Expanding the Boundaries: Putting American Reconstruction in National and Transnational Terms

AHA Session 74
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Elliott West, University of Arkansas
Stephen Kantrowitz, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Elliott West, University of Arkansas

Session Abstract

Too often nineteenth-century American historians separate emancipation and reconstruction in the South from both international political currents and the simultaneous expansion of national authority over former Indian nations in the West.  Properly understanding the war to be fundamentally about slavery, historians of Reconstruction naturally follow the promise and disappointments of the victor’s efforts to deliver upon emancipation and enfranchisement.  Even if the war’s causes can be isolated, however, its effects cannot.  Western and Indian historians also naturally emphasize the impact of the war upon the nation’s demographic expansion westward, with ensuing reconfigurations of the role of both Indian nations and Indian people as potential citizens.  However understandable these divisions, it has become increasingly clear that the field is ready to try to examine the ways in which these events were not just simultaneous but interconnected. 

Elliott West’s recent Last Indian War provided a powerful prod to this type of work with his concept of a “Greater Reconstruction.”  In this framework the expansion of federal authority over defeated nations (Confederate, Indian, and Mexican) prompted shifts in the nature of federal power, threats to the stability of the center, and offers of citizenship to potential allies among ex-slaves, Indians, and ex-Confederates.  Similar processes, however, produced highly distinct outcomes, as slaves and Confederates grasped eagerly at citizenship and turned their enfranchisement against each other, while Indians largely dissented from the nation’s “civilizing” efforts. 

This panel brings together three papers and two commentators to explore both the opportunities and the limitations of frameworks of a “Greater Reconstruction.”  Carole Emberton, an assistant professor of history at the University of Buffalo, explores the regional dialectic between the extension of federal authority in the West and retrenchment in the South through popular responses to two 1873 massacres that tested the power of the federal government.  Nancy Bercaw, an associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi and curator at the Smithsonian Institution, examines the biomedical reconstruction of race by Army medical doctors and researchers through their treatment of the dead bodies of soldiers and Indians from the Western wars.  Gregory Downs, an assistant professor at the City College of New York, analyzes a popular, contemporaneous discourse that argued for the interconnection between the violence in the West and South, classing them as intertwined legitimacy crises like those shaking the war-torn government of Mexico.  This discourse of Mexicanization prodded editors and politicians to critique American exceptionalism and to portray Reconstruction as the test case for the survival of their republic and of republican theory, more broadly.

The co-commentators bring significant breadth and depth of knowledge.  Elliott West, a Distinguished Professor of Western history at the University of Arkansas, helped spur the interconnection between Western and Southern history by putting forward the concept of a Greater Reconstruction in The Last Indian War and published prize-winning works on Western history.  Stephen Kantrowitz, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, first wrote about Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction Southern politics and is now completing a book on Reconstruction in New England.   

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