Smith, Page, “Trial By Fire. A People’s History of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” McGraw-Hill, NY, 1982. 995 pgs
This is Volume 5 of Page’s series on history of America. There are a lot of facts in the book, but factual reporting is not his method. Mostly, he compiles diary entries from people on both sides of the period. He tries, that way, to reflect what people were thinking as the years passed.
It is particularly effective when we try to un-puzzle what happened during Reconstruction. Did it succeed or did it fail? Should they have even tried or would it be better to have left the Southerners to do what they wanted? Who were the good guys and who were the bad? What difference did it make at the time?
Nothing is clear-cut in political history. It’s all a matter of point of view and opinion. Reconstruction may have been a good idea at the end of the Civil War, but a lot of people were against it. As time wore on, fewer and fewer people in the North really cared. The Southerners were adamant, and they thought they could re-assert the same relationships they had before the war.
One reason that Southerners were so optimistic about re-asserting racist relationships is because President Johnson had 3 years to re-instate them after Lincoln’s death. If there’s a bad guy, I mean a really awful bad guy, it was Johnson.
If there’s a good guy, a really good guy, it was President Grant. When he assumed the presidency in 1868, he made a genuine effort to protect African American people and give them a chance to thrive. When his second term ran out, reconstruction was over. The Republicans just gave it up. The strongest of them were the abolitionists, who had pretty well died out by 1876.
Page’s account of Reconstruction is the bloodiest I have seen. Black people were murdered and raped all over the South all through the decades following the war. Some died fighting, but most of them were simply murdered. There were large massacres and small massacres, but the Southerners eventually prevailed and civil rights went from a hopeful era to very dark times that persist today.
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