America's Reconstruction

The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

America's Reconstruction


In January 1866 James Cook, a longtime slave of the commonwealth's attorney in Prince William County who had secured his freedom and fought in the Union army, learned firsthand the perils facing freedmen in postwar Virginia. While walking near the jail in Brentsville, Cook was confronted by an infuriated white man named John Cornwell, who accused him of "impudence." When the Yankee veteran declined to draw his weapon but instead tried to back away from the argument, Cornwell screamed obscenities, drew his pistol, and fired. Outraged when his shot pierced only Cook's clothes, the former Confederate beat the freedman with the butt of his revolver. Cook, with his forehead gashed and still bleeding, reported the incident to Lieutenant Marcus S. Hopkins of the Freedmen's Bureau. The lieutenant investigated and discovered that most whites in the area approved of Cornwell's unprovoked attack. The Freedmen's Bureau agent sadly informed his superior, "They hold an insane malice against the freedman, from which he must be protected, or he is worse off than when he was a slave."

This brutal incident illustrates the challenges posed to the reintegration of the Union after four years of civil war. This violent and turbulent period is explored in "America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War," an exhibition jointly sponsored by the Virginia Historical Society and the Valentine Museum. Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, and Olivia Mahoney, curator of industrial and decorative arts at the Chicago Historical Society, curated the exhibit. The staff historian was Gregg Kimball. Barbara Batson and Giles Cromwell served as the collection managers, and James C. Kelly and Karen Luetjen kept the project on track. Generous funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the City of Richmond supported the development and mounting of the exhibit.

Reconstruction, which began during the Civil War in Union-occupied areas of the South and ended in 1877, witnessed America's first national experiment with interracial democracy. The Republican-dominated Congress enacted laws and constitutional amendments that gave black southerners the right to vote and hold office and that empowered the federal government to enforce the principle of equal rights. The new southern state governments confronted violent opposition from the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups. In time, the North abandoned its commitment to protect the rights of the former slaves. Reconstruction came to an end, and white supremacy was gradually restored throughout the South.

Often called the Second American Revolution, Reconstruction remained an unfinished revolution, in which issues of equality were left unresolved until the advent of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. …

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