The National Reach of Reconstruction and “Lost Cause” Mythology in the Civil War Era

AHA Session 95
Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia 5 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Aaron Astor, Maryville College
Sarah Cornell, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Session Abstract

The story of the United States’ effort to put itself back together after the Civil War has been oft-told, as has the experience of four million former slaves who struggled to realize their new-found freedom in the face of opposition and uncertainty. However, even as historians have produced innovative research revealing myriad ways of understanding the political and social processes of reimagining the nation, much of the work remains focused on the geographic region of the Confederacy. Yet the war affected the entire country, and its aftermath influenced race relations in every section. Likewise, views about race outside of the South impacted the commitment (or ultimate lack thereof) to the experiment in bi-racial democracy being conducted there.

This panel examines the wide reach of Reconstruction, both socially and politically, by exploring some of the ways in which events in South impacted those of the North and West and vice versa. In particular, we reveal the widespread resistance to enacting a bi-racial democracy that extended well beyond the boundaries of the South. The pervasive opposition to racial equality exhibited by white people in all parts of the country helped to dictate election outcomes and undermined African American social cohesion. Over time, these circumstances shaped long-term behaviors and identities as those who lived through Reconstruction and its dismantling drew on both their memories and an expanding adherence to Lost Cause mythology to understand later efforts to enact varying visions of civic inclusion.

The three papers comprising our panel pick up on aspects of Reconstruction that have been largely overlooked. Kevin Waite takes us to California where the presence of Chinese immigrants produced the types of vigilantism there that emerged immediately after the Civil War in the South. White Californians sympathized with their southern counterparts and became leading proponents of Lost Cause mythology. Marcy Sacks looks northward to New York City, where the rise of nostalgia for the Old South among white Yankees hampered efforts within the black population to fight for civil rights as a cohesive group. Ethnic and class fissures emerged as they all sought to stake a claim to citizenship within an increasingly unwelcoming climate. Finally, Ben Davidson expands our understanding of Reconstruction temporally by focusing on children – both black and white – who lived through the period. Their memories, he argues, framed the way they thought about freedom many decades later.

Collectively, we emphasize the continental nature of Reconstruction. Far from being limited to the geographic boundaries of the Old South, this period shaped – and was shaped by – notions of race, belonging, and citizenship being negotiated nationwide. And those struggles lasted for decades, long after the commitment (however tenuous it ever was) had dissolved.

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