This week the students worked on their Reconstruction projects. I wanted to give them a chance to approach an era from a different perspective than the usual classroom. They had to present their own plan for organizing Reconstruction as if they lived at that time. A couple of “big picture” issues they need to keep in mind. . .
- Winning the peace is just as important as winning the war — indeed winning the peace is not only part of the war effort, it forms the very reason for the war itself.
- How various elements of reconstruction, the economic, cultural, political, military, etc. should all work together. Ideally students should see this seemingly disparate elements as part of a coherent whole, moving together towards a single purpose.
- Part of the goal of Reconstruction deals with why conflict began in the first place. If “Reconstruction” will prevent another war, it has to deal with the root causes of the conflict to be successful. Seeing the Civil War arising largely out of economic and cultural differences, as opposed to purely political differences, would produce different goals for the post-war process. If one saw the main problem rooted in the social position of African-Americans, Reconstruction would look different still.
I gave students a series of maps to help guide them through this process. For example, if students want to focus on the social aspects of Reconstruction they may need to know the population density for African-Americans:
And the population density of the U.S. as a whole . . .
Economic issues would certainly involve railroads. . .
And you may want to concentrate your efforts most effected by the Civil War itself. . .
And so on. The students had to face many questions and dilemmas.
Was Reconstruction a success or failure? Ultimately it depends on your point of view, and what one might want Reconstruction to accomplish. On the one hand, civil war never again threatened the country, and the lives of African Americans did improve, at least to a relative degree. The 13th-15th Amendments helped preserve legal rights especially for African Americans. On the other hand, ‘Jim Crow’ laws arose in the South, which kept most African-Americans as second class citizens. Many issues from the Civil War would not be fully worked out until the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. Some enduring bitterness remained in parts of the South that have still yet to be fully healed. We will revisit these issues later this year.