What Reconstruction Meant: Historical Memory in the American South

By Holden, Charles J. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July-October 2010 | Go to article overview

What Reconstruction Meant: Historical Memory in the American South


Holden, Charles J., South Carolina Historical Magazine


What Reconstruction Meant: Historical Memory in the American South. By Bruce E. Baker. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007. Pp. x, 234; $35, cloth; $19.50, paper.)

Historian Bruce E. Baker's new book reminds readers how, especially in the South, history is never "just" history. In What Reconstruction Meant, Baker skillfully tackles an issue of critical and obvious importance, yet one that has been surprisingly overlooked by historians. While there are by now volumes upon volumes of scholarship on the memory and the meaning of the Civil War, Baker rightly points out that little attention has been paid to this aspect (and here he invokes the more useful and precise term social memory) of Reconstruction. There is no question that Reconstruction proved to be a dramatic and, for some, traumatic experience that left its own legacies and memories. In certain circumstances, the memory of Reconstruction wielded even more potency than the war itself. Therefore, Baker's goal is to "pay close attention to exactly what different people thought actually happened, where they got those ideas, and how those ideas developed" (p. 2).

Baker focuses his book on South Carolina with good reason. Not only did secession originate there, but the state also featured one of the most concerted attempts to install Reconstruction policies as well as some of the most violent, persistent resistance to the new order. The early chapters explore the conditions by which the white supremacist version of Reconstruction (that itproved ultimately that white people were more "fit" to rule) coalesced with the rise of Jim Crow late in the century. Within a few years after the end of the war, even white northern writers like James Pike were taking their cues from white South Carolinians on the "horrors" of Reconstruction. Despite the persistent tensions between those unapologetic elite loyal to Wade Hampton and the more populist followers of Ben Tillman, white South Carolinians (and most white northerners) by 1900 could agree that they had acted nobly to throw off the misguided attempt by the federal government to force citizenship onto the unprepared former slave. Baker then follows the white-supremacist narrative into the 1930s, showing how it emphasized more of the anti-federal government theme and helped to re-elect anti-New Dealer Ellison "Cotton Ed" Smith to the U. …

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