The Great Task Remaining before Us: Reconstruction as America's Continuing Civil War

The Great Task Remaining before Us: Reconstruction as America's Continuing Civil War

The Great Task Remaining before Us: Reconstruction as America's Continuing Civil War

The Great Task Remaining before Us: Reconstruction as America's Continuing Civil War

Excerpt

The war is over,” declared Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865; “the rebels are our countrymen again.” Grant's adversary, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, told his men to go home and resume their occupations, obey the laws, and become good citizens. And many did. When they reached home, perhaps unconsciously closing a chapter in their lives, diarists stopped making entries. That spring and summer of 1865 was a time for former soldiers to get on with their lives and to put the past four years behind them. With Richmond burned and occupied, the Rebel government fallen, its armies surrendered and dispersed, most Americans were convinced that their war was surely over.

The Confederacy's collapse has marked a convenient end to the Civil War. And it works, especially given our compulsion for the dramatic. The armies first clashed on Wilmer McLean's farm near Manassas, Virginia. Over the next four years, the future of the Union often hung in the balance until some professor from Maine or hard-drinking tanner from Illinois tipped the scales. Finally, those armies met once again on McLean's new farm near Appomattox. Days later, at the very moment of triumph, an assassin's bullet turned a jubilant nation into a grieving one; Lincoln, Christ-like, had sacrificed his own life for ours. But a two-day Grand Review down Pennsylvania Avenue would end it all in triumph. Irony, symmetry, and providential deliverance—this drama would be the fodder for countless books.

Reconstruction would be fodder for countless other books. Unlike the dramatic clarity of the Civil War, however, the ensuing decade seemed directionless. Its characters often appear to be petty, opportunistic, or unscrupulous, while its plot is vague, confusing, or depressing. When at last the curtain falls, an exhausted audience walks out after the Wormley House Bargain of 1877 puts an end to the confusing morass.

The war is over, General Grant had proclaimed. But Ringo, the freedman in William Faulkner's The Unvanquished, remained wary. “Naw, suh …This war ain't over. Hit just started good.”

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