The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction

The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction

The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction

The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction


For a generation, scholarship on the Reconstruction era has rightly focused on the struggles of the recently emancipated for a meaningful freedom and defined its success or failure largely in those terms. In The Ordeal of the Reunion, Mark Wahlgren Summers goes beyond this vitally important question, focusing on Reconstruction's need to form an enduring Union without sacrificing the framework of federalism and republican democracy. Assessing the era nationally, Summers emphasizes the variety of conservative strains that confined the scope of change, highlights the war's impact and its aftermath, and brings the West and foreign policy into an integrated narrative. In sum, this book offers a fresh explanation for Reconstruction's demise and a case for its essential successes as well as its great failures. Indeed, this book demonstrates the extent to which the victors’ aims in 1865 were met--and at what cost.

Summers depicts not just a heroic, tragic moment with equal rights advanced and then betrayed but a time of achievement and consolidation, in which nationhood and emancipation were placed beyond repeal and the groundwork was laid for a stronger, if not better, America to come.


Just after the battle at Williamsburg in Virginia in May 1862, Charles Sumner rose in the Senate to make trouble. General George McClellan, reporting victory over retreating Confederate forces, had asked the War Department’s advice on whether to inscribe the triumph on the army’s banners. Sumner now tendered a resolution, barring anything of the kind. A radical Republican, impatient with McClellan’s conservatism and sure that blows against slavery alone could bring a triumph worth having, Sumner did not mean to do the general any favors, but spite did not explain his resolution at all. He wanted to make the point that this was no war against a foreign power; it was a struggle among a people who should have remained united and must become so again. Sumner was looking to peace and to reconstruction in its most basic sense, the reintegration of a country torn apart. Three years later, he offered an amendment that the paintings of America’s national history in the Capitol include none of victories won over “our fellow-citizens.”

That did not make him any less the champion of universal freedom and equal rights. Sumner believed that the two went together—must go together. Until slavery and the racial prejudice that went with it were removed, no peace, no reunion, could last. But the desire for a reconciliation with white southerners, the sense that they still were and must again be fellow countrymen, was every bit as genuine and heartfelt. It was something he never forgot. Nor did his colleagues, conservative as well as radical, even if they refused to act on his resolution and the War Department gave regiments permission to place the names of battles on their flags. Nor is it something that historians should forget today.

This book makes no pretensions to being the history of Reconstruction, for two reasons: first, because such a thing cannot possibly exist, and second, because it already does. As to the first point, every scholar will view the time differently, and from a different perspective. The dreadfully entertaining and entertainingly dreadful story that Claude G. Bowers told . . .

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