The Reconstruction era was both the cause and the product of revolutions, some of which have never ended, and likely never will. Lest this seem a despairing view of U.S. history, Americans need to remember that remaking, revival, and regeneration have almost always characterized the U.S., its society, and its political culture. But no set of problems has ever challenged the American political and moral imagination—even the Great Depression and the World Wars—quite like that of the end of the Civil War and the process of Reconstruction.
Americans love second acts in human stories, with the exception of the second founding of the American republic. It’s never been easy to comprehend or embrace that second founding, which was born of the blood of the Civil War, the emancipation of 4 million African American slaves, and the recrafting of the Constitution in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments.
Reconstruction, traditionally defined as spanning the years 1863-1877, was one long referendum on the meaning and memory of the war and the verdict at Appomattox. The great challenge of Reconstruction was to determine how a national blood feud (approximately 750,000 deaths) could be reconciled at the same time a new nation emerged out of war and social revolution. The survivors on both sides—winners and losers in the fullest sense—would still inhabit the same land and eventually the same government. The task was harrowing: how to make sectional reconciliation compatible with emancipation, and how to square black freedom and the stirrings of racial equality with a cause (the South’s) that had lost almost everything except its unbroken belief in white supremacy. This would be a “testing” of even more magnitude than the one Abraham Lincoln described in his Gettysburg Address.