In 1882, Walt Whitman, the American poet of democracy and nearly everything else in the human spirit, worried that his book Specimen Days, compiled from jottings, diaries, and memorandums written during and after the Civil War, would be read as nothing but a “batch of convulsively written reminiscences.” But he decided to publish it anyway. The writings were “but parts of the actual distraction, heat, smoke and excitement of those times,” Whitman admitted. “The war itself, with the temper of society preceding it, can indeed be best described by that very word convulsiveness.”

The American Civil War was a tragedy of cataclysmic proportions. Some 750,000 combatants and other military personnel perished on the battlefield and from disease. Great political, constitutional, and economic transformations followed from the results of the struggle. The American experiment died but was then reborn. The republic tore itself asunder over slavery and conflicting views of the federal Union. After unimaginable slaughter, the United States experienced a second founding of its polity and its constitution. Nearly everything had changed. The Civil War, wrote the southern poet and essayist Robert Penn Warren in 1961, is the country’s “felt history,” the past “lived in the national imagination.” It draws Americans, he said, “as an oracle, darkly unriddled and portentous, of national as well as personal fate.” Americans still contemplate its enduring influence in classrooms, in jurisprudence, in scholarship, in elections, and in the public square. 

Today, Americans are polarized in a cold civil war. Many core questions of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era remain unresolved: Who is an American? What is equality, and how should it be established and protected? What is the proper relationship between states and the federal government? What is the role of government in shaping society? Is federalism a strength or a weakness? 

In November, the United States held a presidential election that inspired record turnout, but many Americans legitimately worry that some of the country’s basic institutions are broken. One political tribe has to fight constant efforts to suppress the right to vote; the other tribe cries voter fraud without evidence. The federal enforcement of voting rights, once a matter of settled law, is now a free-for-all in the courts. The Senate and the Electoral College are undemocratic institutions by any contemporary measure. The Supreme Court is more politicized than at any time in nearly a century. The idea of equality before the law has become as fiercely controversial as it was when it debuted in the Constitution in amendments that followed the Civil War. President Donald Trump turned the White House into a vehicle for authoritarianism and personal corruption, shattering norms and creating a level of chaos unrivaled in U.S. history since the crisis sparked by the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Meanwhile, the ideology of white supremacy, always waiting in the wings of the American consciousness, has experienced a potent and violent resurgence on the political right. 

These echoes of Reconstruction abound and will shape the coming era. If there are any lessons that Americans should take from that troubled time, they are that when it comes to protecting basic rights, there is no substitute for federal power, and that in the wake of national crises, healing and justice must be pursued together—which is no small feat.

HELL ON EARTH

The most stark and immediate legacy of the Civil War was loss. From his three years of working in hospitals, caring for suffering and dying soldiers, Whitman weighed that loss in anguished terms. Civil War prisons, he wrote, could find comparison only in “Dante’s pictured hell.” He evoked the lonely passing of those slain in battle but left unburied: “Somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills—(there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet).”

Some of the country’s best writers wondered if there could be any meaning at all in the trenches filled with corpses. The writer Ambrose Bierce, a badly wounded veteran of the Union army, was haunted all his life by what he called “phantoms of that blood-stained period.” Death on the battlefield, he wrote, was “not picturesque, it had no tender or solemn side—a dismal thing, hideous in all its manifestations and suggestions.” The poet Emily Dickinson saw the mounting dead in her imagination: “And then I hated Glory / And wished myself were They.”

Racial strife was often easier to foment and more politically useful than democracy.

In the roiling contest over the memory of the war that took place in the decades that followed it, most Americans would come to prefer more sentimental narratives: stories of unquestioned valor on both sides, tales of sacrifice and reconciliation in which no one was wrong and everyone could be right. But an assault on the dignity and rights of Black people became the terrible price paid for sectional reunion. A racially segregated society would demand and forge a segregated memory of the struggle that ended slavery.

The fall of the Confederacy and the second founding embodied in the constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction era, which lasted from 1863 to approximately 1877, could not banish racism and neoslavery in the United States or solve the inherent challenges of federalism. In the decades that followed, despite technological and social progress, it remained the case that racial and ethnic strife were often easier to foment and more politically useful than democracy. 

RADICALISM AND RESISTANCE

In his first annual message to Congress, delivered on December 3, 1861, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln expressed his hope that the Civil War would “not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.” At that point, he still hoped to limit the North’s aims to preserving the Union, rather than expanding the mission to include ending slavery. Just over three years later, in his second inaugural address, Lincoln—who by then commanded a war machine that officially sought abolition—admitted that now “all knew” that slavery was, in fact, “the cause of the war.” He declared that both sides had “looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” Then, with a chastened sense of tragedy and firm purpose, he acknowledged that the war had brought about the very revolutions that he and many others had tried to avert. The extended crises that followed, and the lasting markers of what those revolutions meant, are what became known as Reconstruction. 

After Confederate forces surrendered in 1865, most of the armies of the United States and the Confederacy disbanded. But varying degrees of military occupation lasted for around three years across much of the South, and in some areas until 1871. As the historian Gregory Downs notes in his book After Appomattox, in the early years of Reconstruction, the federal government enacted an “ideologically and spatially ambitious occupation” of the conquered South. But the politics of restoring the Union and extending basic human rights to freed slaves became war by other means. Without any blueprint, members of Congress in the Republican Party—in particular, a faction known as the Radical Republicans—adopted an aggressive vision of using activist government to remake the South and the rest of the country. The lesson of their efforts was clear: true freedom can be forged and protected only by the state, by law enforcement, and sometimes by military means.

The Radical Republicans, who were ascendant in Washington in 1866–68, made revolutionary strides for racial equality by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the first statutory definition of citizenship rights in U.S. history, and by pushing forward the 14th and 15th Amendments. The 14th Amendment enshrined birthright citizenship and equality before the law in the Constitution, and the 15th Amendment extended voting rights to Black men. The Radical Republicans sought to root out the causes of the Southern rebellion and dismantle its leadership and to create a new political order. They crafted the four Reconstruction Acts, passed in 1867 and 1868, which divided the defeated Confederate states into five military districts and established new governments in all of them. The result was an experiment in multiracial democracy. Black men embraced the right to vote as a sacred act; in 1868, their support was a crucial factor in the victory of the Republican candidate for president, Ulysses S. Grant. More than 1,500 Black men were elected to state and local offices during Reconstruction across the South, and 16 won seats in the U.S. Congress. The Republican regimes in the South, while they lasted, fostered the region’s first public schools, democratized political institutions in the former slave states, and in limited ways tried to redistribute property to freed slaves.

This agenda put the Radical Republicans on a collision course with Johnson, who, after replacing the martyred Lincoln, pushed for a lenient vision of Reconstruction based on the protection of states’ rights, white supremacy, and a decidedly nonrevolutionary approach to the remaking of the federal Union. His slogan was “the Union as it was, the Constitution as it is.” In practice, this meant that as long as former Confederate states renounced secession and ended slavery (however reluctantly), they could swiftly regain full statehood without having to confer any civil or political rights on freed slaves. Johnson envisioned a postwar order in which former slaves would transition into permanent serfdom, destined for labor but no independent economic life and no place in politics. He resisted radical Reconstruction by vetoing nearly every act passed by the Republicans in Congress. But Republican success in the midterm elections of 1866 gave them a veto-proof legislature, and they overrode most of Johnson’s vetoes.

Johnson’s continued obstructionism, obstinate personal behavior, and virulent racism led to his impeachment in early 1868. Owing to a complex set of deals and votes, as well as the Republicans’ use of a law of dubious constitutionality, Johnson was not convicted and removed from office. By the spring of 1868, the Republicans did not want to be tarnished as the party of impeachment (an unpopular position then, after so many years of strife), nor did they want to hurt Grant’s chances in the election that fall.

RETREAT FROM RECONSTRUCTION

That Reconstruction did not ultimately succeed proves only that revolutions, even those firmly grounded in law, always prompt counterrevolutions. By 1870, all of the ex-Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union. But in the South, the Democratic Party revived itself by clinging to an ideology of white supremacy, stoking embittered war memories, and deploying violence through the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups. In time, these revanchist forces defeated Reconstruction on the ground. In the 1870s, white Southerners “redeemed” their states, their societies, and especially their control over the racial order. Several thousand African Americans, as well as some white Republicans, were assaulted, tortured, or murdered, especially when they attempted to vote. In 1873, a paralyzing economic depression hit the country, leading to a national retreat from Reconstruction. Numerous corruption scandals tarnished the Grant administration, limiting its leverage. Meanwhile, as the war receded, the Republican Party began to change, leaving behind its abolitionist, egalitarian roots and aligning itself with big business and railroad interests. By the late 1870s, the Republicans were the party of low taxes and high tariffs.

These political changes were accompanied by demographic and economic shifts. In the wake of the war, immigration surged; three million new immigrants entered the country between 1865 and 1873. In the South, whites violently and successfully opposed efforts to distribute land to freed slaves. By 1868, a new system of tenant farming and sharecropping had emerged. In a cash-poor economy with few sources of credit, millions of former slaves, as well as some poor whites, became mired in dependency, working “on halves”—giving half of their crop to a landlord and using the other half to try to feed their families and acquire goods from “furnishing merchants,” whose extortive practices usually forced farmers into a dead end of debt. By the 1890s, roughly 20 percent of former slaves and their descendants owned some land or other property, but the vast majority possessed no real hope of material independence, as their political liberty was slowly crushed. 

Meanwhile, an emerging alliance between big business and the political class began to stifle some of the victories won by the emancipation revolution, as financial scandals distracted Republicans and the country from the cause of equal rights. Railroads, built with ample federal subsidies, became the symbol of the dawning age of American industrial capitalism. By the end of the century, for the first time in U.S. history, nonagricultural workers outnumbered farmers and wage earners outnumbered independent artisans.

As poor Blacks and whites in the South found farming less and less tenable, they moved to cities, and especially new mill towns. With investments from Northern capitalists, textile mills grew steadily all across the former Confederacy. As one North Carolina evangelical preacher shouted, “Next to God, what this town needs is a cotton mill!” In 1860, the South had some 10,000 mill workers. By 1880, that number had grown to 16,700; by 1900, it was 97,500. In this way, the so-called New South bred not only a system of racial apartheid but also a vulnerable new class of wage earners in an industrializing economy. 

THE DISPOSSESSED

Racial strife and economic transformations played out vividly in the American West, as well. The Indian Wars between 1860 and 1890 left a trail of blood and agony across many landscapes; in a sense, the Civil War did not end in 1865. From 1860 to 1864, the Navajos of Arizona fought white incursions into their lands; defeated and starving, their houses and livestock destroyed, they were forced in “the Long Walk” to a reservation in New Mexico. At the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado in 1864, an entire Cheyenne village was slaughtered by the state militia. The most famous battle of the Indian Wars took place along the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana in June 1876, just before the United States was to celebrate the centennial of its independence. There, Lakotas and Cheyennes, led by Chiefs Rain-in-the-Face, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, surrounded and annihilated 256 U.S. cavalry troops under the command of the Civil War veteran George Custer. But it was a Pyrrhic victory for the Native American people of the Upper Plains, one that provoked a brutal counterstrike. By 1879, 4,000 U.S. troops forced the surrender of the Utes in western Colorado and in effect requisitioned their ancestral lands. In California, white ranchers and farmers often forced Native Americans into captive labor; some practiced “Indian hunting,” treating the indiscriminate slaughter of Native Americans as a murderous sport. By 1880, 30 years of such violence had left an estimated 4,500 indigenous people dead.

Racial strife and economic transformations played out vividly in the American West.

The dispossession of Native American peoples across the West resulted from ecological as well as human conquest. Indigenous groups depended on buffalo in the Great Plains, on sheepherding in the Southwest, and on salmon fisheries in the Northwest. By seizing lands and expanding railroads, white settlers threatened all three livelihoods. In 1820, there were some 25 million buffalo on American soil; by the 1880s, there were just a few hundred. Washington made treaties with tribes but routinely violated them. 

Other, less overt forms of dispossession took a toll on Native Americans, as well. The federal government instituted a reservation system and established a “reform” policy of separating Native American children from their families and educating them in Christian schools, hoping to break their identification with their tribes and prepare them to become property-owning farmers. But the limits on such assimilation were clear: Supreme Court decisions in 1884 and 1886 defined Native Americans as wards of the state, denying them the right to become U.S. citizens and therefore all the protections of the 14th and 15th Amendments. 

THERE IS NO ARC OF HISTORY

Among all the enactments of Reconstruction, none embodies its lasting significance better than those two amendments, which spun a tenuous web of possibility for the American ideal of equality. Both were products of political compromise; their lack of specificity meant they would be perpetually open to interpretation. But as the historian Eric Foner writes in The Second Founding, “ambiguity creates possibilities.... Who determines which of a range of possible meanings is implemented is very much a matter of political power.” Indeed, that is the legacy of Reconstruction’s “Second Constitution”: a series of never-ending fights over race and federalism.

Today, Americans live in a country forged by Reconstruction and remade again by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the profound social movements that forced their passage. Pluralism and equality were born and reborn in those two revolutions, which took place a century apart. But the events of recent years, especially during the Trump era, serve as a reminder that no change is necessarily permanent and no law can itself protect Americans from their own worst impulses: racism, nativism, authoritarianism, greed. The past few years have revealed the potency of sheer grievance, whether born of genuine economic travail or ludicrous conspiracy theories. It should be clear to all now that history does not end and is not necessarily going to any particular place or bending in an inevitable arc toward justice or anything else.

Some of the convulsions of the Civil War and Reconstruction advanced the American experiment, and some set it back. Whitman worried that the “real war will never get in the books” and that its “undream’d of depths of emotion” and the “infinite dead” would be forgotten. His fear was misplaced: poets have chronicled the war and its toll, scholars have searched and found Whitman’s “convulsiveness,” historians have written its great and terrible story. Americans, however, have not yet solved the most profound questions the era left in its wake, and their country is now in desperate need of another remaking.

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  • DAVID W. BLIGHT is Sterling Professor of American History at Yale University and the author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.
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