official archives, and from new manuscript materials, notably the unpublished diary of George W. Julian, the diary and papers of Governor W. W. Holden of North Carolina, and a wealth of Southern letters collected by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The result is a work which, as interesting as any romance by Dumas or Stevenson, and containing some of the most lurid and some of the most poignant pages of American history yet penned, does more than any student of the period would have thought possible to reshape its lines, alter its perspective, and bring new facts out of the gloom.
It is purely a political history, and even yet this era in our politics is a battle ground littered with live bombs of controversy. Mr. Bowers, who has never felt it his duty to assume an Olympian aloofness any more than Grote or Macaulay did, is here anything but impartial. His sympathies are wholly with the South, stretched on the rack of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and in dealing with the Republican rulers of the country he spares neither the honest fanatics like Stevens and Sumner nor the greedy corruptionists like Oakes Ames and Babcock. In details he is nearly always scrupulously fair. His pages upon Thaddeus Stevens, studious, conscientious, heroic in suffering, grimly devoted to his ideas, give the reader a sense of sympathy even while Stevens’s aims are made repellent. Mr. Bowers does not gloss over the brutalities of the Ku Klux Klan, though he treats them with summary brevity. But the effect of his steady succession of pictures of Southern suffering and Northern recklessness is a damning indictment of the dominant party in the eleven years between Appomattox and the counting-out of Tilden. It is largely a justified indictment; but Mr. Bowers’s strength is not in analysis. It would carry more conviction if there were a cool analysis of some of the more mooted questions. A preponderance of opinion has always held that at one time the South could have regained peace and its old status by accepting the Fourteenth or Civil Rights Amendment alone, without the horrors of negro-carpetbag control, and that Andrew Johnson’s greatest blunder was his advice to reject these terms. This issue Mr. Bowers hurries by. To take a minor issue, he also hurries by the question of the ‘black codes’ — whether they were justifiable restraints, or in some degree a veiled attempt to reduce the negroes to peonage — with a quotation from Professor W. A, Dunning, who said something on both sides.
But Mr. Bowers’s partisanship, like his rather excessive use of picturization, makes his book the more fascinatingly readable without too seriously detracting from its worth as our best single work on the Reconstruction. Particularly valuable is the care with which a number of important but neglected leaders, especially on the Democratic side, —Daniel W. Voorhees, Thomas A. Hendricks, Michael Kerr. Benjamin H. Hill, — are rescued from an approach to oblivion, and the evidence of their stature and achievements impressively set forth. Other men, not so much forgotten, like Oliver P. Morton and L. Q. C. Lamar, stand forth as living figures. In a more direct way than ever before, we learn from the
lips and pens of everyday Southern whites just what agonies of apprehension, humiliation, and deprivation they went through. Some of the bits of social drama, revolving around such figures as Kate Sprague and the proud Mrs. Belknap, who was crushed in the face of all Washington, illustrate the time in a profoundly significant way, and it is a service to have brought them back to light. The period was really less hectic and lurid, it was fuller of quiet, normal forces of growth and improvement, than the reader would perhaps guess. But its hectic and melodramatic phases—Johnson’s duel with the radicals, the crisis of impeachment, the hurly-burly of reconstruction, the corruption and scandal under Grant, the dizzy contrast between post-war ostentation and post-panic poverty, and the disputed election of 1876 — have never been described with such striking detail and such ability to recreate the past. The book is a rare addition to the literature of American history.